Fri. May 20th, 2022

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered his team to reduce tensions with French President Emmanuel Macron, urging colleagues not to retaliate against what London sees as a recent provocation by Paris.

Johnson is confident Macron will win a second term, according to allies, and wants to prepare the ground for better relationships after next April’s presidential election, possibly via a new Anglo-French treaty.

With Macron, Johnson is believed to be described as a “clown” – amid a bitter quarrel over how to react to the death of 27 migrant who last month tried to reach the UK by crossing the English Channel in a small boat – the idea of ​​any post-election “entente cordiale” seems far-fetched to some diplomats.

Johnson is seen by Macron as not “serious” and the prime minister has opposed Paris over a range of issues beyond migration, including Brexit and a new security partnership between Australia, the US and the UK that would enable Canberra to to build fleet of nuclear power. -powered submarines.

Downing Street now wants to draw a line under the cross-channel war of words. “There was a whole series of remarks that just got us going,” said one Johnson ally. “Many teeth have been sucked.”

Number 10 did not hit back at Macron’s reported remarks to colleagues, quoted by the French satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, that Johnson was behaving “like an idiot” and that it was sad that Britain was being led “by a clown”.

There was then only a modest plea by Number 10 for people to choose their words “carefully” after Macron said dealing with post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland was a matter of “war and peace for Ireland”.

Nor was there a robust British response to allegations last week by Clément Beaune, France’s European minister, that migrants were lured to the UK by an economic model containing “quasi-modern slavery”.

However, some diplomats believe that Johnson left it too late to ease tensions and were misled into thinking that Macron’s attacks were on the rise – they think the French president is simply fed up with a prime minister he considers unreliable and insignificant. .

While Macron’s comments drew attention in the UK, it generated little interest in France. Apart from a quarrel over the UK’s granting of licenses to France’s fishermen working in British waters, French media is much more focused on Covid-19, immigration and relations with Germany.

Sir Peter Westmacott, Britain’s former ambassador to Paris, said: “I do not think the French are nearly as obsessed with what is going on in Britain as we are with what is happening in France. I do not think it wins Macron votes. “

Insiders in Downing Street do not buy that argument. Johnson and his team expect relations to remain shaky for the next few months, but think Macron’s expected re-election could offer the chance for a fresh start.

There have been signs of a degree of cooling of tension in recent days: an acknowledgment that the two countries are being condemned by geography, economics and security considerations to work together.

The granting of 40 fishing licenses by Guernsey, a British Crown dependency, to French boats was a sign that the dispute had begun to ease, though it was not over yet.

The threat by France to carry out “reinforced” controls on British goods crossing the Channel in retaliation for the dispute was a reminder of how Paris could quickly suffocate Britain’s trade routes if it so wished.

Meanwhile, Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, wrote to Johnson last week proposing a “possible new framework for cooperation between the UK and the EU” to tackle the migration crisis for small boats in the Channel.

But the fact that it was Castex that contacted Johnson, rather than Macron, is an indication of the toxic state of relations between the two leaders.

Johnson’s allies have driven the idea that once the presidential election is over, there could be room for improved relations, possibly through a new treaty between the two sides.

British officials have said a treaty could focus on defense and security co-operation – building on one part of the UK-France relationship that works well – but also cover science, technology and culture.

Defense options being explored on the UK side include joint aircraft carrier operations, nuclear cooperation and the possibility of Britain and France working more closely with the quad in the Indo-Pacific: Australia, India, Japan and the US.

But Lord Peter Ricketts, another former British ambassador to France, said: “There is such a big gap between the idea of ​​a new treaty and the way the two governments treat each other, it can not happen at the moment not.”

In Paris, the Macron administration suspects the idea of ​​a new treaty is another attempt by Johnson to appear reasonable in public while persisting with difficult behavior on the ground, according to French officials.

For Macron’s team, a much more important issue is whether the UK can prove itself again as the reliable partner France wants in the wake of Brexit.

Tensions over Johnson’s efforts to rewrite parts of his Brexit deal with Northern Ireland could resurface early next year as the prime minister seeks to suspend trade arrangements for the region.

Diplomats question whether – even if Macron is re-installed in the Elysée Palace in April – any new entente cordial reach can be achieved given the president’s deep mistrust of Johnson.

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