LONDON (Reuters) - French Prime Minister Manuel Valls rebuked the head of a major British retailer on Monday for saying his country was “in decline”, dismissing the comments as a cliched vision of France that the UK media loved to spread.
In a speech to lawmakers and financiers in London, Valls rejected comments by John Lewis Managing Director Andy Street who apologized last week after advising investors, in a light-hearted after-dinner talk, to pull their money out of France.
Without naming Street directly, Valls said: “Let me remind this British businessman who all of a sudden had some sort of startling vision and said that France was finished.
“He has presented excuses and apologized, and I would like to thank him for doing that, because he had forgotten that France was the fifth largest economy in the world and the second in Europe.”
After suffering delays on the Paris-to-London Eurostar train, Street said: “I have never been to a country more ill at ease ... nothing works and worse, nobody cares about it.”
In remarks which he later explained were meant as tongue in cheek, he concluded: “God help France.”
Prime Minister Valls did ruefully concede that Parisian station Gare du Nord, which Street called the “squalor pit of Europe” did need to be rebuilt, but he criticized the British media, accusing them of misrepresenting French economic policy.
“Everyday I read your press, I listen and I watch what is being said about France,” said Valls, who had earlier met Prime Minister David Cameron. “Too often I see in some of your newspapers some bias, prejudices and attacks as well.”
Valls appealed to investors to ignore what he called the “caricature” of France as left-wing and anti-business.
“There is a persistent cliché ... according to which the left would be angry with business, and therefore a Socialist prime minister should not be meeting entrepreneurs, financial institutions or even worse, bankers,” he said.
“But nothing is more wrong ... on the contrary, I believe that my role in office is to reach out to economic stakeholders.”
Last week France pushed back against European Union budget rules saying it would take two years more than previously promised to bring its borrowing back within EU limits.
Euro zone officials on Monday told Reuters that France’s latest budget would be rejected by the European Commission under new rules that grant the bloc’s executive arm the power to demand changes to draft budgets.
A French presidential official later told Reuters that Paris did not expect the budget bill to be rejected.
Valls outlined his case for investment in France, saying President Francois Hollande’s government was committed to lowering taxes and attracting private business.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy