It may be difficult for some observers not to read something deliciously catty into French Socialist President François Hollande hosting Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband in Paris on Tuesday. Miliband is the first U.K. official to visit the Élysée since Hollande’s May victory, a meeting that seemed deliberately planned to tweak Miliband’s political foe, Conservative U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.
After all, Hollande watched in February as Cameron used an official visit to Paris to publicly back the re-election drive of his “friend,” fellow conservative and then presidential incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Less than a month later, Hollande’s request to meet with Cameron during a campaign jaunt to London was refused — a move widely interpreted as a sign that Cameron did not want to help the Socialist candidate beef up his international profile. And in June, Cameron created a stir ahead of a G-20 meeting by pledging to roll out “the red carpet” for French millionaires deciding to flee Hollande’s sworn 75% income tax rate on the rich.
Little wonder, then, that some observers viewed Miliband’s arrival in Paris as a case of political payback. “Hollande’s Red-Carpet Revenge on Cameron,” taunted a headline in London’s Independent.
The killjoy reality, however, is that any Hollande swipe across the Channel appears to be an afterthought — if even that. Élysée officials say Miliband’s visit is simply part of the broad contacts Hollande wants to nurture between his government and leaders of European parties of the left and right alike, as he seeks to find the elusive way out of Europe’s hydra-headed debt and monetary crisis.
“You can’t have strong and fruitful partnerships with fellow European countries if you limit yourself to speaking with only one part of them,” says an Élysée official. “David Cameron knows this, was duly informed of Mr. Miliband’s visit and was receptive to the meeting. He’s very aware this visit is neither a personal swipe nor politically motivated against him. We consult with all responsible and respectable parties and officials.”
Miliband’s Élysée visit was only one of a trio of meetings planned for him in Paris — all with fellow leftists. The Labour leader also huddled with Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry. The agenda of talks was generally the same: the alarmingly high youth unemployment rates all E.U. nations are battling. That plight has lifted joblessness among the young to 52% in Spain, 36% in Italy and over 20% in both the U.K. and France.
The objective of Miliband’s Paris meetings was to discuss ways youth unemployment may better be battled at the European level than it is exclusively by national initiatives. That, however, is an angle of attack that fans suspicion the Miliband sojourn is more politically edged than the Élysée is letting on.
The reason? Tuesday’s focus on youth unemployment lies within a broader push by all center-left parties and leaders against the austerity remedies conservative governments have imposed across Europe in response to the debt crisis. Hollande’s victory came in large part because of his promises to balance necessary spending cuts with renewed attention on the growth stimulus that all European economies require to quell the current turmoil.
Cameron has been particularly adamant in defending his deep spending cuts to rein in debt — even after they contributed to the U.K.’s slide back into recession. As a result, Miliband and his fellow Labour members have begun decrying the failure of “Camerkozy” austerity — and looking to Hollande’s progrowth policies as perhaps their own ticket back to power.
So doesn’t that mean Tuesday’s Élysée powwow was a de facto meeting of anti-Cameron minds?
“No, though it may be a result of François Hollande having had deeper and more frequent contacts with center-left parties in Germany, Spain, the U.K., etc.,” the Élysée official says. “But these exchanges aren’t limited to leftist peers. We want to consult with all responsible political actors in Europe.”
Skeptics are right to doubt this line, especially given the growing trend of major European leaders trying to influence politics outside their borders. Sarkozy did that when he embraced then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama during the American’s 2008 visit to Paris. Sarkozy similarly supported German conservative Angela Merkel’s Chancellor bid — a favor Merkel, like Cameron, returned with interest during Sarkozy’s failed re-election run.
On July 26, Cameron is slated to meet with Mitt Romney during the presumptive Republican candidate’s visit to London. That stop is part of a six-nation tour Romney is staging to broaden his international contacts and bone up on his foreign policy credentials — a courtesy Cameron pointedly denied Hollande.
The London linkup, in the meantime, will allow Cameron to make up for his decision to rebuff Romney’s request for a meeting during a visit to the U.S. earlier this year — one that included a love-in at the Obama White House. For his part, Hollande seems to think life would be easier by making time for whoever may come calling.
“Of course [Hollande] would meet with Mr. Romney if he were to plan a visit to Paris — it’s only normal,” the Élysée official says. “Mr. Romney may not be in power today, but he does represent a party, electorate and segment of American society that’s far too important and influential to ignore when you’re a friend of and partner with the U.S.”