LONDON - The head of British retailer John Lewis has apologised after saying France is such a hopeless country where nothing works that investors should pull their money out quickly.
"I have never been to a country more ill at ease ... nothing works and worse, nobody cares about it," Managing Director Andy Street was quoted by the Times newspaper as telling a London audience in a dinner speech after his train was delayed from Paris.
A spokeswoman for John Lewis [JLP.UL] [JLPLC.UL], Britain's biggest department store operator, confirmed that the comments attributed to Street were accurately reported but said they were intended "not to be taken seriously".
However, Street later issued a statement to say sorry. "The remarks I made were supposed to be lighthearted views, and tongue in cheek. On reflection I clearly went too far. I regret the comments, and apologise unreservedly."
Street, who has worked for nearly three decades at John Lewis after graduating from Oxford University, cast Europe's second largest economy as sclerotic and contrasted Paris negatively with London.
"You get on Eurostar from something I can only describe as the squalor pit of Europe, Gare du Nord, and you get off at a modern, forward-looking station (St Pancras)," he was quoted as saying.
Street said an award John Lewis was given in Paris during this week's World Retail Congress 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 was quoted as saying. "If you've got investments in French businesses, get them out quickly."
Bigger than Britain's for the 1980s and most of the 1990s, France's economy lagged from 1998 until the 2008 financial crisis but has been bigger than Britain's since.
This year France's nominal gross domestic product is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to grow to $2.89 trillion this year while Britain's is forecast to grow to $2.83 trillion.
Under Street, John Lewis, whose worker co-ownership model has been lauded by Prime Minister David Cameron, has been the star performer of Britain's retail sector.
Its generally more affluent customers were less hurt by the economic downturn and it has a bias to the more prosperous south east of England.
A big push online, improvements to stores, products, service, promotions and marketing, have also chimed with shoppers. Last month it posted a 62 per cent rise in first half operating profit to 56.3 million pounds on sales up 9.4 per cent to 1.87 billion pounds ($3 billion).
John Lewis, which sells many French products in Britain, is planning to launch a French-language version of its website denominated in euros.