Short-term goals blind the embattled President to the long-term benefits of a stronger relationship by John Keiger for the Telegraph 10 December 2021
Franco-British relations are in a state of tension not seen in forty years, according to former British ambassador to Paris Lord Ricketts. Not to be outdone, the former French ambassador Sylvie Bermann retorts that relations have “never been as bad since Waterloo”. Yet British forces — unlike those of EU member states such as Germany — continue to fight alongside each other on the front-line. So why the rhetoric?
The list of ongoing joint British-French operations is, indeed, extensive: British troops provide vital heavy-lifting in France’s struggle to combat Islamic fundamentalism in sub-Saharan Africa, Franco-British forces are jointly deployed along the Baltic to protect NATO’s eastern flank, and behind the scenes the decade-old Lancaster House agreements continue to foster mutually beneficial Franco-British cooperation — on nuclear weapons, drones, missiles and ‘complex weapons systems’.
The UK-French integrated carrier strike force also continues to take shape. Only last week French and British naval forces were engaged in a massive six-nation NATO naval exercise simulating a high intensity battle for the control of occupied territory against Chinese or Russian navies — the real threat to French and British interests.
Given their continuing open hostility to Brexit, Ricketts and Bermann probably assign it as the cause of the tension. And they are probably right as far as Emmanuel Macron is concerned. Like them he does not hide his hostility to Britain’s departure, nor his will to demonstrate that it cannot be allowed to succeed. To act otherwise would be to undermine a vital strut of his first mandate: deeper European integration and strategic autonomy, as proclaimed in his 2017 Sorbonne speech. And it will form a large plank of his presidential campaign, not to mention the mission statement he outlined last night for his six-month presidency of the EU Council from 1 January 2022.
Yet Macron — even up against the ropes — does not believe that Franco-British relations are anything like the ahistorical doomsday musings of some diplomats. He refuses even to abrogate the 2003 bilateral Le Touquet migration treaty — an easy win were he serious. His beef with Britain is far more short-term and presidential election induced, criticised as he has been by his political opponents for supposed weakness towards not only Britain, but also the US and Australia.
Presumably even Sylvie Bermann would recognise that Franco-British relations were worse under Vichy when Britain was a declared enemy, worse in 1898 when France and Britain were on the brink of war at Fashoda, or during the 1860s when so many huge and still standing fortifications – ‘Palmerston’s follies – were built on the south coast to guard against a French invasion. But what all these historical examples share is that a few years later Paris and London’s relations had been reset. Before the 1860s Channel defences were even completed, Franco-British foreign policy was aligned: after Fashoda came the Entente Cordiale, after Vichy the Franco-British Dunkirk Treaty.
Comparison is not reason, as the French say. All the more so historical comparisons. But Fashoda is instructive. The pantomime military standoff between Captain Marchand (132 soldiers) and Lord Kitchener (1500) in the Egyptian Sudan over spheres of influence served as an eye-opener that the two nations’ true problem was not each other, but the fast rising military and naval power: Germany. The two powers set about clearing the decks of centuries of silted disagreement and discord on everything from colonial frontiers, spheres of influence and, yes, fishing (the century-old bone of contention of French access to British controlled fishing grounds off Newfoundland, a bane of generations of diplomats).
The result was the 1904 Entente Cordiale, signed on 8 April, a date which but for two days helpfully coincides with the first round of the 2022 French presidential elections, when Macron will be fighting for a place in the second. Once that election — a cause of his cantankerousness — is over and France’s presidency of the EU completed two months later, there will be an opportunity to clear the decks and reset Franco-British relations, whoever is elected. Friction will not disappear — it never did after 1904. But, then as now, it could allow both states to concentrate on the real threat to their interests: China’s rising power.
In his speech to French ambassadors in 2018, Macron cited the Indo-Pacific as the great strategic challenge, European strategic autonomy as a long term plan, and Franco-British diplomatic, defence and security collaboration as vital for the future — enshrined in each others’ defence white papers since 1995. While successful Brexit, Aukus and presidential elections explain much of Macron’s recent posture, France has all to gain by resetting Franco-British relations. That will require a still inexperienced Macron to understand that close allies’ common interests do not exclude other interests diverging.
Rhetoric aside, France and Britain should not forget that in foreign policy ‘alliances are not friendships’.
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