The British Embassy in Paris this week held a magnificent James Bond soiree, guests in black ties and evening gowns sipped Bollinger and Martinis shook, did not stir, played blackjack and admired the shiny Aston Martin DB5 in the courtyard.
As projections of British soft power went, it was as potent as anyone could wish for. Except, as one experienced observer put it, “there do not seem to be many French politicians about.” Another wondered, “Were they not invited – or did they not come?”
Of course, the embassy does not discuss guest lists. But it is a sign of how bad Anglo-French conditions have become — and according to ex-ambassadors and analysts, they have rarely been worse — that the question was asked.
“They are as bad as I can remember,” said Peter Ricketts, Britain’s ambassador to France from 2012 to 2016. “My view is that the French have just completely lost confidence in Britain as an ally and in the British government as something to depend on. of.”
For Sylvie Bermann, France’s ambassador to the UK from 2014 to 2017, Franco-British relations have “never been so tense, so irresistible. In Paris, there is a real absence of trust – a feeling that Britain no longer respects the agreements it signs ”.
Tensions that built over five years of ill-tempered Brexit negotiations have been exacerbated by a series of increasingly heated disagreements across channels, some related to the fallout from Britain’s exit from the EU, but others not.
Britain’s decision to impose stricter travel restrictions on France than other EU countries this summer, for example, was deeply resentful in Paris, where it was seen as unjustified discrimination and assumed to be politically motivated.
Temperament has also flared over the long-standing problem of migrant crossings in small vessels from France to Britain, with Home Secretary Priti Patel’s plan to return the boats and withhold cash to French coastal patrols rejected by her Paris counterpart, Gérard Darmanin, as “Extortion” and ” attitude”.
The Indo-Pacific Security Partnership, Aukus, announced last month by the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, cost France a multi-billion euro submarine deal with Australia and sparked outrage in Paris — although Britain is widely seen as a junior partner.
Britain was the “fifth wheel” of the agreement, said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, noting that France had not recalled its ambassador to London – as it did its envoys to Washington and Canberra – because it was now so used to Britain’s “constant opportunism”.
Although Boris Johnson later acknowledged Britain’s indelible “devotion to France, he mocked French anger in franglais, saying that Paris should” prenez un grip and donnez-moi un break “. That prompted Emmanuel Macron to respond to a call to “restore cooperation” with a cool: “The president is awaiting his proposals.”
But the most profound cause of the breach is still Brexit and its fallout, with the French furious at what they see as London’s refusal to implement – and want to restructure – key parts of the deal, and the British see Paris as hell to punish Britain for having had time to leave the EU.
Tired of Britain “not using its agreements” and “badmouthing” France and the EU, Clément Beaune, France’s European minister, warned this week of retaliatory measures, including hitting Britain and Jersey’s energy supply, for Britain’s lack of adequate fishing licenses for French fishermen.
Paris is equally appalled by David Frost’s determination to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Britain negotiated and signed to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland, but which imposes border controls on the Irish Sea.
Analysts, diplomats and French media commentators see little hope of any short-term improvement in cross-channel relations, as long as two leaders with such radically different agendas — and their own overriding political imperatives — remain in No. 10 and the Elysée.
“Johnson’s strategy is based on justifying Britain’s divorce from the EU and emphasizing its supposed benefits — while the deeply pro-European Macron strikes the ‘lie’ on which Brexit was built and on which Johnson was the central architect,” Le Monde said. .
“In that sense, each incarnation is what the other most rejects,” said Elvire Fabry, a senior researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris. “It locks the two countries in the well-known Brexit narrative that can not look ahead and see where cooperation could and should be possible.”
Putting together these strategic differences is the domestic policy advantage that can be achieved by bashing its neighbor. From the French perspective, attacks by France allow Johnson (whom Paris considers deeply frivolous), for example, to distract from Britain’s recent supply chain crisis – which Paris, as a consequence of Brexit, is only too happy to highlight.
In Britain’s view, this means that Macron-long seen in London as the “bad cop” in the Brexit negotiations, the EU leader who always took the hardest line-a difficult presidential campaign for next year, that he also has everything to gain by playing for a home crowd.
“As Britain cannot admit that the difficulties it faces are the logical consequences of Brexit and the minimal free trade agreement it required,” said Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, “will make the EU a scapegoat, and especially France.” In the short term, “we are doomed to a catastrophic relationship”.
Blaming the French “has always worked very well politically in Britain”, Bermann agreed. “You only have to look at the front pages of the tabloids.” But while it was “normal to experience ups and downs in the relationship,” she said, the current level of violence seemed almost unprecedented.
Ricketts, who as chairman of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee under Tony Blair first experienced the more than usual bitter Franco – British quarrel over the US – led invasion of Iraq, said it was “a very sharp but short-lived difference”.
It was followed, he said, by “real highlights” in cross-channel connections, such as the 2010 Lancaster House agreements on bilateral defense cooperation. “This feels more profound – it’s much more than a spit,” he said. “It will take time and a lot of effort to repair.”
Also, Fabry said that things had “gone beyond irritation. I’m not trying to bash Brexit, but there seems to be such a clear domino effect: hard Brexit, end to free movement, problems with the supply chain. As long as it persists, France makes an obvious I’m not very optimistic. ”
Georgina Wright, head of the Europe program at the Montaigne Institute, said previous bilateral defense cooperation, particularly in the Balkans, the Sahel and the Middle East, had been close, but “the lack of trust is also slowly being felt in defense circles”.
Both sides should move, she said. “The view in London is that France is still trying to punish Britain for Brexit, and the bilateral relationship is stuck due to French threats. In Paris, the perception is that one cannot trust Britain. I do not see things changing in France before the next presidential election – and in Britain it may take longer. ”