French President Emmanuel Macron referred to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as “a clown” running “a circus”, according to French media, in an outburst which risked further straining UK-France relations after the deaths of 27 migrants in the English Channel.
He is said to have made the derogatory remarks to a group of advisers during a visit to Croatia last week, hours after the worst tragedy since the current migrant crisis began. Le Canard Enchaîné, a satirical and investigative French weekly newspaper, reported that the president had complained about Mr Johnson’s apparent lack of cohesion on important issues.
“It’s always the same circus,” Mr Macron was reported as saying, suggesting Mr Johnson said one thing in private and another in public.
“It is very sad to see a great country, with which we could do so much, led by a clown. Johnson has the attitude of a knucklehead,” Mr Macron was reported as saying.
France’s leader, who is preparing for an election next April, was also reported to blame Brexit for the souring of the country’s relations with Britain.
Mr Macron is said to have claimed that Mr Johnson regretted the UK’s exit from the EU and was trying to use France as a “scapegoat” for its problems.
“Very quickly, he [Mr Johnson] realised that the situation was catastrophic for the British. There's no petrol in the pumps, there's a whole bunch of stuff missing,” Mr Macron was cited as saying.
“He positions himself as a victim, he makes France a scapegoat, he tries to turn every simplistic situation into a complex problem. We have been in this situation since March. He has done this on the ‘sausage war’, on fishing and on the submarine affair.”
This was in reference to Australia’s AUKUS deal with the UK and the US to develop nuclear-powered boats which saw it tear up an agreement with France to buy diesel-electric submarines.
Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to the UK, told Times Radio that relations between the two countries had “never been as bad since Waterloo”.
Therese Coffey, a member of Mr Johnson’s Cabinet, said she was “disappointed” at the report.
“I’m surprised to hear that,” said the Work and Pensions Secretary when asked about the comments on ITV’s Peston programme. “I’m conscious that we have a shared mission in trying to make sure that the people smuggling gangs are really brought to justice.”
When it was put to her that the development was “troubling”, Ms Coffey added: “As I say, I’m surprised to hear that and disappointed, openly. I’m sure that we can continue to try and work together to tackle this. But the prime minister wrote formally to the president last week and … I hope that we’ll get a formal response back.”
George Freeman, the UK Science Minister, called it “a pretty unhelpful word” adding: “Of course the prime minister isn’t a clown, he’s the elected prime minister of this country with a very big mandate leading this country through the pandemic.”
He said the Conservative government is “looking to work very closely with France” to get to the root cause of illegal migration across the Channel and stamp it out, and wants to have a “sensible conversation” with the French government.
“I’m confident that actually Anglo-French relations are rather better than that quote suggests,” he told Sky News.
Following the deaths of the 27 migrants in the Channel last week, the UK and France have clashed over how to stem the flow of small boats illegally crossing the English Channel.
Mr Johnson tweeted a letter he had written to Mr Macron outlining his five-point plan to tackle the crisis, a move which the French side deemed unacceptable. His vision included joint patrols by British and French officials off the coast of northern France and a returns agreement.
Such a deal with the EU would allow the UK to send people back to the member state from where their journey had originated, such as France or elsewhere, if their asylum claims were rejected after they arrived in Britain.
London pushed for such an agreement during the Brexit talks but Brussels turned the offer down.
France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin had said that French Prime Minister Jean Castex would be writing to Mr Johnson on Tuesday with proposals for a “balanced agreement” between the UK and the EU.