In the excitement/misery of leaving the EU at the end of January many overlooked a touching note written by President Emmanuel Macron to the British people. It was a ‘love letter’ of sorts, a mixture of déclaration d’amour and regretful confession, which bore all the hallmarks of a note from the jilted to the jilter, warm in parts but suffused with a peevish undertone.
After three and a half years of condescension, lecturing and veiled threats, Britons are unused to being the object of courtly love. But Macron’s billet doux is about much more than Brexit. Brexit is the catalyst for a deeper concern that Britain is embarking on a global strategy that could see her loosen her commitment to Europe as in the past.
Macron knows his history and his geopolitics. For all his pro-European sentiment, the French President realises that a common European foreign and security policy will not see the light of day during his presidency, even if he wins a second term. Which means a vulnerable France invariably will need to seek a British military and security peace-time alliance to protect France's vital interests and project her power.
That is why his pledge earlier this month to put French nuclear weapons at the service of the EU – which has no defence policy – is mere window-dressing for his bid to lead European reform. With Nato in his words ‘brain-dead’ and Germany militarily impotent, his only serious security and diplomatic hope is Britain. As Macron reminded the French War College last week, France and Britain, Europe’s only nuclear powers, have clearly affirmed that neither state could envisage a situation in which the vital interests of one were threatened without those of the other being threatened as well.
What Macron now wants post-Brexit is a bilateral deal with London on foreign and security policy that builds on the 2010 Lancaster House agreements whose daily cooperation on military nuclear matters is, in Macron’s words, ‘unprecedented’. His love letter says so unequivocally: ‘Ten years on from the Lancaster House Agreement, we must deepen our defence, security and intelligence cooperation’.
So, what could this permanent foreign and security alliance with Britain look like? Clues can be found in a pact formed nine years before Macron’s English great grandfather set foot on French soil in the Great War. After the 1904 Entente Cordiale – a mere political arrangement to settle longstanding Franco-British colonial frictions – British and French political leaders agreed in 1905 to secret military talks between their respective general staffs. It planned in peace-time for Franco-British military collaboration in war. In August 1914 the military pact was operationalised and sealed by a full political alliance in September, which lasted the war’s duration. The 1905 Anglo-French military pact became henceforth, in French eyes, the gold standard for a peace-time alliance.
Following the first world war and for the whole interwar period, France’s primary foreign policy aim was to replicate the 1905 agreements. But Britain wished to return to a more global outlook and constantly rejected French advances. It was only with the outbreak of war again in 1939 that Britain agreed to a military alliance with France. After the second world war, France again sought a peace-time Franco-British military alliance. This was partly obtained with the 1947 Dunkirk and 1948 Brussels treaties with France's security eventually being guaranteed from 1949 by Nato. But Paris remained sensitive to Britain slipping away towards the wider world and succumbing in particular to the Transatlantic pull. When in 1956 Britain humiliatingly abandoned the joint Franco-British Suez expedition under American pressure, France finally decided to risk throwing in her lot with European integration. By 1961 Britain was herself knocking at Europe’s door, and so France’s fear of Britain forsaking ‘the continent for the open sea’ was soothed.
Throughout the 20th century the other French fear that dared not speak its name was Germany. It still bubbles under the surface. As French President Georges Pompidou warned in 1973 when German Ostpolitik appeared to premise German reunification on conditions inimical to France: ‘The Germans must act tactfully, for one does not have to scratch too far for the French once more to uncover an old aversion.’ But that fear, in the medium term, is no longer military. The French-led European project has done what it set out to do and sapped German military power and sovereignty. Yet it has been too successful, for in the process Germany has become a military eunuch. Germany cannot and will not assist France militarily abroad, much to Paris’s frustration, most recently in Africa. Only Britain offers that potential.
And so to Macron’s love letter and its references to historic Franco-British solidarity:
“‘Dear British friends, you are leaving the European Union but you are not leaving Europe. Nor are you becoming detached from France or the friendship of its people. The Channel has never managed to separate our destinies; Brexit will not do so, either.’
In June Macron will be in London for the 80th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s 18 June Appeal to the French people to resist Vichy France, and the French President will award London the Legion of Honour in thanks. In November he will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Lancaster House agreements. Macron’s love letter is only the beginning of the charm offensive to resurrect the peace-time military alliance that has so long evaded France’s political leaders.
Prof John Keiger is former Research Director at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, and a specialist in French foreign policy. An earlier version of this article appeared on Politeia.