Europe can survive without Britain, says François Hollande
François Hollande launched a three-pronged attack on Britain saying that Europe would survive without the UK, while claiming David Cameron risked splintering the EU and that his austerity policies were failing.
In a marathon press conference just shy of three hours, the embattled Socialist President promised to "go on the offensive" in year two of his five-year mandate with France sinking into recession and enduring record unemployment levels.
When asked about Mr Cameron's plan for a law guaranteeing a vote on Britain's EU membership, Mr Hollande told 400 journalists gathered at the Elysée Palace: "Europe existed before Britain joined it."
France, Germany and four other nations were long part of the European Economic Community before Britain joined fully in 1973.
"I hope Britain stays in the European Union but I don't want to decide for the British," he added.
Mr Cameron's promise to claw back powers from Europe and then put Britain's membership of the bloc to a vote by 2017 has failed to silence Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party and halt the rise of Ukip
"There are political forces favourable to Britain leaving," Mr Hollande said. "The UK Prime Minister himself wants to renegotiate his country's presence (in the EU). Let me be clear: I want to make the eurozone go forward as it is the heart (of the EU), because we have integration to pursue."
There were overtones of Charles de Gaulle in his warning that Britain would not slow down European construction. De Gaulle twice vetoed Britain's entry to the EEC, claiming its "deep-seated hostility" towards European construction would result in the break-up of the community.
"I can understand countries don't want to join the euro but they cannot impede the consolidation and strengthening of the eurozone," Mr Hollande said. "And if they want to go further and refuse powers, then the risk is of a splintered Europe. So we must fix red lines."
Last week, Lord Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, warned that Mr Cameron's attempts to repatriate powers from Brussels would probably only secure "inconsequential" results and that Britain would be better off outside the EU.
In what will provide further ammunition for Eurosceptics, Mr Hollande promised to lead the bloc towards "political union" within two years – implying treaty change.
"Germany has several times said it is ready for political union, for a new phase in integration. Well France is ready to give body to this political union and gives itself two years to do so … It is a question of European urgency.
"If Europe does not advance it will fall or even be wiped out from the world map ... My duty is to bring Europe out of its lethargy."
The French president's final flourish was a jab against Mr Cameron's austerity policy, saying Britain's lack of economic progress was helping "raise awareness" for the need for growth measures.
"He is aware too that he's going through a recession," Mr Hollande said. "David Cameron has enacted austerity policies that are even worse than in certain countries of the eurozone and the level of British growth even, it if was better in recent quarters, has in these past few years been roughly the same as what the eurozone produced.
"It means those who say all you need to do is to leave the eurozone, to abandon the euro to have growth and prosperity, should go and look at countries in the European Union that are not in the eurozone."
Mr Hollande used the press conference, his first in six months, to defend his first year in office. He said his deficit reduction and growth measures would start bearing fruit while he also denied claims he was indecisive, saying "I make decisions all the time."
But when asked whether a reshuffle was on the cards, he said: "A reshuffle is possible … but not today."