The writer is special adviser to the Institut Montaigne and a visiting research professor at King’s College London
In the Suez crisis of October 1956, France and the UK were punished like misbehaving adolescents by the US and the Soviet Union, the superpowers of that era. The Franco-British attempt to reset the imperial clock in the Middle East was at once futile and anachronistic.
Sixty-five years later the UK and France are at it again, but this time lashing out at each other in a no less childish game of blackmail, deceit and retribution. Should London and Paris really apply the kind of pressure against each other that one would expect from Moscow and Beijing? Have we lost our common sense and the ability to prioritise the larger challenges that face us both?
To borrow language used during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, it is high time to “de-escalate”. As the world confronts the prospect of a new cold war between China and the US, Paris and London need each other more than ever. But neither seems aware of the irresponsible nature of the skirmishes in which they are indulging.
These squabbles range from irregular migration across the Channel to fisheries, from the British effort to rewrite the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland to the secretly planned Aukus pact between Australia, the UK and the US that so offended the French. Each side appears more determined to feed a growing appetite for confrontation than search for compromise.
The international context makes plain the immaturity of London and Paris. Chinese pressure on Taiwan intensifies by the day. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia blackmails Europe on energy. Yet the British and French are engaging in a war of words, if not of deeds, that seems to duplicate the tensions between western democracies and their despotic rivals to the east.
To put it bluntly, France ought not to threaten to deprive the Channel island of Jersey of electricity when Putin does the same with gas towards the entire European continent. For its part, the UK should not be playing populist cards in a blatant and offensive manner that leaves Paris with little choice but to reply in kind.
How can London and Paris not be ashamed of the ridiculous and totally irresponsible deterioration of their bilateral relationship? When the building is on fire, differences among the tenants are less important than the urgency of addressing the broader causes of the conflagration. France and the UK still describe each other as cousins and neighbours. What has happened to common sense, rationality and pragmatism on both sides of the Channel?
And why now, precisely when geopolitics demands a stronger sense of unity and solidarity between nations that share common democratic values? Doubtless it is an unfortunate coincidence that the UK happens to be governed by Boris Johnson, a provocative and confrontational prime minister, just when France is preparing to hold presidential elections in April. It is a case of the wrong man at the wrong time.
Or rather, the wrong men — for President Emmanuel Macron also likes to play with fire, and he too can be unnecessarily provocative and confrontational, as demonstrated recently in his dealings with Algeria. As London escalates its provocations, Macron and his government do not want to be seen as soft by French citizens.
It is so easy in our time of social media, fake news and professional political agitators to resuscitate the worst in the complex bilateral relationship between the two most traditionally arrogant countries of Europe.
Seen from Paris, the British provocations seem all the more out of touch with reality, given that London’s absolute reliance on Washington is viewed as a dangerous wager. Should the British really put all their eggs in the American basket, when the former superpower looks so fragile and so domestically polarised — in short, so untrustworthy?
During the Brexit negotiations, London tried to apply a strategy of “divide and rule” in its dealings with the EU. It failed then. Can it succeed now?
In his recent speech delivered in Portugal — the UK’s oldest ally on the continent — Lord David Frost was at it again, implying that the countries of central Europe were closer to London and Washington than to Paris and Berlin on critical strategic issues. He may have a point there. Macron’s France, in its firm stance towards the UK, may be more isolated in the EU than it was a few years ago.
At the end of the day, however, only Moscow and Beijing will benefit from these “divide and rule”, short-term political tactics. It is therefore urgent for London and Paris to return to sanity in their dealings with each other.