Even as the UK government insisted the two countries ‘remain close friends and partners’, their words, actions and disputes over migration, fishing and how to rebuild a working relationship following the Britain’s exit from the European Union increasingly suggests the opposite.
French President Emmanuel Macron berated British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for making public the contents of a letter Johnson sent him on Thursday. Specifically, Johnson proposed that France take back migrants who illegally cross the Channel from France to Britain. Macron’s spokesperson quickly and summarily dismissed the idea, and the French president made clear his displeasure that Johnson posted the letter – addressed “Dear Emmanuel” – on Twitter.
“I am surprised by the methods when they are not serious,” Macron said during a visit to Italy. “You don’t communicate from leader to leader on these issues through tweets and letters that are made public. We are not whistleblowers.
“Come on, come on,” Macron added.
The letter and the response from France were the latest cross of swords between two nations with a long history of breakups, make-ups and, quite often, reveling in rubbing the wrong way. The economic, political, social and psychological earthquake of Britain’s divorce from the EU made cross-Channel cooperation even more difficult and further complicated the long love-hate relationship between Paris and London.
Even in the wake of the deadliest migration crash to date in the chain, Macron and Johnson seemed increasingly to talk to each other – or, in Macron’s case, barely willing to talk at all. French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said Johnson’s immigration spokesperson Home Secretary Priti Patel was no longer welcome at a Sunday meeting of EU ministers who explore ways to crack down on migrant smuggling networks.
Attal described Johnson’s letter as “fundamentally mediocre and totally out of place in his own way”. Suggesting British duplicity, Attal also said it “doesn’t fit at all” with discussions Johnson and Macron had on Wednesday after an inflatable craft loaded with migrants sank off the French coast.
“We are fed up with double talk,” Attal said.
And he rejected Johnson’s proposal that France would pick up migrants crossing Britain as “clearly not what we need to solve this problem.”
More and more people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere risk the perilous journey from France, in the hope of obtaining asylum or finding better opportunities in Britain. More than 23,000 people have already entered the UK on largely unseaworthy small boats this year, up from 8,500 in 2020 and just 300 in 2018, according to data compiled by the UK Parliament.
In London, Johnson spokesman Jamie Davies said the Prime Minister did not regret tweeting the letter “written in the spirit of partnership and cooperation”.
He expressed hope for a French turnaround on the decision to cancel Patel’s invitation to Sunday’s ministerial meeting on the migration crisis, saying: “Friends and neighbors must work together to collectively address this global challenge. , and we’ve made it clear that we need to do more. “
A French judicial inquiry into Wednesday’s sinking has been handed to Paris-based prosecutors specializing in complex organized crime cases. The prosecutor’s office said it would not comment on whether investigators are making progress in identifying the nationality of the victims or the causes of the tragedy.
A French fisherman who said he was the first to spot and sound the alarm on bodies in the water on Friday described the scene as “a horror movie”. Karl Maquinghen said he was haunted by the idea that people might still be alive if he and his shipmates had joined them sooner.
“Seeing so many bodies like that, next to us. Children. I do not know how to explain it. Horrible, ”said Maquinghen, his voice broken with emotion, in comments broadcast by French radio Delta FM.
“The sight of them like that, with their heads in the water, will stay with us,” he said. “We say to ourselves, ‘If we had arrived five or 10 minutes earlier, maybe we could have saved them.’ We can’t sleep.
While the shipwreck has exacerbated long-simmering Franco-British tensions, it’s not their only issue of contention.
Adding to the climate of tension, French fishing crews briefly blocked French ports, ferry traffic across the Channel and the freight entrance to the submarine Eurotunnel on Friday. The purpose of the protest against post-Brexit fishing licenses was to disrupt the flow of goods and travelers to Britain and signal that greater disruption could ensue amid the scramble for Christmas shopping.
“The British have access to the European market, while we do not have access to British waters. This is not normal, the British government must respect the agreement, ”said Olivier Lepretre, president of the regional fisheries committee, in the port of Calais.
He described the blockages as “a wake-up call”.
Calais – a major starting point for migrants aiming to reach Britain – is also where ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium and EU officials will meet on Sunday .
Without the British Minister.
“The ministers will work seriously to resolve a serious matter with serious people,” Macron said. “Afterwards, we will see with the British how to act effectively, if they decide to be serious. ”