Now that Boris Johnson is back to what he does best — writing and being usefully jovial in countries where he can’t run for PM — the Franco-British relationship is back on an even keel. Mutual respect has been restored between Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak, the two 40-something technocrats in charge of our respective countries, those well-schooled, well-dressed former investment bankers, battling strikes, inflation, an economic slump, quiet and not-so-quiet quitting, social inequalities, and a dangerous international situation…
Just kidding. What we French are mostly up to these days — when we’ve managed to jam ourselves onto a Métro train that’s neither on strike nor been literally de-platformed by the hapless Paris Region President Valérie Pécresse’s recent cuts (or a bus replacing those provincial lines SNCF finds too expensive to run) — is bask in unholy glee over Bregret. “C’est la Gueule de bois!” (It’s the worst hangover!), the headlines popped after the latest UnHerd polling showed that more than half of Britons felt Brexit was a mistake. “L’Anniversaire morose” (Gloomy Brexitversary), they went; “Étrange Bregret” (That strange regret); “Après le Brexit, le Bregret” (After Brexit, Bregret — an elegant riff on the Comtesse de Ségur classic books). On and on and on.
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For the past seven years, I have been trying not so much to defend the Brexit vote, which I’ve always thought is a bit of an own goal, as to explain the issues of sovereignty involved. This has always gone down like un ballon en plomb here: after something like 50 of those debates, I am still considered a rabid Brexiteer, because Brexit, obviously, is such a mad decision in French eyes that even trying to explain it means you’ve gulped down the Kool Aid and begged for seconds.
Our own ambassador during the Brexit campaign, Sylvie Bermann, wrote a rather undiplomatic book about it called “Goodbye Britannia”, which was amusingly translated into English as “Au Revoir Britannia”. What her book mostly showed was that even when she invited the likes of Boris and the Spectator staff to Embassy dos, it was mostly as entertainment: her heart was firmly in N1 Remainer territory, the only ones quoted as “reliable sources”.
The National Assembly held dozens of committee meetings over Brexit, all coming to the same pre-ordained conclusion. The French Upper House, Le Sénat, sent half a dozen official missions to the strange land of the Britons, tasked to understand La Catastrophe du Brexit: their invariable, self-reinforcing verdicts over the years were variations on the “Tous Perdants” (Everyone’s a loser) theme. To give an idea of the method favoured by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Senator Jean Bizet for his 111-page 2019 report, the first subheading of which was “Un bilan perdant-perdant” (A Lose-Lose Balance Sheet), the only British stakeholder he and his small group managed to interview during their fact-finding trip to London was Remainer activist Gina Miller. She is quoted at length in four different places of the final document. (“She is so sympathique, and it was very difficult to get to meet the others”, Bizet told me in the green room of the parliamentary channel talk show where we discussed his report.)
Is this payback for decades of “Up Yours, Delors” and sundry other French-bashing British tabloid headlines over the years? Well, partly. But we’ve always been less conscious of Britain than you’ve been of France. Part of this is geography (ours is usually the country you first cross when venturing abroad), part of it is our universaliste doctrine as well as centuries of soft power when all of Europe wrote its correspondence and waged its diplomacy en Français. (Hence our fury when small dollops of English learned in our better schools are introduced into the public discourse. This has been one of Emmanuel Macron’s blunders: his fluent technocratese includes a lot of not-always-relevant English words that mostly underline his firm place on the bourgeois side of the class divide.)
There’s a lot of bad history between our two countries, which we enjoy bringing up at awkward moments. There’s also, genuinely, a canyon-deep gap when it comes to our respective notions of what sovereignty means. To us French, it refers to a barely veiled domination of French views, culture and influence far beyond our actual borders. There are French fingerprints all over the creation of the UN in 1945 (and before that the League of Nations in 1920); over the Bretton Woods System; the GATT and the WTO; and of course the Common Market. The official language of the international Postal Service is French. We have our own Commonwealth of sorts, l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, with 88 full or associate member-states: any country with a significant number of French speakers is eligible, and many of them, not always the same one, account for French-supporting votes at the UN. We fork out €11 billion for culture out of the French Budget (where the UK spends about €700 million). A great deal of this has international political outreach.
We call this le rayonnement de la France, a phrase better translated into German (Ausstrahlung). It implies that French ideas radiate their beneficent influence over the rest of the world — or at least congenial parts of it, such as the EU — like the sun (or possibly a made-in-France nuclear device). This links the Sun King, Louis XIV, whose magnificence led to emulative budgetary sinkholes from Potsdam to Petersburg and Caserta to Schönbrunn; to Napoleon, who gave the Code Civil to grateful places as far apart as Louisiana, Nuremberg and Phnom Penh; to Charles de Gaulle’s heroic 1940 stance, and deeply annoying Sixties non-aligned posturing. To this day, being deemed of having somehow contribué au rayonnement de la France will get you a Légion d’Honneur, Officer class.
This also explains how Macron got away with all the EU flag-waving of his two victorious presidential campaigns. Heavily implied was “more leverage for France”, not “let’s be Europeans first and French second”. Whenever EU member states start pushing policies that Paris disapproves of, down comes the birch switch over their knuckles, sharply. In 2003, Jacques Chirac called Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria “infantile” and “reckless” because they had dared to co-sign a letter in support of George W. Bush’s Iraq war. “As new members of a club, they’ve lost a good occasion to shut up.” Last September, reports that Poland was placing a $14 billion order for planes, tanks and cannons from South Korea, not France, led to a flurry of recriminations. Worse, the Poles, like the Germans, buy American! “La Pologne se passe de la France!” the moan-a-thon went.
That is why Brexit has felt so personal to the French. Having finally been admitted into the European Communities (EC) in 1973, after years of Le Général’s veto, you ought to have been humbly grateful for our generous gift. In fact, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or thereabouts, you seemed to be. Italy was a cheerful shambles. Germany was rich and barely squeaked in dissent about anything. We liked having you around, except when Margaret Thatcher, an early pro-EC campaigner, started handbagging Chirac over the British Rebate. (François Mitterrand, the “cohabitation” president at the time, who’d been at the receiving end of many of Chirac’s political volleys, was delighted. He said of Thatcher that she had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”. Coming from him, it was a great compliment. During the Falklands War, he had quietly sent her the schematics of the Exocet missiles France had sold to Argentina, after all.)
So how dare you want to leave and destroy the self-image we’d constructed for Europe as, well, a largely French-inspired paradise? We saw this as a personal insult. We felt we were being jilted for aventurisme, lies, and deeply suspect financial practices.
I happened to be in Brussels on the day of David Cameron’s fateful February 2016 visit, in which, depending on who tells the story, he never managed to get further concessions amending the Lisbon Treaty to prevent Brexit from European council president Donald Tusk (the British version), or “He got absolutely everything! It was highway robbery! And still the bloody Brits wanted more!”, which was the version several incandescent German and French bureaucrats told me moments after Cameron had boarded his flight back to RAF Northolt. The relationship never improved with time, with EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s office leaking at every stage how dissatisfied they were with the unpreparedness of the British negotiating party. It was obvious that the dispute was bitter, and touched on something quasi-religious.
And so the latest polls have, in one word, delighted the French. Try to recall the bitterest Remainer arguments: the “lies”, the “fake figures” on the flank of That Bus; Boris at his most shambolic; every fishing skiff in the Channel Island being threatened, in a kind of reverse Dunkirk operation, by flotillas of French marins-pêcheurs; the long and disheartening queues at Border Control in airports and Eurostar stations; the ridiculous postal delays and customs levies on mail between France and Britain. None of these are bugs; they’re all features in the Sacred Mission to make the British miserable over Brexit. (Macron’s previous PM Jean Castex said as much in an open letter to Ursula von der Leyen in October 2021: “It must be made obvious that it is more painful to leave the EU than to remain within it,” he concluded.)
Would France one day make a British return to Brussels easy? I fear our attitude is of that of a more inflexible religious order. Sinners must experience purgatory. It wouldn’t be fun, and it’s the best you can expect from us.