Relations between the British and French governments have rarely been so dreadful since the origins of the entente cordiale and the long alliance under Lord Aberdeen in the 1840s.
The diplomatic earthquake of Brexit has collided with the political character of Emmanuel Macron, who combines ultra-Europeanist ideology (when it suits him) with Bonapartist methods and ambition.
Five years on from the Referendum, cross-Channel disaffection has degenerated into a tedious cycle of mutual grievances and snarling hair-trigger reactions. The worst construction is put on everything. Downing Street suspects that Mr Macron sabotaged the AstraZeneca vaccine out of malice, while French journalists think he just slipped up.
The Élysée is convinced that the “amber plus” quarantine rule for France, and only France, was revenge. We weary rosbifs know it was just another cock-up by jumpy ministers who misread Covid data from outre-mer.
The venomous mood has echoes of the Fashoda crisis. But obscured from public gaze, the British and the French are cooperating as intimately as ever on defence. A French brigadier serves as deputy-commander of the UK’s First Infantry Division, and vice versa in a French division.
British Chinook helicopters transport French troops in the jidahist wars of the Sahel. The two countries defend each others’ interests in the Pacific. They work jointly on nuclear warheads.
The Franco-British rapid reaction force (CJEF) reached full capability late last year, able to deploy 10,000 men on land, sea, and air, far and wide in combat operations. France has no such tight arrangement with any other country. The Franco-German brigade is mostly a paper creation.
This military entente was launched at Lancaster House in 2010 by David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy, which in turn dates back to how well the two armies worked together in Bosnia. “It was not the Americans who ended the siege of Sarajevo: it was the British and the French on the ground,” said Charles Grant from the Centre for European Reform.
Mr Macron’s pietistic speeches about a “European army”, and an EU defence union to match monetary union, are strangely detached from reality. No such capability exists. The Germans are famously “believers but not participants”. Most of the eurozone cut defence budgets to the bone in the mid-2010s in order to meet EU-imposed austerity rules.
Nor should Mr Macron be conflated with France. He stole his way into power by ideological double-dressing – Président cambrioleur (burglar president) is the title of Corinne Lhaïk’s biography. His euro-imperialist design – his finance minister openly proposes a “European empire”, to counter the US – is not shared by the French nation.
Parties with a eurosceptic flavour won half the votes in the first round of the presidential election in 2017. Souverainiste feelings run just as deep in France as they do in Britain.
Germanophobia still festers and has poured out in an extraordinary article by Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate and leader of Rassemblement National (Front National), proposing a strategic rupture with Germany and an alliance with Britain and America. This is a jaw-dropper coming from a political figure who long excoriated NATO and cleaved to Vladimir Putin’s world view.
“France should turn towards other horizons beyond 2020: towards the United Kingdom, with which she shares a similar diplomatic and nuclear status; towards the United States in order to renegotiate a treaty of alliance based on challenges in the Indo-Pacific and in space,” she wrote in L’Opinion.
“On a diplomatic level, the alliance with Germany is of no interest since unlike the United Kingdom it does not share with France any of the levers of a great world power – apart from economic power, which isn’t everything: neither a permanent seat on the Security Council, nor overseas territories, nor military capability.”
EuroIntelligence describes her tirade as a “divorce letter to the Germans”, a warning of tectonic changes to come if she wins next year’s election. “She paints the image of a great nation betrayed by Germany time and again. She is clearly fishing for votes from the military and those with nostalgia for la grande nation. This may have traction, and as such should not be easily dismissed,” it said.
Mrs Le Pen accuses Mr Macron of besotted illusions of Carolingian condominium, learning like every French president since Charles de Gaulle that Germany will always pursue its own advantage in a “brutal fashion, without any regard for Paris.” It is a letter drenched in resentment.
Much of this rancour tracks back to the eurozone debt crisis, which showed that when push comes to shove, Berlin dispenses with the fiction of running the EU through a French front. The German finance ministry took control over the EU’s economic machinery: Eurogroup, Commission, bail-out fund. It used that power to collect Club Med debts, and to impose a contractionary fiscal hairshirt on everybody. The consequences of that economic malpractice was to turn a banking problem into a depression.
Corinne Delaume argues Le couple franco-allemand n’existe pas (The France-German couple does not exist), that the monetary union was a fatal error for France. Far from binding in a “European Germany” it has created a structure more akin to a “German Europe”. “Our country is being dragged along behind,” she said.
It is possible that Mr Macron will bury the Brexit hatchet if he wins a second term. He professes a desire for closer defence ties but wants this on his own terms, while continuing to be the British bête noire on everything else. It is reverse cherry-picking. It is also untenable.
He is incorrigible in any case. The president is too wedded to his putative European army. He has crossed too many diplomatic lines, not least threatening to cut off Britain’s energy interconnectors in order to get his way on other matters. He forced the UK out of the Galileo satellite project by imposing humiliating terms, even though the British had put up much of the investment and built the “brains” of the spacecraft. The UK was deemed an “unsafe” ally.
His Europe minister Clement Beaune did not even try to find a positive word at a forum on the future of Franco-British relations in Le Touquet. Michel Barnier made friendly noises. Others saw the glass half full. Mr Beaune’s speech oscillated between euro-triumphalism and threats.
But if anybody else wins – Valérie Pécresse or Xavier Bertrand on the centre-Right, or even Mrs Le Pen in the unlikely event of an earthquake – a revival of the Entente is possible. The UK and France are already building air-launched missiles together in the MBDA project, a joint venture of BAE Systems and Airbus. It is a runaway success.
Another French leader might abandon the Franco-German fighter project, which is not commercially viable and is going nowhere because Berlin wants too much of the industrial pork barrel. They could merge with the British-Italian rival project and produce a fighter with a big enough market to make sense.
A new leader might confess that it was petulant to expel the British from Galileo, and might find some way to row back. There is a long list of military-industrial projects that fit nicely with the dirigiste industrial ambitions of Borisian Britain.
As a francophile of sorts, I remain hopeful. It took just six years to vault from the sabre-rattling of the Fashoda Incident in 1898 to the entente cordiale of Théophile Delcassé in 1904. The political weather can change faster than we ever imagine.