A decade ago, French-bashing was all the rage. David Cameron famously declared Britain would ‘roll out the red carpet’ for those fleeing the steep tax hikes proposed by the newly elected Socialist president François Hollande. The French economy continued to be a source of derision for the British, culminating in the managing director of John Lewis describing it as ‘sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat’ in October 2014. The following month, Hollande despatched his 37-year-old English-speaking economy minister to London with instructions to prove to the British that the French economy was in good health. That minister was Emmanuel Macron. ‘Whether we like it or not, the Anglo-Saxon press are the opinion-formers in Europe,’ he told the travelling French press corps. ‘So if these opinion-formers continue to say that France isn’t reforming, then that is how we will be perceived.’
Macron has never liked the influence and impertinence of the British press, which partly explains why he doesn’t ‘get’ Boris Johnson, who was once one of those ‘opinion-formers’. Macron is more comfortable in the company of the technocracy, those grey men and women that western European nations produce so well, graduates of institutions such as the École nationale d’administration in Strasbourg, the alma mater of Macron, French Prime Minister Jean Castex and Macron’s Europe minister Clément Beaune.
Johnson, on the other hand, knows how to rile technocrats. He spent five years as a journalist in Brussels, filing articles about how the European Union was getting in a muddle about ‘new specifications for condom dimensions’. These were the opinions that helped form the majority British view about the need to leave the EU.
France and Britain’s increasingly acrimonious dispute over fishing rights can be understood in this context. The reality is that although Johnson and Macron don’t ‘get’ each other, they both see the fishing spat in similar terms — as a political opportunity.
Johnson is aware that exchanges of insults or threats with Macron will play well at home, especially to the tabloids, his trusty allies in any dispute with the French. (‘It’s Boris the gladiator!’ declared the front page of the Express this week — is it, though?) The fishing spat is a trade war to his liking. It helps that Macron, by his own choosing, embodies the bloody-minded intransigence of the EU. There are many English Francophiles who are embarrassed or appalled by how the PM deals with Macron (‘Donnez-moi un break!’), yet Boris knows that backing down to the French over fish would also be yielding ground to Brussels, and that would not go down well with the ‘red wall’.
Macron is keen to show he can replace Angela Merkel as the de facto leader of Europe and would have the world believe that the French government is acting in the interest of the EU. As Castex said last week, Europeans need to see that leaving the EU ‘is more damaging than remaining in it’. If that means seizing British trawlers in the Channel then so be it. Recently Macron also claimed in an interview that Britain’s international ‘credibility’ was at risk because in his opinion Johnson was reneging on the terms of the Brexit trade deal.
The stakes are high for Macron, six months before the presidential election. In recent weeks two challengers have emerged, both of whom pose a similar threat. The pitch of Éric Zemmour, the right-wing polemicist, is that only he can restore France’s grandeur, as well as its borders. His bestselling book appeals to voters who long for a time when their country was an international force.
While Zemmour has dominated the headlines with his diatribes against Islam, immigration and American progressives, Michel Barnier (the EU’s Brexit negotiator) has quietly risen in the approval ratings of centre-right voters. Barnier will benefit from Zemmour’s rabble-rousing, able to portray himself as a more temperate and experienced candidate who nonetheless also wants to restore much of France’s sovereignty. A poll last month revealed that for conservative voters Barnier was judged the most able candidate to represent France abroad.
Both Zemmour and Barnier supporters regard Macron as in thrall to the EU. Macron’s success in next year’s election depends on whether he can convince voters that French national interests are compatible with those of the EU. Many on the right fear they are not, and they were dismayed this summer when the European Court of Justice ruled that France’s 35-hour working week applied to its military. ‘Unity of Europe must not be achieved through uniformity,’ said Barnier.
Has Macron forgotten that in 2005 the French people voted in a referendum against the EU constitution? Opposition to Brussels has not diminished since then; Macron said so himself in a BBC interview three years ago when he admitted that, if given the choice, France would probably also vote to leave the EU.
Macron therefore has more to lose than Johnson in a fish fight. Brit-bashing, especially as punishment for daring to leave the EU, might not be the right strategy. The French people in general don’t share Macron’s Anglophobia. Many of those who are Europhiles respect Britain’s decision to leave the EU even if they think it ill advised. France’s millions of Europhobes admire the choice, and while naturally they will take their fishermen’s side, they nonetheless understand that British trawlermen are ‘taking back control’, just as France’s winemakers did in 2016 and 2017 when they ambushed Spanish lorries bringing wine across the border, emptying their contents on to the road.
It might also be galling for Macron that Johnson is surprisingly popular in France. A poll in the summer found that 51 per cent of French voters had a favourable opinion of the PM — ten points more than Macron’s approval rating among his people. That won’t have gone down well in the Elysée.
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