Can Sunak and Macron reset UK-France relations?

The British prime minister has much bigger fish to fry, but reviving cross-Channel ties is important

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets French President Emmanuel Macron at Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh last week. Getty Images
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If every picture tells a story, then images from the Cop27 conference, of a British prime minister and a French president getting along quite well, deserve a chapter of their own.

Rishi Sunak, proudly the first person of Asian origin to rise to Britain’s highest political office, is showing even those opposed to his views that he can be a statesman of dignity.

While he has already made some mistakes in a premiership only a few weeks old, it is to his credit that courtesy and professionalism seem to come naturally. And that extends to his early dealings with potentially troublesome figures.

Mr Sunak’s predecessors made a viable working relationship between France and the UK nigh on impossible. A series of eminently avoidable disputes might almost have been concocted to appease nationalistic elements of the ruling Conservative party.

But the warm hug and back-slapping between prime minister and president at the Sharm El Sheikh climate change summit offered modest hope that the entente cordiale, signed in 1904 to improve cross-Channel relations, might be back in safe hands.

Grown-up observers note the contrast with Boris Johnson, whose approach to France veered between gauche chumminess and blustering belligerence, complete with schoolboyish “donnez-moi un break” jokes. Mr Sunak is also unlikely to be caught declaring, as Liz Truss did when campaigning to succeed Mr Johnson, that the “jury’s out” on whether Mr Macron is friend or foe.

As happens rather a lot in Ms Truss’s political life, she had radical second thoughts, insisting after becoming prime minister that he was a friend after all. That she had considered it tactically useful to doubt Mr Macron’s intentions gives a telling insight into modern Conservatism’s French-bashing instincts. Cursory scrutiny of Anglo-French history reveals ample evidence of wholly uncordial sentiment. Periodic warfare can be traced back to the 12th century; the so-called 100 Years’ War in fact lasted for 116, between 1337 and 1453.

Sunak cannot be unaware of the undercurrent of kneejerk Francophobia that flows through his party

Allies in both the 1914-18 and 1939-45 world wars, and in other important international crises, the two nations have nevertheless managed to find endless grounds for bitter discord. Brexit has generated a new breed of contentious issues, including fishing rights, immigration, Channel transport and the Northern Ireland border; there has been non-Brexit friction over Covid-19 controls and a submarine deal with Australia. Their legacy complicates Mr Sunak’s search for more constructive ties.

The two leaders do have plenty in common. Both are meritocrats. Three of their parents were doctors (Mr Sunak’s mother was a pharmacist). Roughly the same age – Mr Sunak, 42, Mr Macron two years older – they worked successfully in investment banking before turning to politics. The photos from Cop27 suggest the same sleek dress sense. And despite Mr Macron’s spell as economics minister in the failed socialist government of Francois Hollande, and his later attachment to centrism, his developing philosophy broadly resembles the moderate right-wing approach of Mr Sunak.

Where, glaringly, they disagree is on Europe. Mr Macron is passionately pro-EU whereas Mr Sunak equally firmly supported Britain’s withdrawal. In the face of powerful evidence that Brexit is economically as well as socially damaging, he still talks of “embracing its opportunities”.

Mr Sunak cannot be unaware of the undercurrent of kneejerk Francophobia that flows through his party from grass roots to parliament. There have been post-Brexit faults on both sides but populist British antagonism towards France defines much of the discontent.

Mr Sunak began his premiership with weakened authority. Dissenting forces blithely overlooked the multiple deficiencies, and cavalier relationship with the truth, that led Mr Johnson to resign in disgrace; they wanted him back because they felt only his undoubted appeal to many voters could save the Tories from humiliating defeat at the next general election.

It would be fanciful, however, to suggest the new prime minister’s problems have been aggravated by his curious decision to make Suella Braverman, another Tory high flyer of Asian pedigree, his home secretary. Only a week earlier, Ms Braverman admitted procedural irregularities serious enough to warrant resignation from the same role in the dying days of the short-lived Truss government.

Left and liberal opinion sees Ms Braverman as the beneficiary of a “grubby deal” with Mr Sunak, a hypocrite peddling hardline anti-migrant policies even though she is the daughter of Indian parents who emigrated to Britain from Kenya and Mauritius. She also benefitted handsomely from the Erasmus student exchange programme before ardently supporting a rigid Brexit that denied it to others, Erasmus replaced by a cut-price British scheme.

Yet, it is precisely the “tough on immigration“ stance, and unflinching endorsement of Brexit, that endears her to much of the Tory faithful.

Mr Sunak was on trickier ground with his initial defence of another cabinet member, Gavin Williamson, after disturbing allegations emerged of verbal abuse of colleagues. Aspects of this questionable conduct were known to the prime minister before he recalled a man who had twice been dismissed from government in the past. Inevitably, Mr Williamson has now resigned but Mr Sunak’s judgement was called sharply into question by an appointment at odds with the high-minded pledge that his administration would honour “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. He was also accused of making a “screeching U-turn” by belatedly agreeing to attend Cop27 after first saying he was too busy at home.

In truth, tougher challenges lie immediately ahead than the need to soothe relations with France. The decisions Mr Sunak and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt must make to shore up an economy battered by global factors but also Brexit and Ms Truss’s calamitous dash for growth, may deepen the cost of living crisis for millions of households.

Anglo-French rapprochement remains a desirable goal all the same. Far beyond British corridors of power, there will be keen interest in whether the renewed spirit of friendship is genuine, not just the empty product of a conference photo opportunity. A deal on Monday to tackle the Channel migrant crisis, as pressure grows on the UK’s immigration system, raises some hope that it could be the former.

To add to shared strategic interests, close geographical proximity and sheer common sense, there is two-way admiration for each nation’s social, cultural and sporting virtues. Mr Macron reputedly described Mr Johnson as a “clown” and it is possible he saw Ms Truss, if feeling polite, as naive; he is also politically savvy enough to recognise their qualities.

A former French president, Jacques Chirac, likened relations between London and Paris to a “turbulent love affair”. The duty of Mr Macron and Mr Sunak is to show that even volatile co-habitation can work if founded on mutual, enduring respect.

Published: November 14, 2022, 2:00 PM