Anglo-French relations plunge even further into coldness
The writer was UK Ambassador to France from 2012 to 2016 and is the author of ‘Hard Choices: What Britain Did Next’.
The political relationship between Britain and France is the worst I have known in 40 years as a diplomat. A recent Harris poll shows that this bad mood is now affecting public opinion in France, with only 40% of those questioned considering the United Kingdom an ally, far from 74% for Italy and 73% for Germany. and Spain.
Contrast that with the mood a decade ago, when David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy agreed a new defense partnership, the French watched with jealously tinged admiration at the London Olympics, then booked to the Queen an enthusiastic welcome during her state visit in 2014.
Brexit marked the turning point. Britain was widely seen in France as not just leaving the EU, but turning its back on its European neighbors – a perception reinforced by the Johnson government’s continued efforts to ignore Europe as it sets a new role in the world. The aftershocks of Brexit have also been felt more in France than in other EU countries, from disruptions at Channel ports to disputes over fishing licenses around the Channel Islands. There will always be post-Brexit friction. But it is much more serious: a fundamental breach of trust between the two governments, and in particular between Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson.
The French were shocked by threats from the UK to roll back the Northern Ireland protocol. Macron was infuriated by what he saw as Johnson staged a public row with him at the G7 summit in Cornwall over the export of sausages to Northern Ireland, in a bid to blame the difficulties in implementing the protocol. The tragic death of 27 migrants in the English Channel last November should have been the moment to reconcile the differences. Instead, Johnson wrote a letter to Macron full of proposals he knew the French couldn’t accept, and published it before it reached Macron’s desk.
The management of the Aukus submarine deal with Australia was the last straw. For France, losing this massive contract to the US and UK was always going to be difficult. But the manner of his announcement left Macron feeling humiliated. Joe Biden publicly admitted he had been awkwardly handled and launched a full-scale damage repair exercise. Johnson did the opposite, making matters worse with his schoolboy mockery of the French president.
When No. 10 then launched the idea of a new strategic alliance with France in the British press, the reaction in Paris was icy.
The blame for this sad state of affairs does not lie entirely with London. Macron and his ministers have also been provocative, issuing irresponsible threats, such as cutting power to the Channel Islands. But in the past, Franco-British cooperation in areas such as business, culture and sport has remained largely untouched by political turmoil, buttressed by the dense web of human ties. The Harris Poll reminds us that even this cannot be taken for granted. It is not that the French are becoming hostile towards Britain, but simply indifferent. The French media pays little attention to what is happening in the UK, apart from puzzled coverage of Westminster antics. In the French presidential campaign, none of the candidates are calling for a reset of relations with London. The real risk is that the two countries will drift apart, which is why it’s so stupidly myopic of the UK to deny the next generation of young Britons and Frenchmen the chance to live and study in the country. on the other, thanks to exchanges under the Erasmus programme.
Since Britain left the EU, bilateral relations with European neighbors have become more important than ever. In his speech to the European Parliament this month, Macron said the condition for a future friendship was that the British government keep its word. A message, perhaps, to the next prime minister?