The writer was UK 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 the 74 per cent for Italy and 73 per cent for Germany and Spain.
Contrast that with the mood a decade ago, when David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy agreed a new defence partnership, the French looked on with admiration tinged with jealousy at the London Olympics and then gave the Queen a rapturous reception on 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 neighbours — a perception reinforced by the Johnson government’s continuing effort to ignore Europe as it defines a new role in the world. The aftershocks of Brexit have also been felt more in France than other EU countries, from disruption at Channel ports to spats over fishing licences around the Channel Islands. There were always going to be post-Brexit frictions. But this is much more serious — a fundamental breakdown of trust between the two governments, and particularly between Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson.
The French were left shell-shocked by the UK’s threats to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol. Macron was exasperated by what he saw as Johnson staging a public row with him at the G7 summit in Cornwall over exporting sausages to Northern Ireland, in an attempt to shift the blame for the difficulties in implementing 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 proposals which he knew the French could not accept, and published it before it reached Macron’s desk.
The handling of the Aukus submarine deal with Australia was the last straw. For France to lose this massive contract to the US and UK was always going to be difficult. But the manner of its announcement left Macron feeling humiliated. Joe Biden publicly accepted that it had been handled clumsily and launched a full-scale damage repair exercise. Johnson did the reverse, making matters worse with his schoolboy mockery of the French President.
When No 10 then floated the idea of a new strategic alliance with France in the British press, the reaction in Paris was glacial.
The blame for this sorry state of affairs does not lie entirely in London. Macron and his ministers have also been provocative, making irresponsible threats, such as to cut off electricity to the Channel Islands. But in the past, UK-French co-operation in areas like business, culture and sport continued largely unaffected by political ructions, underpinned by the dense web of human ties. The Harris Poll is a reminder 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 take little notice of what is happening in the UK, apart from bemused coverage of the antics at Westminster. In the French presidential election campaign, none of the candidates are calling for a reset 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 neighbours have become more important than ever. In his speech to the European Parliament this month, Macron said that the condition for future friendship was that the British government stood by its word. A message, perhaps, to the next prime minister?