Anglo-French relations are at their “worst since Waterloo”. Yet France and the UK, which are very similar in economic size and clout should be natural partners. What has gone wrong − and might things improve after the French presidential election, asks Victor Hill?
A friendship gone sour
The UK and France used to be close, if occasionally fractious, friends − their peoples fascinated by each other’s culture, their histories irrevocably intertwined, their languages replete with words borrowed from one another. In truth, the Brits were more in awe of the better-dressed French than the other way round, and many chose to live or retire in France. Also, more French people chose to live and work in the UK than in any other EU country.
But the mood has changed. It is difficult to underestimate how aggrieved the French political elite became by Brexit. France has been working towards European integration under its own leadership for 75 years. The UK’s involvement in this ‘grand projet’ was vital from the French perspective as a counterweight against Germany, the latter’s economy being significantly larger than that of France.
The French political class was determined that Brexit would be costly and foresaw that the UK outside the EU would be much diminished. The fact that the UK managed to keep its end up despite the challenges of the pandemic riles the French establishment. Further, the French were infuriated that AstraZeneca developed a coronavirus vaccine at lightning speed in collaboration with Oxford’s Jenner Institute, while French pharma giant Sanofi is still struggling to develop one.
Over the months since the UK formally left the EU structures of governance at the beginning of this year, Anglo-French relations have deteriorated markedly. Right now, France is poised to take up the presidency of the EU at precisely the moment when Angela Merkel has stepped down as Germany’s Bundeskanzler after 16 years, and the new German government under Olaf Scholz is yet to find its feet. That will give France a position of unrivalled leadership within the EU and President Macron hopes to profit from it. He wants to be seen as Europe’s ‘strongman’, with a human face – a sort of RT Erdoğan wearing a jaunty beret – just as the French presidential election looms. That election will get going in earnest in the new year and promises to be dramatic, with a cast of characters straight out of a play by Molière.
What do we need to know to make sense of all this?
A is for AUKUS
It came out of the blue – but why were the French so unprepared? As part of the AUKUS pact in September, France’s €60 billion contract to build 12 diesel-electric submarines for the Australian navy was unceremoniously cancelled. Paris’s pique was due to much more than the financial loss: it was a humiliation. France, which controls a huge ocean territory in the Pacific in the form of French Polynesia, assumed it was the natural partner for Australia. What is revealing is that, despite all the outrage and the pique, no French commentators to my knowledge have acknowledged that Naval Group’s vessels were entirely inadequate to the task of defending Australia against a rising China, with its rapidly expanding navy.
The French foreign minister dismissed the UK as the “fifth wheel” in the agreement. But it is now widely agreed that the UK’s Astute class, attack submarines (built by BAE Systems, powered by Rolls Royce and serviced by Babcock) are amongst the best marine technology in the world.
France is the third-largest exporter of defence equipment in the world after the USA and Russia. In recent weeks, French arms producers have won major deals in Greece and the UAE. Australia was never going to be France’s largest customer. And since the AUKUS pact was announced, Australia has scrapped its fleet of Airbus-designed Taipan transport helicopters in favour of US-made Black Hawks (made by Lockheed Martin), citing reliability issues.
F is for Fish
The Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (BTCA) gave all EU states (not just France) the right to fish in the UK’s 6-12-mile territorial waters under licencses that would be relatively easy to obtain. In order to secure a licencse, EU fishermen must demonstrate that they have a record of fishing in British waters for at least four days out of 1,460 between 2012 and 2016. Nearly 1,800 such licences have already been issued, including 800 to French vessels.
Dutch fishermen have had little difficulty in getting their licence, given scrupulous evidence provided; but French fishermen, supported by their government, believe that they should be granted licences automatically. Many have failed to provide the necessary evidence of their historic activity −- some have even been accused of lying. Britain and Jersey have thus been perfectly within their rights under the agreement to withhold licences. In response, however, the French have made repeated threats to retaliate – cutting off power supplies and impeding cross-Channel trade. These measures would be entirely illegal under the agreement; and, in any case, it is for Brussels to determine if the UK is in breach of the agreement, not Paris.
Last Friday (10 December) the UK conceded an additional 23 licences to French fishermen. Macron still claims that “London” (which apparently includes Jersey) is still withholding 80 or so licences out of the 350 demanded. The French government had created unrealistic expectations by assuring the fishing lobby that “nothing would change” after Brexit. This has made the president vulnerable to accusations of a sell-out.
A deal is also on the cards that would allow French fishermen to transfer their historic fishing rights to new and often larger vessels which often have the capacity to catch more fish. While the French government seems to have dropped the threat of taking legal action against the UK, as of this week, French fishermen are still planning to blockade Calais and smaller ports such as St. Malo in protest.
Some of these French vessels will be engaging in “bottom trawling” – a practice which not only damages the marine environment, but which releases copious quantities of CO2 and drives ocean acidification. The UK has banned bottom trawling on the Dogger Bank (North Sea), much to the chagrin of the Danes, but thus far not in the Channel. Under the BTCA, the UK is entitled to take measures to prevent overfishing and to protect the marine environment −- something that would not have been possible under the Common Fisheries Policy.
The economic value of all these licences is trivial. What is at stake is Macron’s credentials as a strong leader, and his determination to punish the UK for what he sees as the folly of Brexit.
H is for Hidalgo
The Parti Socialiste used to be the leading party in France and has produced two presidents of the Fifth Republic. Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Party candidate for this presidential election, currently serving as mayor of Paris, is polling as low as three percent. She is trying therefore to co-opt the Greens behind her and to persuade other leftist candidates like Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a French Jeremy Corbyn, to withdraw. Fat chance of that.
I is for immigrant
The official French position has been that the country is doing “everything possible” to stop illegal immigrants who have congregated on the French coast, from embarking in dinghies and other tiny craft for the perilous journey to Kent. But images abound of the French authorities looking on as these people – who have no right to be in France – set off. And where do the dinghies and kayaks come from? Go to the Decathlon outlets in Calais and Boulogne and you will see. It’s clear that the French authorities have permitted some of the vilest people – traffickers in the business to ply their trade in broad daylight. And yet, according to the Macron government, it is all the UK’s fault.
Apparently, the UK should make itself “less attractive” to refugees, according to Gérard Darmanin, France’s interior minister. The solution would be for the UK to dismantle its flexible labour market to make it more difficult for migrants to get work. It is true that the UK’s flexible labour market has attracted immigrants in the past, mostly from the EU when there was still freedom of movement. But asylum claimants are not allowed to work in the UK, pending the processing of their applications.
Then France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, accused Britain of practicing “quasi-modern slavery” – as if that would be something that would attract people who could claim asylum in France from risking a channel crossing. Yet the UK has a much smaller black economy than France – indeed the UK has the third-lowest level of illegal working in Europe after Luxembourg and Germany. The EU Commission even praised the UK’s 2015 law against modern slavery.
M is for Macron
If president Macron is whipping up anti-UK rhetoric, it is doubtful that that will be of much electoral benefit. While the French generally believe that the British are vulgar and eat abominable food, there is no widespread animus against their northern neighbours. Macron has a track record of making ill-judged comments such as when he said that the AZ-Oxford vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly.
President Macron’s greatest weakness is that in 2017 he was elected with a large chunk of the Socialist vote which he must retain in 2022. However; even though, after five years in power, he doesn’t really look like a socialist at all – rather, more like ‘Davos Man’.
There is no natural centre in French politics. Some French people will tell you that Macron’s strength is that he is not a politician at all but a technocrat – and one who has learned on the job. The downside of that is that he has no political roots: his party, République en Marche (REP), is a political confection that may be here today – and gone tomorrow.
P is for Pécresse
Valérie Pécresse was nominated as the presidential candidate for the right-of-centre Republican Party on 04 December. She beat off strong competition from Eric Ciotti, the deputy for Nice, and from Michel Barnier, the former EU Brexit negotiator who will be well known to British readers. This supposedly middle-of-the-road Paris- region president who, appropriately for a French patriot was born on 14 July (1967), has had a seasoned record in French government as budget minister under Nicolas Sarkozy. In her victory speech she declared war on ‘le wokeisme’.
One poll has suggested that Valérie Pécresse is the only candidate who might be able to topple Emmanuel Macron in the second round. I’ll assccess her chances in more detail soon; but given that the far- right-wing vote will be split between two candidates, she is the one to watch in this campaign. It is just possible that, politically speaking, Boris might outlive Emmanuel.
S is for Sausage
The “Sausage War” is about the right of mainland UK (Great Britain) to supply its province in Northern Ireland with cured meat produced on the mainland. The great people of Ulster enjoy English sausages and black pudding from Scotland; the EU wants to ban them under the Northern Ireland protocol, supposedly in order to “protect the integrity of the single market”.
Brussels and now Paris invoke the necessity to uphold the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement while disadvantaging unionists whose rights were guaranteed therein – the status of the province cannot be modified without their consent. French politicians, who have zero understanding of the subtleties and modalities of Northern Irish politics, nor of UK-Ireland relations, have spoken wildly about peace and war in Ireland without heed to the deep economic integration between the mainland UK and Northern Ireland. It is possible that some want to provoke civil disturbance in a mistaken belief that that would be in the Republic’s interest.
President Macron will be supported in his unbending stance by the new German chancellor. The 177-page coalition agreement on which the new German government is founded demands that the UKBritain is held to the existing Northern Ireland pProtocol. Further, the Biden administration is still refusing to lift DonaldMr Trump’s tariffs on UK steel imports on this count. It seems that the UKBritain has very little leeway on this. If BorisMr Johnson triggers Article 16 of the Protocol (thereby suspending it) the anti-British rhetoric will only worsen. And it looks like the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will remain the arbiter of the pProtocol.
Z is for Zemmour
By throwing his hat into the ring, the maverick right-wing intellectual Eric Zemmour, who has written 18 books, has changed the nature of the presidential race. His agenda represents a rejection of the liberal consensus on which France has been ruled for so long.
He wants a “French Guantanamo” where convicted terrorists and suspected terrorists would be detained indefinitely. He would expel all foreign nationals who commit crimes. Prisoners would be charged for their keep. He would bypass the Conseil d’Etat (which is stuffed with do-gooders and ex-presidents) by holding regular popular referenda on controversial legislation. Family relationships would no longer be grounds for residency. Rulings by the ECJ would be vetoed if they conflict with French interests. Schools would revert to the smack of firm discipline from a previous age.
Monsieur Zemmour’s chances of beating Emmanuel Macron in the second round of voting on 24 April are slim; and yet he has changed the discourse. Several presidential wannabes of the traditional right have started talking in much more uncompromising terms about law and order and immigration. Even President Macron now favours stopping unemployment pay for those who are not seriously looking for work. As the French left crumbles to historically unprecedented single-digit figures, the battle for the Elysée Palace is being fought out on the right.
Briefly in November, Monsieur Zemmour’s polling numbers overtook those of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National); though they appear to have fallen back in recent weeks. His comments about Vichy have caused consternation – not so much for what he said, in my view, but because he chose to conjure up that ‘ghost’ at all. The French political class have united hitherto to bury those episodes of French history that are just too painful to discuss: – the Nazi occupation and the holocaust of French Jews;, the ignominious retreat from Indochina;, and the Algerian War and so forth. Eric Zemmour, who is of Jewish, north- African heritage, has outspoken views on all these things.
The liberal media have branded Monsieur Zemmour’s enthusiastic supporters as racist thugs; even though many arrive at his provincial rallies in their 2CVDeux Chevaux and wait patiently for the candidate to speak. He has been battling cancel culture since before le wokeisme became a national preoccupation. For many ordinary French folk outside Paris, he speaks truths which the ruling elite are too mealy-mouthed to utter.
Less known this side of the Channel is that Zemmour is backed by Vincent Bolloré, the billionaire industrialist who controls the media giant Vivendi. Zemmour rose to fame on CNews, a rolling- news channel that Monsieur Bolloré transformed into a French version of Fox News via the Canal+ TV network. CNews is now the number two French news channel after France 24. Vivendi, which also owns the advertising agency Havas, is poised to launch a takeover of rival media group Lagardère, having increased its stake to 45 percent in October. Monsieur Bolloré is also thought to want to seize control of the leading right-of-centre French newspaper, Le Figaro.
A war of words
The bile that has been directed towards the UK by the French political elite as personified by people like Clément Beaune is saddening for British francophiles like this writer. To say that Boris Johnson is a “liar” and “un clown” – fair enough. President Macron more exotically called him a ‘gougnafier’ – a word that has not been used in demotic French since the mid-18th century. Imagine if Boris had called Emmanuel “a varmint and a rapscallion” – I wonder what BBC Radio 4’s Today programme would have made of that. Australian prime minister,PM Scott Morrison was also branded a “liar”, even though he frankly told President Macron that the submarine deal had gone severely awry at the G-7 summit in June.
Earlier this month President Macron told a press conference:
“There are no legal asylum request pathways set up by the British, because there is still an opaque system that has existed since the 1980s where the British economic model relies on the illegal labour of foreigners.”
France does not process asylum claims outside its borders either and has thousands of homeless immigrants living in bidonvilles (shanty towns) in the suburbs of Paris. Most of these immigrants are in the country illegally, and are rarely challenged.
Le Canard Enchâiné recently reported that Mr Johnson had apologised to President Macron for the anti-French rhetoric. But apart from a bit of annoying schoolboy “franglais”, there has been no invective from the British side. Anglo-French relations are unlikely to improve substantively until such time as a French government accepts that the UK is a valued friend and partner outside the EU. It is too early to say whether Madame Pécresse might be more amenable.
A trope in the mindset of the French elite is that France is a land of regulation (just as the Germans think of themselves as “orderly”), while the British are anarchic opportunists. (The word “opportunism” was used widely in connection with the UK’s inclusion in the AUKUS pact). This is deep-seated, and goes back to Voltaire, who thought that Shakespeare was “un barbare” because he did not observe the classical unities of time, place and action on which classical French drama was predicated. Shakespeare anticipated cinema in a way classical French dramatists could never have imagined.
But that is another conversation − except to say that even the great Voltaire has been a victim of ‘cancel culture’ of late – his statue in Paris was splattered in red paint last year. Nevertheless, for me the lure of France has never dimmed. I cannot wait for the current round of Covid-induced travel restrictions to be lifted.
Listed companies cited in this article which merit further investigation:
- Sanofi (EPA:SAN)
- Vivendi SE (EPA:VIV)