Prenez garde! Je vais parlez francais!
There is a debate raging in Europe. Both sides are entrenched, immovable. Families are divided, with brothers on different sides. The question is to stay with something imperfect but reformable, or to make a leap into the unknown. I’m talking, of course, about whether France should get rid of the circumflex!
It’s a pleasure to be invited to speak at today’s event. Francophonie week is a wonderful celebration of a beautiful language. From growing up in Uccle in Belgium, to my MBA at Fountainebleau, to my time working as a journalist at the Financial Times in Paris, where I was married and where my daughter was born at the Franco-British hospital, making an effort to speak French has always been an important part of my life.
This week you’re thinking about how the French language unites peoples from across the world. As Minister for Universities, Science and Innovation, I see how a shared scientific curiosity and desire to make things better plays a similar role in uniting our 2 cultures.
We work with France because it is a world leader in research and innovation. It is home to the world’s largest multidisciplinary research agency and it hosts international agencies and research organisations such as the ESA and OECD.
We’ve worked together in competitive funding projects such as Horizon 2020. Under Horizon 2020’s predecessor, there were 3,600 projects involving UK and French partners.
Indeed, France is the UK’s fourth most important international research partner and the UK is France’s third most important partner. Research collaborations between France and the UK from 2008 to 2012 had an 80% greater impact in terms of citations compared to the UK average.
This mutually advantageous collaboration is addressing challenges beyond just those that we face today. Last December France successfully led COP21 to think about how we tackle emerging threats to our environment. We are looking forward to working together closely on ‘mission innovation’ which seeks to continue to drive the good work done during that week.
Science and research is by no means the only area where we work together. Britain’s financial sector, central to our country’s prosperity, is also emblematic of our close and mutually beneficial relations. All of the main financial services firms have French staff at senior levels. Not least Xavier Rolet at the London Stock Exchange who has been CEO for the past 7 years.
Many French financial services firms found the UK fertile ground for their businesses. Companies like AXA, Societe Generale and BNP Paribas employ thousands of people here. And this isn’t just in the traditional home of London. AXA spread across Ipswich and Basingstoke and Societe Generale is in Cambridge, Manchester and Edinburgh.
As well as crucial talent and thousands of jobs, the EU is the UK’s biggest market for exports of financial services, generating a trade surplus of £20 billion – over a third of the UK’s trade surplus in financial services in 2013.
And we must remember that when London attracts capital from around the world, this is thanks to its position within the EU, and this success in turn benefits the EU. Like the French aerospace industry, financial services are a cutting edge industry in Europe. To put that in danger would be like risking New York or Hong Kong or one of the new centres emerging in developing countries. Weakening London would damage the whole of the EU.
The EU has clear benefits to our economy, to the City and to our science and our ability to protect against future global threats. Our desire to thrive in a modern knowledge economy unites our 2 countries. To do this, we need to be building relationships, not turning our back on them.
It’s clear that Britain will be safer, stronger and better off inside a reformed EU where France and UK can continue working together, whatever the future holds for the circumflex.