Michael Kelly: We have far more to gain from this new alliance

THE signing of two historic defence agreements with France is the opportunity for those of us who love that country to widen this into a broader debate about culture and values.

First, misconceptions need to be corrected. It is painful to Scots to accept that the French are ignorant about any special relationship that might have existed between the two countries. Sadly, I have yet to meet a Frenchman showing any awareness of the Auld Alliance. Research suggests that this was no treaty of equals offering mutual protection but rather a super power using a gullible, weak puppet to divert a dangerous enemy.

If the Nationalists think they can rely on the French to support their struggle they should immediately dismiss such thoughts. The French are only interested in playing with the other big boys.

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The new treaties are an indication of that. They are clearly agreements between two strong but vulnerable powers which see co-operation as a means of spreading the huge financial costs of mounting a global defence. But they do pose the question of whether we should rely on a country characterised by some Tories, aping the Americans, as populated by "cheese-eating surrender monkeys".

The accusation about dairy product consumption is certainly true. It was Charles de Gaulle, that greatest of all French patriotic leaders, who asked: "How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?" Diversity and disagreement are part of French culture. But the cowardice jibe does not stand up to scrutiny.

Every French village has a war memorial dedicated to those killed in the First World War. The same surnames are repeated as fathers and brothers died for France. Perhaps it was that horrific experience that led to a more pragmatic attitude in 1940 when they faced overwhelming odds.

Currently, the British have no complaints about the way French soldiers are behaving in Afganistan. And did it not take courage to stand up to Bush and Blair urging them to join the invasion of Iraq?

But the most important lesson we can learn from the French is not a military one. It is in how they value lifestyle. For them, the point of living is not to become as rich as possible but to enjoy life to the full every day. That is why French workmen insist on having a two-hour lunch break.

This is alien to our own Anglo-American work ethic and our drive for greater efficiency which organises our work around what is best for the firm.The French vigorously oppose such a philosophy and with it globalistion which they correctly see as the imposition of American values on the rest of the world.

This insistence that pleasure comes before work can be frustrating for the small businessman trying to deal with the French. I own two rental ski chalets in the Alps. The number of times I have been ushered out of shops because it is 4.55pm is legion. Most supermarkets do not open on Sundays. Plumbers and electricians walk off the job at noon to join their pals at their favourite restaurant.

When I raised these constraints with the manager of the furniture store I use he told me that the outstanding memory of his work experience in Edinburgh was being expected to run out, buy a sandwich and eat it at his desk. "That's uncivilised. How can one treat eating that way?"

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Strikes are another thing they enjoy. France loses more than 100 days of strikes per year for every 1,000 workers compared with 19 in the UK - this despite the fact that only nine per cent of French workers are in unions as opposed to 30 per cent in Britain. In France strikes are part of the country's political philosophy because France is a democracy only second. Before being democrats, the French think of themselves as revolutionaries - the people who first put human rights before the power of the state.

The French jeered Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the American Declaration of Independence, when he was ambassador to Paris because this lauded champion of the people was a slave owner and remained so until his death. I doubt if they have taken the Americans' approach to human rights seriously ever since. They would trace a direct line from that third President to Guantanamo Bay - human rights are for Americans only.

The French are proud of their tradition of protest. In the main, French strikes are politically, not monetarily, based. That's both moral and courageous. But, astonishingly, although a large number of days are lost to these political "manifestations", French labour productivity is very high. In 2009 it was estimated to be 8 per cent higher than in the UK. The French, of course, claim that this is because when they do deign to turn up for work they work very hard.

Nearer the truth is the huge capital investment the government has encouraged across a wide range of industries, including electronics and sophisticated machine tools. That, and the fact that the French have built a magnificent motorway system which allows access to the rest of the EU market, means that it has been highly successful in attracting American inward investment.

In 2009 France attracted twice as much overseas investment as Germany, despite the fact that the German economy is 40 per cent bigger than the French. On the other hand, the French have invested heavily in the UK.They were in 2009 the largest investor in Britain after the United States and now control significant parts of our water and electricity utilities.

So we are going to have to work with them over a wider range of activities than simply military matters. We can start by adopting the better work/life balance that they insist on.

As for their learning anything from us… Well, a check of yesterday's French papers online shows none of them bothering to put these treaties on their front page. It's going to be a one-way cultural exchange. OK, so we'll be the ones to benefit.