Andy Street told a gathering of British entrepreneurs on Thursday night that France was “sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat” and urged them to get out if they had investments there because the country was “finished”.
His comments sparked outrage in France and a sharp rebuttal from Jean-Louis Missika, a deputy Paris mayor in charge of economic development and the attractiveness of Paris to investors. He told the Guardian that if Andy Street was joking, perhaps Paris should respond in kind.
“What he says is false and idiotic. As we say, everything excessive is exaggerated, but then it seems French bashing is all the fashion chez vous.
“Factually it’s false because figures show that last year Paris attracted more foreign investment than London, and because Paris is a dynamic city with a quality of service that is often better than in London.
“But this guy has shops in London, right, so of course he wants to attract people away from the shops in Paris. I think it’s called publicity.”
Street, who is launching a French-language version of John Lewis’s website soon, apologised on Friday afternoon as the reaction to his comments snowballed. Waitrose, the John-Lewis-owned supermarket, also has a deal to sell food on Eurostar.
“The remarks I made were supposed to be lighthearted views, and tongue in cheek,” said Street. “On reflection I clearly went too far. I regret the comments, and apologise unreservedly.”
However, the French embassy in the UK also offered a riposte. Mindful that the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, visits London next week, the embassy said France was the fifth biggest country for foreign direct investment, showing that Street was in a small minority among business people.
“Saying that ‘nothing works in France’ shows how wide of the mark those comments are. Everyone who has lived in France knows that it enjoys world-class public services. Public transport for example is excellent, and at a price that Mr Street is unlikely to find in many countries. People working in France enjoy one of the best healthcare systems in the world. And ultimately, workers’ average productivity is higher in France than in many other developed countries.
“Prime Minister Manuel Valls will deliver a speech at the Guildhall on Monday. If Mr Street takes the time to listen to it, he will find out that far from being sclerotic, France is engaged in wide-ranging structural reforms. France is the fifth biggest economy in the world, the second in Europe. It would be senseless for any major international business to overlook such a market.”
Street made his comments, reported in the Times, at an event in London marking the end of a John Lewis competition for startup companies. Earlier this week he was in Paris to pick up a retail award for his company.
He told the gathering of entrepreneurs that the award was “made of plastic and is frankly revolting”.
“If I needed any further evidence of a country in decline, here it is. Every time I [see it], I shall think, God help France,” he said.
The eurozone’s second largest economy - behind Germany - is struggling for growth under president François Hollande and the country is not budgeting to come within the EU’s 3% budget deficit target until 2017. The French economy has been hampered by low growth and poor tax receipts in recent years. David Cameron annoyed the French government two years ago when he promised to “roll out the red carpet” for French companies seeking to avoid higher taxes on the rich.
Street also branded the Gare du Nord in Paris “the squalor pit of Europe”, in contrast to London’s revamped St Pancras station at the other end of the Eurostar line.
Missika said that the problems of the Gare du Nord were “known and being addressed. We are able to identify our problems, you know, and do something to treat them.”
Street is not the first British executive to make undiplomatic comments in off-guard moments. In 2000, Christopher Gent, the then chief executive of Vodafone, deployed a German accent while watching a cricket match to describe the head of takeover target Mannesmann as being “more into German poetry and chess”.
In 2010, Sir Alan Sugar offended Nigeria’s high commission when he told a contestant on The Apprentice that he had received a dubious business offer from Nigeria that did not materialise.
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