As France prepared to go to the polls in the Spring of 2017, it was already probable that Emmanuel Macron would become president, and that would not be good news for Brexiting Britain. That anybody was shocked that Macron led the autodafé of Theresa May at the European council in Salzburg last week is therefore itself shocking. Most appalling of all is that Mrs May walked straight into it.
After he was elected president of France on the seventh of May last year, aged 39 3/4, Macron proclaimed his role model to be Jupiter, king of the gods. And by Jupiter! With his enormous parliamentary majority, subservient government, crushed opposition, and the hyperactive employment of the presidential jets, he took on not just the root and branch reform of France, but also that of the European Union, proposing deepening fiscal and defence links, with French leadership assumed, while incidentally cosying up to Donald Trump. If not Jupiterian, the vision was at least Napoleonic, especially now that Angela Merkel is left clinging to power by her Fingernägel after electoral misadventures of her own. That his poll standings suggest he is widely distrusted and disliked by French voters seems at this stage of the electoral cycle largely irrelevant.
Macron’s quasi-spiritual faith in the EU is long-embedded. It was nourished at the national administration academy (ENA) and then at Rothschild bank where he was a courtier to David de Rothschild, and then again at the ultra-elite levels of the French administration. He pledged from the very start of his remarkable march to the Elysée to put the EU at the centre of his project, and on Brexit, to protect the sanctity of single market access, or as ultra-liberals might describe it, the single-market protectionism dear to French leaders. His opinion that unrestricted access to the single market be limited to its members was an unveiled threat to Brexiting London, and anybody else with similar ideas. He must have said this to May a dozen times. How could she have been ambushed or even surprised?
Yet it is worthwhile to ask why Macron, who is not stupid, is suddenly so zealous. Indeed rabid. Dispatching thunderbolts, he calls those who advocated Brexit liars. (He is energetic with the thunderbolts, it must be noted, simultaneously threatening the Poles and Hungarians). Oddly, none of his recent pronouncements on Brexit even briefly consider that France’s own economic interests demand a nuanced and cooperative Franco-British relationship, rather than a confrontational one. Whether it is Électricité de France, up to its neck in the British power industry, including Hinkley Point B, or SNCF with its control of Eurostar, or PSA Peugeot Citroen, with its UK assembly lines, and a brilliant English woman at the head of the Citroën division, or Airbus, which depends on the UK for its wings and many engines. This is only the start of a very long list. The British have much to offer France in inward investment and defence cooperation, not least in the Sahel. Why this petty connerie, then, from Macron? Curiously, given that the French export more to the UK than the UK to France, and there has been a vast exchange of population, to mutual benefit, all these deep and constructive relationships seem less important to Macron than protecting the ideological purity of the EU by flagellation of those seeking an exit from this nirvana. Or maybe there is more to it.
So why is Macron motivated to take a position that is manifestly self-destructive for his own country? A few weeks ago he was talking about defining a new strategic relationship with the UK. What happened?
When you have eliminated the impossible, the only explanations that seem to fit the facts are, door A, that Macron is a victim of grandiosity, a condition to which inhabitants of the Elysée are especially susceptible. Or, door B, that a different scenario has presented itself, and that he is suddenly terrified. Here is my theory du jour. It is that Jupiter is Existentially Frit that Brexit will be a roaring success. Perhaps he has read Le Brexit va réussir (Brexit is Going to Succeed) by the brilliant Marc Roche, London correspondent for Le Monde for 25 years, who believes the perfidious Brexiteers will have the last and loudest laugh, mocking Europe, the bright lights beckoning, a stone raft turned to gold, like Singapore or Hong Kong. There is in theory a door C: that Macron has been convinced the British can be forced into a second referendum. But this has to be unlikely. The prime minister of Malta thinks this. Macron is smarter. It is not at all clear he really wants us in the EU at all. One of his heroes is De Gaulle.
Then there is Mrs May. The speech of her life but too late, alas. Why didn’t she say this months ago? She has belatedly realised that the respect she has shown to Juncker and Barnier and Tusk and the swarm of Brussels bullies and mediocrities that surround them has been a complete waste of her dignity and effort. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this woman, but not too much, because her weakness and prevarication has led us where we are.
The job now is to start showing Mr Macron and his cronies in the European Council that two can play hardball. Perhaps Downing Street needs to review the Hinkley Point 2 nuclear deal that has stopped EdF sliding into insolvency. That would threaten the French state, which owns most of it, with a tidy financial crisis of its own. Is that what Macron wants? Perhaps our transport minister might let slip that Air France and KLM might have difficulties transiting UK airspace after Brexit Day. Look at the flight radar apps to see what that means for their services to America. Is May finally up to this?
There is no telling where this ends This is all a tragedy in which one party to a negotiation, the European Commission, instead of working for a solution beneficial to all concerned, did the opposite, engaging in ridicule, character assassination and mendacity. Supported, it has to be noted, by many British people. Everything is now unpredictable except to note that once more, the European Union, meant to bring nations together, has succeeded only in driving them apart. Ceux sont les journées des miracles et des merveilles.
Jonathan Miller tweets at @lefoudubaron