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Why France is frustrated – and baffled – by Brexit

2 July 2019

8:20 AM

2 July 2019

8:20 AM

Silence has befallen French pronouncements on Brexit. Le Monde’s vitriolic editorial (12 June 2019) on Boris Johnson apart, the scene is remarkably calm. But this isn’t good news. In fact, such silence is often a sign of French anxiety and a presage to trouble, particularly when Britain is concerned.

As rationalists, the French are frequently frustrated by the ‘wait and see’ of the empirical British. ‘What is not clear is not French’, said the 18th century French philosopher Antoine de Rivarol. At the height of the 1914 July Crisis, when France desperately sought a British government commitment to side with Paris in the event of war with Germany, the phlegmatic Sir Edward Grey politely reminded the French ambassador that cabinet divisions meant that Parliament would decide in good time on the facts. Eventually, long-term frustration got the better of diplomatic poise and the French ambassador enquired acidly of the editor of the Times whether the word ‘honour’ should be struck from the English dictionary.

A storm is, once again, brewing within France. This time over Brexit. Confusion and waiting irks France more than other nation. Almost certainly, this frustration will out itself over some issue before the new Brexit deadline of 31st October.

This animosity is heightened by the deep-seated and secular rivalry between the two states on everything from military prowess to universities and sport. President Macron is biting his lip, all the more so as even he has begun to understand how his public pronouncements on other nations – not to mention his own citizens – have backfired.

French media, politicians and the man-in-the-street are lost for words as to why, since the referendum, the British economy continues to defy the Cassandras and – more to the point – why it outperforms France’s in terms of unemployment, public debt, budget deficit, inward investment and growth. The French are incredulous as to why the deep political crisis over Brexit has not spilled into the street, as it has so violently in France. And why have opinion polls shown minimal variation since the referendum?

Many in France are even more perplexed as to how flippantly and self-mockingly the British public have nonchalantly shrugged off their politicians’ inadequacies. In a political system where ‘seriousness in politics’ could be a compulsory foundation course at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, they are baffled by the emergence in a time of crisis of Boris Johnson as political leader, a politician without equivalence in modern French democratic government. There is nothing more frustrating to the French than when rationalism does not apply.

So when might this frustration burst out? The likely date will be 23rd July. On that day, Boris Johnson will almost certainly be selected as the next Conservative leader and prime minister. Certain sections of French society will be incandescent. Le Monde’s apoplectic editorial “Boris Johnson at the head of the United Kingdom? No thanks!”, peppered with a hyperbole guaranteed to have its founding father Hubert Beuve-Méry turning in his grave, is a mere apéritif.

President Macron will have difficulty containing himself. This ‘populist’ victory will be presented as a British betrayal of the values that France and Britain have sought to uphold since the 19th century in Europe and beyond. It will be an opportunity for Macron to seek the leverage hitherto denied him to become the lead statesman in fighting the ‘populist’ tide, reforming the EU and dictating terms to Britain. Donning General de Gaulle’s mantle it will be a Macronistic version of the 1963 and 1967 ‘non’. Or so one version of the script might tell.

But can Macron seriously risk a major deterioration in Franco-British relations? Economically, it could be an act of self-harm. According to an October 2018 report by French-based credit insurer Euler Hermes, France stood to forfeit £2.69bn (€3bn) of exports in 2019 in the event of post-Brexit disruption, the third worst affected EU nation after Germany and Holland. At stake is France’s largest trade surplus in goods with any single country, Britain, which in 2017 stood at £8.29bn (€9.27bn) and £10.2bn (€11.4bn) in 2018, according to French customs statistics. report from the leading German Halle Institute for Economic Research released in February said a no-deal Brexit could lead to 50,000 French job losses. That will make Macron’s key electoral pledge – to bring unemployment down to seven per cent by 2022 – all but impossible given its stasis at nearly nine per cent since he came to power over two years ago.

Diplomatically it could estrange France from some of the more traditionally pro-British states in the EU, such as the Scandinavians, the Dutch and even Germany. Many of the Visegrad states of eastern Europe – not to mention Italy, with whom relations with France are extremely poor already – would probably coalesce against Macron. It could make things difficult for France internationally in the UN, where Britain and France traditionally work hand-in-hand as permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In defence and security, France and Britain cooperate closely around the globe on joint missions, planning and executing these in a way that France cannot do with Germany. Certain integrated Franco-British defence industries such as missiles or drones also inevitably require close co-operation. And Britain’s membership of the ‘five eyes’ network provides France with indirect intelligence from the most sophisticated and all-pervasive intelligence bloc in the international system. Without it, much of France’s military capability would be restricted. And then there is Donald Trump who, with his suspicion of the EU and Macron, could seek to punish France as reprisal for her so doing to Britain.

French frustration at Britain’s lackadaisical manner in dealing with one of its most important decisions since the Second World War may be ready to burst. But should Macron overplay his hand – as he is wont to do – he could put France at a competitive disadvantage in the long-running competition with her oldest rival. We may get an inkling in August in Biarritz when Macron hosts Boris at the G7 summit. Bromance will not be in the air, nor the subject matter restricted to bonhomie around their respective English grandfather and French grandmother.

Professor John Keiger is a former research director in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge


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