L’Entente Discordiale

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

From Brexit to migrants’ dinghies capsizing in the Channel, from cancelled submarine sales to bad-mouthing the Oxford vaccine to fishing wars off Jersey, how badly stalled are current French-British relations? Waterloo-bad? Mers-el-Kébir bad? That fry-up party with Joan of Arc-bad? John Cleese’s third divorce bad?

In so many ways, it’s the latter, because between Emmanuel Macron and BoJo, it’s been personal for a long time. When Boris suggests Emmanuel throws tantrums like a jilted lover (“Prenez un grip about all this and donnez-moi un break” he told Macron after Australia went behind French backs to buy Anglo-made warships instead of a £47Bn contract with France they’d been negotiating for years), Emmanuel counters that Boris is “a clown”, “a liar” and “a boor” in a supposedly private conversation that got leaked very quickly. Ambassadors are pointedly recalled. Priti Patel is disinvited from a ministerial meeting on Channel security.

Once upon a time, France used to have political and philosophical differences with Britain, and still keep it civilised. François Mitterrand, the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic between 1981 and 1995, kept up good relations with Margaret Thatcher even while conducting sweeping reforms –nationalising banks and industrial corporations while lowering the work-week hours and the pension age – that went exactly against the Thatcher revolution. Still, when one of a batch of French-made Exocet missiles, shot from an Argentine Super-Étendard French-made jet fighter, sank HMS Sheffield off the Falklands islands on 4 May 1982, Mitterrand had a special envoy quietly provide the British with the missile’s schematics.

It doesn’t look like this could happen today. The French complain, possibly performatively, that Britain will no longer share any information with them on migrant movements across the continent. By comparison, Hungary and Romania, two countries divided by centuries of acrimonious land disputes, do pool their information on this, to avoid a breakdown of European external security.

The perceptive Elvire Fabry of the Jacques Delors Institute famously once said of both current leaders: “Each sees in the other what he dislikes most.” In Boris’s shambolic style, Emmanuel Macron perceives amateurism, disrespect, duplicity, incompetence. (The French don’t go for amateur – ever. You won’t find a French thespian or sports personality receiving any kind of award with an aw-shucks “Oh, this just sort of happened, bit of luck, really”.)

By contrast, Macron ticks all the boxes of Boris’s pet hates: vain, pompous, a control-freak Gallic technocrat enamoured with Brussels bureaucracy, a Federast whose campaign organisers distributed as many blue and gold EU flags at his 2017 victorious campaign rallies as tricolours, in whom any trace of a sense of humour is conspicuously absent. (The French like wit, which you can calibrate, but are wary of humour, which is uncontrolled.)

Our nations have a centuries-old history of spats, quarrels, reciprocal misunderstandings and drawn-out wars. Britain is a global sea power; France, despite actually controlling the largest maritime economic zone in the world, still sees herself as primarily a land power. You’re Protestant, we’re Roman Catholic; your Revolution was aristocratic while ours was a popular one; you’re pragmatists, we love to theorise; you’re traders and bankers, we’re engineers and administrators; we thrive as virtuosi, you’re team players; on and on, all stereotypes, but all largely recognisable. French trains are never halted for the wrong sort of leaves on the tracks, but we still haven’t mastered the mechanics of the perfect queue. In the past century and a half, the two countries largely managed to joke around their problems. No longer.

Trying to reconstruct how we got so fast to the current poisonous state of affairs between France and Britain requires the B-word. The French, and especially Emmanuel Macron, manage to be even more offended by Brexit than any NW1 Remainer. Almost six years on from the vote, the French president is still harping on about it. How could the UK abandon the Good Ship EU and her ever-closer union of nations striving for continental unification? In his New Year’s wishes to the nation last January, Macron managed to hedge a promise that France would remain Britain’s “friend and ally” with a reminder that the choice to Leave was caused by “lies and false promises”. (We might even have a repeat production in three weeks’ time.)

On either side, there’s a definite upside in keeping the quarrel alive. No British politician ever lost votes (and no British newspaper lost its readers) by insulting the French. In France, finding fault with les Anglais sounds more like agreeable background music than a Top of the Pops hit, but it is always pleasing. The 2022 French presidential election is a little over three months away, and again, Emmanuel Macron will fight it on an uber-pro-EU line, especially as France takes over the rotating presidency of the EU on 1 January. He has planned a frenzy of EU-related events all over the country, necessitating personalities and MEPs coming from all 27 EU nations to almost all French regions, coincidentally the ones he needs to win over in his presidential race. The word from the Élysée and relevant ministries is that staff are already exhausted by the complicated, and expensive, planning required.

Emmanuel Macron will run on his European and international stature; on giving the impression that while Germany’s new coalition government learns the ropes of the post-Merkel era, he, and France, are naturally taking over the leadership of the Bloc. In that narrative, it becomes necessary for Britain to be an object lesson in Outer Darkness, Finding Yourself Cast Into. Not for nothing did PM Jean Castex, at the height of the fishing rights crisis on 1 November, write a formal letter to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen stating bluntly “It is essential to make clear to European public opinion […] that [a nation] has more to lose by leaving the EU than by staying.”

It’s not as if Boris Johnson can really afford to take the high road either — more fights with Macron may not make Number 10 partying in times of Covid disappear completely, but it would help, especially as French news complacently compare British and French Omicron contamination figures (almost twice as many in the UK as here).

How long will the Désentente Discordiale last? This end, no hope until the end of May, i.e. after the Legislative election that will follow the Presidential one. Unless Républicain candidate Valérie Pécresse wins on 24 April, to become the acceptable new face of France. A poll on 7 December, the first ever showing a possibility that the incumbent could lose, projected she would beat Emmanuel Macron 52-48. In which case there will be a civilised reset, with France’s first woman president, a moderate conservative who speaks English, Chinese and Russian, bent on building bridges, not dynamiting them. Watch this space.


Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a French journalist, editor, author, and a columnist for The Telegraph

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