The writer was the British Ambassador to France in 2012-16. and is the author of ‘Difficult elections: 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 sour mood is now affecting public opinion in France, with only 40 per cent of respondents seeing the UK as an ally, far less than 74 per cent for Italy and 73 per cent for Germany and Spain.
Compare that to the mood a decade ago, when David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy agreed a new defense partnershipThe French watched with admiration with jealousy at the London Olympics, and then gave the Queen a rapturous reception during her 2014 state visit.
Brexit marked a turning point. In France, Britain is widely seen as not only leaving the EU but also turning its back on its European neighbors – a perception reinforced by the Johnson government’s constant efforts to ignore Europe as it defines a new role in the world. Brexit earthquakes have also been felt more in France than in other EU countries, from disturbances in Canal ports to poked around fishing license eye Channel Islands. There will always be friction after Brexit. But this is much more serious – a fundamental breakdown of trust between the two governments, and in particular between Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson.
The French were shocked by the United Kingdom’s threats to abandon Northern Ireland’s protocol. Macron was outraged by what he saw as Johnson argued publicly with him at the G7 summit in Cornwall around sausage export to Northern Ireland, in an attempt to shift the blame for the difficulties in implementing the Protocol. It’s tragic death of 27 migrants in the Channel last November was supposed to be a time to reconcile differences. Instead, Johnson wrote a letter to Macron full of suggestions he knew the French could not accept, and he published them before he reached Macron’s desk.
The handling of the Aukus submarine with Australia was the last straw. That France loses this massive contract in the US and UK it will always be difficult. But the way it was published left Macron feeling humiliated. Joe Biden publicly accepted that it was handled awkwardly and launched a full remediation exercise. Johnson did the opposite, making things worse with his schoolly mockery of the French president.
When number 10 then put forward the idea of oa new strategic alliance with France in the British press, the reaction in Paris was icy.
The blame for this sad situation does not lie entirely in London. Macron and his ministers were also provocative, making irresponsible threats, such as power outages to the Channel Islands. But in the past, Anglo-French co-operation in areas such as business, culture and sport has continued largely unaffected by political conflicts, backed by a dense network of human connections. The Harris poll is a reminder that even that can’t be taken for granted. It is not that the French are becoming hostile to Britain, but simply indifferent. The French media has little notice of what is happening in the UK, other than astonished coverage of the Westminster antics. In the campaign for the French presidential election, none of the candidates is calling for a reset of relations with London. The real risk is that the two countries are moving away, which is why it is so stupidly short-sighted that the United Kingdom is denying the next generation of young Britons and French the opportunity to live and study in each other’s country through Erasmus exchanges.
Since Britain left the EU, bilateral relations with Europe’s neighbors have become more important than ever. In his speech at the European Parliament this month, Macron said the condition for future friendship is that the British government keep its word. A message, perhaps, to the next prime minister?