C.S. Forester, creator of Hornblower, a great student of Anglo-French relations, wrote a now often overlooked exhortative novel titled Death to the French. Contemporary readers might consider it triggering if not racist, yet it captures well a traditional British reaction when angry Frenchmen start throwing missiles at us.
Here in the south of France we are some distance from the troubled waters of the Guerre de Coquilles Saint Jacques. On the shores of the Mediterranean, oysters are favoured and war fever muted, although nobody at Chez Trini’s café doubts that the perfidious English are up to their usual conneries. I tend to agree, but then I’m applying for an Irish passport (thanks to my Belfast-born grandmother). Hedging my bets, I am no longer 100 per cent committed to batting for Britain, especially not over a scallop.
Irrespective of my own views of the rights and wrongs in the Bay of the Seine, and honestly unfamiliar with the details, I’m betting on the French to come off best in this skirmish. I’ve travelled on the Norman coast and would note that the forefathers of these guys were pirates and privateers, hard men, terrorising the western approaches and retreating under the massive fortifications of Saint-Mâlo to share out their loot.
Also, as far as prospects for this war go, and regrettably for the Admiral Blimps demanding a robust riposte, the British boats will probably be prevented from returning and confronting the French, for perfectly reasonable and proportional reasons of health and safety. Finally, practically, this may not be the moment that the British government can assemble much of a fleet to defend its scallop men. I see no ships, as someone once said. Besides, there are other fish to fry.
This year there is less of a rentrée politique than usual in France because nobody in the hyperactive inner circle of Emmanuel Macron has actually stopped plotting, and nobody else’s political manoeuvring really matters. Notions that Macron is weakened are delusional. He still holds all the aces. While shrugging off the bizarre bodyguard scandal, entertaining Mr and Mrs May on the Côte d’Azur, dropping in on the Finns, ignoring his weakening polls and jettisoning his telegenic environment minister, Macron and his ministers have spent the summer preparing an ambitious multi-pronged economic and social reform agenda, and mostly keeping a lid on a tricky internal security problem. Elsewhere in Europe, populism may be on the rise, scary refugees are debarking in Spain, political allies have been toppled or weakened, but Macron sails on. Oh, and stop press, Donald Trump is coming, to celebrate 100 years since the end of the First World War. So, another superbowl of superegos looms.
As if this were not enough, there are now just 200 days to Brexit. Generously, this Brexit thingie, which I was always both for and against, is looking like a potential train wreck, which is unlikely to benefit anyone. What is really going on? Nobody knows anything. So how will Macron solve this? This will challenge even someone who self-identifies as Jupiter.
Macron is characteristically gnomic on specifics but has now firmly, although belatedly, inserted himself into the Brexit end game. His intervention was apparently banal, but inadvertently revealing. Macron said the time has come to define a post-Brexit “strategic relationship.” This insight is astonishing because it implies that the entire EU Brexit negotiation has, to this point, been an utter waste of time, bogged down in intransigent detail, divorced from any strategic objective at all. May has at least suggested there be a constructive and close partnership. The negotiators in Brussels just say no to everything.
Given the necessity for some kind of adult supervision in Brussels, and the incapacity of Angela Merkel to impose, the ball has fallen to Macron. He has won all the glittering prizes in his career but this looks like the toughest exam so far. If it is impossible to predict Macron’s solution, if he has indeed yet thought of one, this curious man seems suddenly to hold the fate of the UK in his hands. Will he be horrid to us? Is he especially cold to Britain, or just to everyone? Is Europe his primary concern, or France? (Britain is surely not.)
Magnanimity is not one of Jupiter’s traits nor Macron’s. Since entering politics, he has said or done little to indicate he is our friend. He repeatedly frames the Anglo-French relationship in terms more competitive than cooperative. He has said nothing as the lunatics in Brussels have paraded their petty threats, even those that are obviously self-harming, such as denying UK access to European terrorism data bases.
His near autism and lack of empathy I have noticed before in his failure to connect with ordinary French people. So maybe I am wrong that he is deliberately haughty when he shows rather too little respect and gratitude to the UK. I am not talking about the war, but of the UK’s generous welcome to French investors, banks, service and transport companies, chefs, cars, cheese, wine and not least to EDF which might otherwise be bust, were it not for the sweetheart Hinkley Point nuclear deal.
Macron does speak and read English, so is not entirely isolated within the francophone bubble, and he gets (say it doucement) that France needs a bit more Anglo-Saxon liberalism to create the wealth it needs to pay for its 5.8 million civil servants. But his attitude to Britain reads as practically Gaullist. This seems oddly self-defeating. The British are awfully clever in business and creating jobs. Couldn’t France use a bit of this?
Macron is also possessed of a mischievous streak, if not a bullying one, hence his deal with May to lend Britain the Bayeux Tapestry, just in case we forget who won that round. She should have countered with the offer to lend them the HMS Victory. We could have shipped it over on one of the aircraft carriers, since there is plenty of deck space where there are no aircraft.
Last week, to tamp down rumours of some sort of Brexit softening by Macron, the Elysée put out a dry statement, repeating that Britain’s sovereign choice must be respected, but “not at the expense of the European Union’s integrity.” There’s plenty of scope in there for not much at all. Macron is smart and lucky but he is not a magician. Does Macron really imagine that even with his admittedly formidable brilliance, he can resolve the conflicts of Brexit, put the British in their place, glorify France and protect his ideal of a European Union? Macron as deus ex machina? He really thinks this?
The three-dimensional Brexit conflicts make for a toxic macédoine and no deal of any sort is going to resolve all of them, in the Bay of the Seine or anywhere else. Meanwhile, a union that is supposed to be bringing people together is driving them apart.
I can offer no prediction of what Macron might pull out of his bicorne hat although the talk of concentric circles and variable geometry suggests a rich serving of fudge is likely. But with Macron attempting to direct the recipe, and Merkel preoccupied elsewhere, can Jupiter save Europe with a thunderbolt? Or is it too late?
Jonathan Miller tweets at @lefoudubaron