April 22, 2022 - 7:00am

Le Canard Enchaîné, France’s famous satirical and current affairs news magazine, reports that Boris Johnson’s trip to Kiev ruffled a few feathers in the Elysée palace in Paris. According to the Canard, Emmanuel Macron saw Johnson’s capacity to capture the limelight as “irritating,” despite Johnson “having not done much in Ukraine.” For Macron, “Johnson is doing Johnson populism!”

The French president had personal reasons to be frustrated at Johnson’s surprise trip — which saw the British prime minister warmly welcomed by Ukrainian officials and civilians — as he was himself on the verge of a similar diplomatic visit to Kiev. With Johnson taking the wind out of his sails, Macron, currently President of the Council of the European Union, called off the trip which would likely have paid off domestically in his runoff against Marine Le Pen.

But more generally, Macron’s irritation reflects his inability to gain much political capital over the war in Ukraine. His long-established stance on the need for Europe to become a strategically autonomous actor on its own right could have been an effective pitch, but instead it seems the once-derided “Global Britain” has taken poll position, with its well-publicised delivery of weapons and its firm political support for Ukraine.

While Zelenskyy praised Johnson for his activism and support, even arguing he would “go down in history forever,” relations with Macron have been cooler. When asked whether Russia had organised a “genocide” in Ukraine, Johnson commented that the killings in Bucha “don’t look far short of a genocide”. The French president, meanwhile, shied away from using the term, arguing that “the word has a meaning that needs to be characterised legally, not by politicians.”

The Ukrainian President described Macron’s comments as “very painful,” and had previously argued that France, unlike Britain, was not providing Ukraine with sufficient support out of “fear of Russia.” When asked if Johnson had done more than Macron, the Zelenskyy made clear that Johnson was the “leader who is helping more.” But in a rare win for Macron, Zelenskyy also weighed in on the ongoing presidential election, saying that he had built a “tie with Macron that he wouldn’t want to lose”. Still, this was hardly the most emphatic endorsement.

Macron’s image in Ukraine seems similarly tainted. In the weeks that preceded the invasion, he went on ultimately futile long calls and meetings with Vladimir Putin to avoid a military escalation. His unsuccessful diplomatic efforts got him an entry in Ukrainian slang with the verb “Macroner,” which translates into “appearing to be worried by a situation but to do nothing.” Macron’s now infamous late-night meeting pictures in a sweatshirt in an apparent attempt to imitate Zelenskyy’s style were similarly derided.

This is not to say France has stayed on the sidelines. Paris, which traditionally tends to hide its delivery of military equipment, has tried to publicise its own efforts, with the defense ministry even publishing a communiqué listing various equipment they have provided, including weapons systems and ammunition. France can even boast having been the first provider of military equipment to Ukraine between 2014 and 2020. But when it comes to reaping the political benefits of the moment it seems that Johnson has outplayed the French president.

François Valentin is co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast and a Senior Researcher at Onward’s Social Fabric Programme.