Leading Article: Britain has the station, France the track

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a nice coincidence that on the day the Danes said Yes to European Union, the age-old rivalry between France and Britain showed signs of rude health. There was President Mitterrand mocking the sluggish progress of Britain's Channel tunnel link after the successful inauguration of France's own first 140-mile, 186mph section. It was some comfort to read, in an adjacent story on our front page, that France's intelligence services had thought it worthwhile to spy on some leading British firms. Among them were British Aerospace, Vickers and Rolls-Royce - but not, conspicuously, British Rail.

Arguably, Mr Mitterrand showed commendable self-restraint. He could have pointed out that whereas France had started by building a major section of its rail link, Britain had triumphantly completed its terminal station - only to fix on a route that would terminate elsewhere. In the event, he merely commented that after racing through the plains of northern France and hurtling through the tunnel, passengers would be able to daydream at low speed, admiring the landscape - 'until the day when someone over there in London decides to harmonise the way things are done on the Continent and on the island'.

In defence of the British, Mr Mitterrand was not comparing like with like. The section of northern France through which the latest TGV plies is flat, rather desolate and hungry for development. The area between Dover and London through which the British link will run is much more crowded, in parts both very beautiful and prosperous, and generally desperate not to be further developed. So unlike the eventual 60-mile Dover-London track, the 200-mile Paris- Calais link will be virtually pure gain.

As for the president's hope that the British will one day begin to behave more like the French, that is surely vain. The French have traditionally had a talent for thinking big and a taste for large-scale, publicly funded projects. One need only compare Paris, whose grandiose heart was rebuilt by Georges Eugene Haussmann in the mid-19th century, with London, a capital consisting of linked villages with nothing more grandiose than Whitehall, the Mall, Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square.

Untouched by the Thatcherism of the Eighties, successive French governments have remained convinced that pouring public funds into public transport is a good investment, however large the accumulated debt. The result is that taxpayers see a genuine return, in the shape of a rapidly improving infrastructure, for what they are obliged to hand over. Perhaps, just conceivably, some convergence of attitudes is possible: once the Channel tunnel is open, the contrast between the two sides might force our own Government to think more a la francaise. But not too much money should be risked on it.