HL Deb 18 June 1990 vol 520 cc597-9

2.48 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether co-operation between Britain and France in dealing with future developments in Europe and elsewhere is as close as it was when de Gaulle launched the Free French Movement from London 50 years ago today.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Energy (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, we welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to the Free French and to their heroic efforts alongside their British friends and companions in the quest for freedom. Today, Franco-British relations are warm and friendly. We consult and co-operate very closely, both bilaterally and in multilateral groupings. The annual Anglo-French summit on 4th May saw fruitful discussion of European developments.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that positive reply. I wonder whether he has seen the moving declaration by Maurice Druon, the permanent secretary of the French Academy, to mark the occasion of 50 years ago, as reproduced in today's Financial Times and ably translated by Alistair Horne, the distinguished author of the biography of Mr. Macmillan, for the benefit of that minority of Financial Times readers who do not read French. Is he aware, even though he was not born at the time, that shortly before General de Gaulle made his declaration, Mr. Churchill made his dramatic proposal for the total union of the French and British nations? Now that we have continuing common interests with our neighbours across the Channel, does the noble Lord agree that there is a need to make a similar move to get closer together at least to the extent that Franco-German relations have developed? If so, what steps do the Government intend to take to achieve that end?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I entirely accept the moving nature of the original declaration by General de Gaulle. I have a text of it with me. I have not seen the article in the Financial Times to which the noble Lord refers, but from what he said it appears to underline the importance and continuing warmth of our relations with our French friends. I do not think that we need to apologise for those relations. They are extremely warm, close and cordial and no less so than the relations between France and Germany.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, in order to foster closer relations with France at all levels, does the Minister agree that it would be better if we tried to improve our teaching of French? Are the Government aware that in France, English is taught at primary school level, whereas in this country in the public sector the teaching of French does not start until the secondary level and there is a large drop-out rate at the age of 14? Are they doing anything to improve that abysmal situation?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as a matter of fact I agree with the noble Lord. Too few people in this country speak decent French and I am afraid that I am among them.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I asked the noble Lord what the Government were doing to improve the situation. Are they aware that the figures for pupils attempting A-level French have dropped from 20,000, 10 years ago, to 18,000 recently and it is not getting any better? Is he aware that those attempting French A-lever represent under 3 per cent. of the 17 to 18 year-old age group?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me for saying so but I am not sure that he is on the right tack. French A-level is a different matter because it includes a great many topics such as literature and French history which are perhaps not so immediately important as speaking the French language. I dare say that there are steps which could and should be taken to improve the take-up of French. Indeed, my own department, the Department of Trade and Industry, is doing something about that in the context of the single European market.

Lord Greenhill of Harrow

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should all be better off if the General had not wilfully blocked our entry to the European Community?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Lord puts a different gloss on these matters. I can only add that we have come a long way since the battle of Waterloo, which was 175 years ago today.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord said that discussions on 3rd May had been fruitful. Can he tell the House precisely what was fruitful about them? Can he also say whether there was any discussion at that time about the social charter? Are we moving anywhere nearer to the French in their attitude toward that charter? Moreover, can he say whether there was any discussion about the ERM and our attitude about joining the ERM fairly soon?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Caithness dealt exhaustively with the ERM a Question or so ago. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I am not dragged down that particular path. As for the social charter, the noble Lord knows the views of the Government. I can assure him that they have not changed.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of those on this side of the House believe that there would not be a France were it not for the Americans and the British—the nation of France would not exist? That is my first question. Secondly, does he agree that it is odd that France is not a member of NATO and still believes that she won the battle of Waterloo? Has the Minister anything to say about that?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not sure that I want to follow the noble Lord down that path. So far as our wartime experiences go, the part played by the Free French under the leadership of General de Gaulle was indeed remarkable.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that 50 years ago the British and Free French set aside their traditional commercial and cultural rivalries to fight side by side against a common enemy? Does he further agree that, as today there is no common enemy, naturally traditional rivalries must to some extent reassert themselves? Will he confirm that on a purely unofficial, person-to-person level, relations between the British and the French are probably better today than they have ever been?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is quite right. Our relations with France today are extraordinarily warm, friendly, cordial and very constructive. I believe that they have been made even better through the European Community and indeed will go further with the completion of the single European market.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one constructive and practical way to bring France closer to Britain would be to build a proper and modern railway between London and Paris?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we had better get the tunnel finished first.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, can the Minister say why we are concentrating on France when there are 11 other countries in the EC?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my Answers have related to the Question on the Order Paper which specifically referred to France.