The author was British Ambassador to France 2012-16 and is author of ‘Hard Choices: What Britain Did Next’
The political relationship between Britain and France is the worst I have known it 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 short of 74 per cent for Italy and 73 per cent for Germany and Spain .
Contrast this with the mood a decade ago, when David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy agreed new defense partnership, the Frenchman watched with admiration jealousy at the London Olympics and then gave the Queen a delighted reception during her 2014 state visit.
Brexit marked the turning point. Britain has been widely seen in France as not only leaving the EU but turning its back on its European neighbors – a perception reinforced by the Johnson government’s ongoing effort to ignore Europe while taking on a new role in the define world. The aftermath of Brexit was also felt more in France than in other EU countries, from disruption at Channel ports to spit on fishing licenses to Channel Islands. There would always be post-Brexit frictions. But it is much more serious – a fundamental shattering of trust between the two governments, and especially between Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson.
The French were shocked by the UK’s threats to reject the Northern Ireland protocol. Macron was irritated by what he saw when Johnson held a public debate with him at the G7 summit in Cornwall over sausages export to Northern Ireland, in an attempt to shift the blame for the problems with the implementation of the protocol. The tragic death of 27 migrants in the Channel last November should have been the moment to reconcile differences. Instead, Johnson wrote a letter to Macron full of suggestions he knew the French could not accept, and published them before it reached Macron’s desk.
The handling of the Aukus submarine transaction with Australia was the last straw. For France to lose it massive contract to the US and the UK is always going to be difficult. But the manner of his announcement made Macron feel humiliated. Joe Biden publicly accepted that this was the case clumsy handle and launched a full-scale damage recovery exercise. Johnson did the opposite and made matters worse with his schoolboy mocking the French president.
Then No. 10 when the idea of a new strategic alliance with France in the British press, the reaction in Paris was glaciers.
The blame for this unfortunate state of affairs does not lie entirely in London. Macron and his ministers were also provocative and made irresponsible threats, such as cutting off electricity to the Channel Islands. But in the past, UK-French co-operation in areas such as business, culture and sport has continued largely untouched by political upheavals, underpinned by the dense web of human ties. The Harris poll is a reminder that even that can not be taken for granted. It is not that the French are becoming hostile to Britain, but simply indifferent. The French media take little notice of what is happening in the UK apart from confused coverage of the antics at Westminster. In the French presidential election campaign, none of the candidates is asking for a restoration of relations with London. The real risk is that the two countries drift apart, which is why it is so stupidly short-sighted for the UK to deny the next generation of young British and French people the opportunity to live and study in each other’s country through the Erasmus Scheme Exchanges.
Since Britain left the EU, bilateral relations with European neighbors have become more important than ever. In sy address Macron told the European Parliament this month that the condition for future friendship is that the British government keep its word. Maybe a message to the next prime minister?