Standard accounts of unemployment protection and labour market policy reform tend to put France and the UK at opposing ends of the spectrum of values and policy directions in Europe. British efforts in the 1990s of switching emphasis from 'passive' benefit payment towards promoting participation in 'active' programmes of labour market integration are widely understood as a product of liberalism, individualism and increasing labour market flexibility, introducing a degree of workfare into the overall structure of unemployment support. By contrast, in France the resistance of traditional values and a 'social treatment of unemployment' are often portrayed as having put a brake on labour market reform and retrenchment of unemployment protection. After a reflection on the respective national discourses, the article challenges this view and points to a more complex reality that includes not only acknowledgement of labout market differences but also trends of convergence and counterintuitive developments. Secondly, it claims that in the 1990s Britain and France have both moved increasingly towards an unemployment policy based on activation, but in forms which reflect, to a great extent, different political incentive structures. The political implications of differentially institutionalised interests have in this way driven unemployment policy in different, but not opposing, directions. Recognition of this more nuanced reality should enable a better theoretical understanding of the social and political conditions for successful activation policies.