Now I understand the anger, the disappointment, the frustration, the humiliation. Brexit threw a giant wrench into the work of France’s biggest project, European integration – something the French state has been working on for almost a century. Its politicians and experts have proclaimed that after Brexit Britain is heading towards economic disaster and political isolation. Despite the best efforts of Remainer fans to talk about every issue, and even calling every success ‘despite Brexit’, we have overtaken Europe in relation to Covid and therefore economically as well.
Getting rid of the cumbersome EU medical regulatory regime has allowed us to develop and use an effective vaccine at lightning speed – a vaccine Emmanuel Macron has sought to discredit. Then came the humiliation for France – and especially for its current politicians – of the Aukus agreement, in which they were summarily excluded from a new alignment of the English-speaking countries of the Pacific. This after President Macron boasted that France was Europe’s leading naval power and a major presence in the Pacific, the new center of the world, in a century where, he said, the big questions would be decided not on land but at sea. So on the whole, we can appreciate that the French are very annoyed and that they deeply detest some of their British counterparts.
But this is not the same as using the violent and provocative language that has become the norm in French statements on Franco-British relations in recent months. Although anti-Boris / pro-EU media in the UK try to blame the deteriorating relations on both sides, if not on Britain, there has been no similar slang from Whitehall. But French politicians are now using the kind of language one would expect from a tin dictatorship, not a mature democracy and an ally. Insults (directed personally at “liar” and “clown” Boris Johnson), threats and (to be polite) inaccurate statements have become the norm. Part of that money comes from grassroots members of parliament or local politicians, and if it ended there, it could be discarded.
But we now regularly hear Anglophobic comments, public and pseudo-private, from personalities, such as the future President Xavier Bertrand, and even from ministers, including the veteran of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Minister of Interior, Gérald Darmanin, the young minister for Europe, Clément Beaune, and Emmanuel Macron himself. Indeed, the president has just caused a slight stir by calling Johnson a “gougnafier” – a funny and archaic term, much appreciated by my wife’s grandmother, and which my dictionary defines as good for nothing, insignificant and without manners. nor social graces.
The cynic might attribute this to a political game in the run-up to an election. If so, it doesn’t seem to be working very well, as the French press shows little interest, and sometimes even comes close to siding with Britain. But in any case, he went far beyond the usual politics. This seems to show that the French political class is in danger of sacrificing its (very important) relationship with Britain to other priorities – such as Macron’s willingness to show himself as the strongman of the EU.
But speculation aside, let’s take a brief look at some of the recent explosions.
First of all, over-fishing. The EU has signed, on behalf of all its members, a fishing rights agreement that has given much to the EU, and in particular to France, which has carved out the lion’s share of licenses to fish in the British waters. Britain has applied the agreed rules, which require EU vessels wishing to fish in UK waters to prove they have done so in the past. The French government, with swagger and (arguably illegal) threats against cross-Channel trade and power supply, demands that this be put aside and that licenses be granted to any French vessel that requests it. They ignore the terms of the deal, including the one that gives the EU the exclusive right to negotiate.
Then, Northern Ireland. On this issue, however, they insist that nothing in the Northern Ireland Protocol can be changed, although the text itself says otherwise. On the peach, the accord is swept away like a simple piece of paper; on Northern Ireland, the interpretation of Paris becomes Holy Writ.
Macron has now taken a serious and dangerous step in proclaiming that the single market and therefore the EU itself is at stake (this is not the case: the volume of cross-border trade is tiny) and that it is of a question of peace or war in Ireland – reckless and incendiary inflation of language in a situation in which pro-EU politicians have long insisted that peace is their ultimate goal.
Finally, the issue of illegal cross-Channel migration. First, the French claimed they were doing everything in their power to stop him – until videos of French police monitoring the boardings appeared. This in a country where even a gathering of retirees would be escorted by a sufficient force of riot police. It also emerged that human traffickers had a long history of buying rubber dinghies from Decathlon – and no one had noticed? So the tone changed: everything was Britain’s fault, according to the Home Secretary, for having such an attractive labor market (unlike France’s, one might suppose).
Perhaps realizing that this was not a sound argument to pursue, especially given the official line that post-Brexit Britain is (in Macron’s words) ‘catastrophic’, Clément Beaune then weighed in on the grossly insulting accusation that working in Britain was “modern slavery”. ‘(So migrants are attracted to slavery?) It’s an old French trope: France has regulations, Britain has anarchy. So, according to Beaune and others, the only reason migrants go to Britain is because they don’t have identity papers and can work illegally – so says the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, supported by the Minister of the Interior Darmanin.
The problem with this argument is that it is wrong, because MM. Beaune and Darmanin, if they are up to their job, should know this, as EU studies have shown. In fact, Britain has the third lowest level of illegal work in Europe, behind only Germany and Luxembourg, and just over half the EU average. The European Commission even praised Britain’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act, and a French newspaper recently praised the action taken against sweatshops by Priti Patel.
So why this unprecedented level of insults and public provocations? As I said earlier, I find it difficult to explain. The personality of Emmanuel Macron must be a big part of the story. He is widely hated in France for what is perceived as arrogance, and he has a long history of tactless commentary. He could tell his ministers to stop this language if he wished. But the most persistent offender, Clément Beaune, is a close collaborator and little more than Macron’s spokesperson. I must conclude, with regret, that the current French government is deliberately destroying the Franco-British relationship, which is at least as important for France as it is for us.
The only logic I can imagine behind this is that they think that if they keep up the pressure Boris Johnson and his government will be damaged enough that a pro-EU replacement will eventually bring the UK back (regardless of the time it takes) towards docility. with regard to Brussels and Paris. This would indeed be a huge price for which they might be willing to take huge risks. So they apply General de Gaulle’s formula to deal with the British: “Knock on the table and they retreat”. Unless of course the motive is nothing more than Macron’s petulant vanity.