‘Total loss of confidence’: Franco-British relations plumb new depths

By Jon Henley

The British embassy in Paris held a splendid James Bond soiree this week, guests in black tie and evening dress sipping Bollinger and Martinis shaken, not stirred, playing blackjack and admiring the gleaming Aston Martin DB5 in the courtyard.

As projections of British soft power go, it was as potent as any could wish for. Except, as one experienced observer said: “There don’t seem to be many French policy people about.” Another wondered: “Were they not invited – or didn’t they come?”

The embassy, of course, does not discuss guest lists. But it is a sign of just how bad Anglo-French relations have become – and according to ex-ambassadors and analysts alike, they have rarely been worse – that the question was posed.

“They’re as bad as I can remember,” said Peter Ricketts, Britain’s ambassador to France from 2012 to 2016. “My sense is the French have just totally lost confidence in the UK as an ally, and in the British government as something to depend on.”

For Sylvie Bermann, France’s ambassador to Britain from 2014 to 2017, Franco-British relations “have never been this tense, this inimical. In Paris there is a real absence of trust – a feeling that Britain no longer honours the agreements it signs”.

Tensions that built up over five years of ill-tempered Brexit negotiations have been exacerbated by a series of increasingly heated cross-Channel disagreements, some related to the fallout from the UK’s departure from the EU, but others not.

Britain’s decision to impose tighter Covid travel restrictions on France than on other EU countries this summer, for example, was deeply resented in Paris, where it was seen as unjustified discrimination and assumed to be politically motivated.

Tempers have flared, too, over the longstanding problem of migrant crossings in small craft from France to the UK, with the home secretary Priti Patel’s plan to turn back boats and withhold cash for French coastal patrols dismissed by her Paris counterpart, Gérard Darmanin, as “blackmail” and “posturing”.

Sylvie Bermann, then French ambassador to Britain, pictured in 2016 with Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary.
Sylvie Bermann, then French ambassador to Britain, pictured in 2016 with Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

The Indo-Pacific security partnership, Aukus, announced last month by the US, Australia and UK, cost France a multibillion-euro submarine deal with Australia and drew cold fury in Paris – although Britain is seen as very much a junior partner.

The UK was the deal’s “fifth wheel”, said the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, noting that France had not recalled its ambassador to London – as it did its envoys to Washington and Canberra – because it was by now so used to Britain’s “constant opportunism”.

Boris Johnson, though he later professed Britain’s “ineradicable” affection for France, mocked French anger in franglais, saying Paris should “prenez un grip and donnez-moi un break”. That prompted Emmanuel Macron to respond to a call to “re-establish cooperation” with a cool: “The president awaits his proposals.”

But the most profound reason for the rift remains Brexit and its fallout, with the French infuriated by what they see as London’s refusal to implement – and desire to relitigate – key parts of the agreement, and the British viewing Paris as hellbent on punishing the UK for having had the temerity to leave the EU.

Fed up with the UK “not applying its agreements” and “badmouthing” France and the EU, Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, warned this week of retaliatory steps, including hitting Britain and Jersey’s energy supply, for Britain’s failure to provide sufficient fishing licences to French fishers.

Paris is equally galled by David Frost’s determination to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol, which Britain negotiated and signed up to in order to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland but which imposes border controls in the Irish Sea.

Tempers have flared, too, over the issue of migrant crossings in small craft from France to the UK, with home secretary Priti Patel threatening to turn boats back and withhold cash for French coastal patrols.
Tempers have flared, too, over the issue of migrant crossings in small craft from France to the UK, with home secretary Priti Patel threatening to turn boats back and withhold cash for French coastal patrols. Photograph: Home Office

Analysts, diplomats and French media commentators see little hope of any short-term improvement in cross-Channel relations as long as two leaders with such radically different agendas – and their own overriding political imperatives – remain in No 10 and the Elysée.

“Johnson’s strategy is based on justifying Britain’s divorce from the EU and stressing its supposed benefits – while the profoundly pro-European Macron slams the ‘lie’ on which Brexit was built and of which Johnson was the key architect,” said Le Monde.

“In that sense, each one is the incarnation of what the other most rejects,” said Elvire Fabry, a senior research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris. “That locks the two countries in the familiar Brexit narrative, unable to look to the future and see where cooperation could and should be possible.”

Compounding those strategic differences is the domestic political advantage to be had by bashing one’s neighbour. From the French perspective, attacking France allows Johnson (whom Paris views as profoundly unserious) to distract, for example, from Britain’s recent supply chain crisis – which, as a consequence of Brexit, Paris is only too happy to highlight.

In the British view, the fact that Macron – – long seen in London as the “bad cop” of the Brexit negotiations, the EU leader who always took the hardest line – faces a difficult presidential re-election campaign next year means he too has everything to win by playing to a domestic audience.

“As the UK can’t admit the difficulties it faces are the logical consequences of Brexit and of the minimal free trade agreement it demanded,” said Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, “it will make the EU a scapegoat, and particularly France.” In the near term, “we are doomed to a disastrous relationship”.

Blaming the French “has always worked very well politically in the UK”, agreed Bermann. “You only have to look at the front pages of the tabloids.” But while it was “normal to experience ups and downs in the relationship”, she said, the current level of acrimony appeared almost unprecedented.

Ricketts, who as chair of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee under Tony Blair experienced at first hand the more than usually bitter Franco-British quarrel over the US-led invasion of Iraq, said that was “a very sharp, but short-lived difference”.

It was followed, he said, by “real high points” in cross-Channel relations, such as the 2010 Lancaster House agreements on bilateral defence cooperation. “This feels more profound – it’s a lot more than a spat,” he said. “It will take time and serious effort to repair.”

Fabry, too, said she things had “gone beyond annoyance. I try not to bash Brexit, but there seems such a clear domino effect: hard Brexit, end of free movement, supply chain problems. As long as that persists, France makes an obvious target. I’m not very optimistic”.

Georgina Wright, the head of the Europe programme at the Institut Montaigne, said past bilateral defence cooperation, notably in the Balkans, Sahel and Middle East, had been close but “the lack of trust is also slowly being felt in the defence circles”.

Both sides would have to move, she said. “The view in London is that France is still trying to punish the UK for Brexit, and the bilateral relationship is stuck because of French threats. In Paris the view is that Britain can’t be trusted. I can’t see things changing in France before the next presidential election – and in the UK, it could take longer.”