Despite reviving UK-France relations, Sunak and Macron face strong headwinds

Cross-Channel tensions could return, fuelled by competing philosophies on humanitarian issues

French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Friday. AP Photo
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With exaggerated handshakes, beaming smiles and backslapping, Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak heralded a new dawn in Anglo-French relations when they met in Paris last Friday.

The Elysee Palace summit bringing together the French president and UK prime minister was a significant and welcome success. Gone were the frostiness and childish provocations that Mr Sunak’s predecessors often displayed following the 2016 UK referendum to leave the EU.

After those years of petty squabbles in which the UK seemed intent on picking fights with France and France duly reciprocated, it may be premature to suggest – as Mr Sunak did – that the famous entente cordiale of 1904 has been renewed. But here, in the heart of Paris, were two smart former investment bankers keen to show they could do business together.

Amid all the bonhomie and talk of le bromance, it may be churlish to inject a cautionary note that all could be undone by dangers that lie ahead.

The key element of the Paris meeting was a deal on tackling the stubborn problem of small boats carrying unauthorised immigrants from northern France to the shores of southern England. The UK will pay €541 million ($577m) over the next three years to fund hundreds more French law enforcement officers along the Channel coast. The UK will also help with the cost of opening a detention centre in France to handle those hoping to start new lives in a Britain that doesn’t want them.

London, of course, separately has its own plan. A new bill presented by Mr Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman would see migrants who do make the crossing quickly deported and forever barred from obtaining British asylum or nationality. There looms the potential for future discord.

Mr Sunak will not have expected an early sign of the regenerated entente to be enthusiastic acclaim from the French far right. Eric Zemmour, a rabble-rouser whose wild theories of a “great replacement” of Europeans by incoming Muslims makes his fellow presidential contender Marine Le Pen appear almost moderate, congratulated the prime minister for “protecting his people against submersion by migrants”.

Ship BF Hurricane arrives in Dover carrying migrants picked up in the English Channel in October 2022. AFP
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Macron harbours deep-rooted loathing for right-wing extremism. And that is precisely how critics regard the Sunak-Braverman policy

For all his unpopularity with the French left, which resents his transition from serving in Francois Hollande’s socialist government to becoming, in the familiar taunt, a “president for the rich”, Mr Macron harbours deep-rooted loathing for right-wing extremism.

And that is precisely how critics regard the Sunak-Braverman policy. Not the “tough but compassionate” solution they claim, aimed at smashing gangs of traffickers and saving migrants from the risk of drowning in perilous seas, but a squalid attack on vulnerable people. From human rights lawyers, charities and lobby groups to senior church figures, the proposed legislation has been condemned as immoral, unjust and unworkable. The UN Refugee Agency sharply rebuked “an asylum ban extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the UK”.

Just as the bill was receiving this barrage of hostile scrutiny, along to the rescue came the distraction of synthetic outrage at tweeted comments by the sports broadcaster and former footballer Gary Lineker.

In the explosion of controversy that followed his portrayal of the policy as “immeasurably cruel” and presented in language resonant of 1930s Germany, attention was inevitably diverted from the policy itself. The BBC’s decision to suspend Lineker (before revoking the suspension on Monday) not only led to disruption of weekend football coverage but was denounced as either craven surrender to a howling mob or the result – denied by the BBC – of unseemly government pressure.

What needs to be emphasised over and again is the UK government’s own admission that the legislation may well fall foul of international law. If blocked in the courts, as several observers believe is likely, Mr Sunak will then be urged by hard-right colleagues to solve this legal inconvenience by withdrawing Britain from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Mr Sunak insists that is not his intention. Opponents suspect it may be what he does want – an opportunity to use the ECHR as a political ploy to salvage his Conservative party’s dismal electoral standing ahead of a general election due by the beginning of 2025.

None of the main parties of the UK and France are above the temptation to chase right-wing support. For a certain kind of voter, immigrants are a handy scapegoat for whatever ills beset their country.

Mr Sunak’s parliamentary party has grown increasingly more hardline, with old-fashioned one-nation Tories squeezed out or silenced by the shrill polemic of populists. While a handful of Conservatives nobly share reservations about the immigration policy, few modern Tory MPs would fit comfortably into the centrist parliamentary party of Mr Macron.

In a House of Commons discussion of the small boats issue in January, one Conservative backbencher, Jonathan Gullis, responded to disturbing reports of 200 missing unaccompanied migrant children by saying: “Well, they shouldn’t have come here illegally.” The remark is misplaced on the lips of a former teacher. Mr Gullis may be an extreme example of radical Conservative thinking, and it is to the credit of Mr Sunak’s party that there are still members who find his boorish, unsympathetic outlook embarrassing. But plenty do share his sentiments and dearly wish for the UK to distance itself from the ECHR, an institution with lofty origins in defending people’s rights after the Second World War.

In the end, the prime minister may have to choose between restoring respectable conservatism and seeking electoral salvation by appealing to baser human instincts.

For all the friendliness of their current dealings, it is difficult to see Mr Macron or other French political heavyweights seeing departure from the ECHR as anything other than an affront to diplomatic decency. It would also be incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement that brought relative peace to Northern Ireland, compromising another reason for the improved ties.

For now, the two leaders have pressing domestic issues on their minds.

Mr Macron has embarked on a trial of strength with unions vehemently opposed to his cornerstone reform, a plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. He says this is necessary if France is to continue to fund the needs of a population living longer. It may appear to be a mild reform, to be achieved in any case in the gentlest of increments, but it has brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets.

Likewise, Mr Sunak is grappling with a raft of public service pay disputes. Doctors, nurses, ambulance crews, teachers, transport workers and even driving test examiners are among those demanding rises to compensate for the damage to living standards caused by rocketing inflation and years of real-term wage stagnation.

But however slowly, cross-Channel tensions could return, fuelled not by wounded pride after France’s crushing rugby defeat of England at Twickenham but by competing philosophies on humanitarian issues.

Of the two, Mr Sunak probably has more to do if he genuinely hopes the embryonic rapprochement of today can grow into a lasting feature of his political legacy.

Published: March 13, 2023, 2:00 PM