(Bloomberg Opinion) — The British and the French form “un couple infernal.” The two nations coexist in close geographical proximity and are bound together by a long history of affection and aversion. The aversion part is more widely noticed than the mutual respect. A 1980s TV sketch, featuring the comic Rowan Atkinson, showed him wearing a black beret and striped Maillot top and declaring, “We haven’t forgotten Agincourt or the Eurovision Song Contest.”
The same jokes would land today because a tetchy sense of mutual misunderstanding is vital to the Anglo-French relationship.
And yet, as the delicate dance of the recent Brexit trade talks revealed, the British are in many ways more similar to the French than to their linguistic cousins, the Germans. Even Paris’s harsher Brexit positions mirrored those of London. Both governments insisted on numerous red lines. France denied the U.K. access to European programs such as the Erasmus student-exchange scheme and the Galileo satellite project, while Boris Johnson’s government demanded the end of free movement by European Union citizens. You could tell it mattered more to these two traditional sparring partners than it did to Berlin.
In both countries, the painful loss of empire hasn’t expunged global pretensions. The two nuclear nations have seats on the United Nations Security Council and outsized ideas of what they can do by projecting their commercial might and military heft. This makes them different from their respective American and German allies (the former has genuine power and the latter could have it but doesn’t want it). Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron are seeking to consolidate a relationship at the heart of the EU by strenuously inventing traditions of “l’amité,” but this doesn’t alter the real dynamics.
The big picture, as ever, is dominated by transatlantic power politics and financial clout. France has long thought the British too servile to the American hyperpower, while the British see the French as supplicants to the mighty German economy. Having minor roles doesn’t make the cross-Channel jostling for advantage any less vigorous.
In soft-power terms, France has long won the battle for affection among Britain’s affluent middle class. The latter love French style, cuisine and aspire to houses in the Luberon, not in Baden-Wurttemberg. The French Lycee in London is oversubscribed by Francophone British nationals. The German School is not.
The bilingual French elites (including the arch-“enarque” Macron) are less enamored of the Brits, but they come to London anyway to make money in the City away from the restrictions of home. The restaurants are often better too, though that may be a contentious view. Macron envies London’s financial muscle and wants Paris to supplant it. Despite his halting English, the last French ambassador in London spent as much time wooing British bankers and hedge funds as he did glad-handing Westminster politicians.
The narrative until recently was presumed to be one of fading national rivalry and growing friendship in the bosom of the EU. Now, with the U.K.’s departure, the keyboards of British tabloid journalists rattle to clichés about battles from the distant past. The names of Joan of Arc, Nelson, Napoleon, Churchill and De Gaulle are typed in fiery letters.
It seemed no coincidence that in the final few days before Christmas — as the Brexit trade treaty worth billions to both sides seemed to founder because of a dispute over a few shoals of fish — Macron launched a mini-blockade of Britain. The French refused to let truck drivers transport their goods across the Channel, on the pretext that a new highly infectious strain of Covid-19, rampant in Britain, had to be kept at bay. Other countries merely banned air travel to U.K. airports.
Yet out of this ritual combat both sides emerged as winners from the 11th-hour Christmas Eve trade deal. The French president, with an election to fight against right-wing nationalists such as Marine Le Pen (who raised a Union Jack in her backyard to salute the British referendum result), had shown his fishing workers what lengths he would go to protect their interests. Johnson scaled down his demands for a larger fish quota.
The British got something too, including tariff- and quota-free access for U.K. goods. Johnson’s earlier request to talk directly to Macron and Merkel to break the trade-deal deadlock had been turned down as an affront to EU solidarity. But the prime minister did get a chat with the French president about lifting the Covid blockade on Dover. It’s just possible that the conversation strayed from coronavirus tests to cod and mackerel. History will say for sure. In any case, the spectacle of the prime minister in a scrap with the French cheered his hardline euroskeptic members of Parliament.
Macron definitely has a spring in his step these days as France’s international position waxes. Fifteen years ago, when Tony Blair was still prime minister, the British were best friends with the Americans, Germany was coming round to London’s pragmatic market-based approach to Europe, and French voters — to the horror of the country’s political establishment — had rejected the European Constitution.
Today London can no longer vie with Paris for influence at the heart of Europe and Joe Biden isn’t likely to be a bosom buddy of Johnson. French ideas for taxes on the tech giants, common EU debt issuance and “strategic autonomy” in defense are gaining acceptance among the Germans. Merkel’s successor, to be chosen this year, may be even more attuned to Macron’s song of European integration.
In his traditional New Year’s address, Macron — buoyed by a 10-point rise in the opinion polls — criticized the “lies and false promises” that brought about Brexit. More generously, in acknowledgement of historic Anglo-French defense cooperation, he added that the “U.K. remains our neighbor but also our friend and ally.”
Game, set and match to the French over “les rosbifs”? There lingers one dark cloud in Macron’s otherwise sunny sky. What if the cunning British somehow contrive to make Brexit a success, proving more nimble outside the EU’s ponderous regulatory regime? The comparative performance on vaccine administration between London and Paris hints at what might be possible. The Centre for Economics and Business Research, admittedly London based, has forecast Britain’s gross domestic product will be 25% higher than that of France by 2035.
Economic forecasts come and go, but competition — and cooperation — between these two ancient nations will never end. Vive la difference.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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