In 1919, a 31-year-old Tommy from Bristol, named George Robertson – fresh from fighting alongside French troops on the Somme – married Suzanne Leblond in Abbeville, northern France. In 2017, George Robertson’s great grandson, Emmanuel Macron, became French president. Macron embarked on a policy that, while acknowledging Franco-British friendship, sought to ensure that Britain did not prosper from Brexit. Yet Macron’s stance appears increasingly counter-intuitive. Of all the European leaders, Macron is noted for being the most intransigent in his public utterances on Britain’s Brexit negotiations. He has nailed his pro-European colours to the mast and insisted that, in opting for Brexit, the British people must bear the consequences even if, as he claims, they were lied to by their politicians. However, its Macron’s own people who are likely to be seriously impacted by a hard Brexit.
France stands to forfeit £2.6bn (€3bn) of exports in 2019 in the event of post Brexit disruption, making it the third worst affected EU nation after Germany and Holland, according to a recent report by French-based credit insurer Euler Hermes. Brexit could also affect France’s largest trade surplus in goods with any single country, Britain; in 2017, this stood at £8.13bn (€9.27bn); last year, it was £10bn (€11.4bn), according to French customs statistics. That surplus is important in offsetting France’s £15bn (€17bn) trade deficit with Germany, not to mention its overall balance of trade deficit, which for 2018 stood at £52bn (€59.9bn).
Yet what will happen to France’s surplus in the event of a no-deal Brexit has received little attention publicly from the French government or French media. Macron’s high-profile attempt to woo City financial firms to Paris has been a flop; those that have chosen to set up in Europe have largely avoided France. Meanwhile French government decrees on measures to be taken in the event of Britain exiting the EU without a deal on 29 March offer little in the way of detail on how key exporting sectors will be supported. Understandably there is an attempt to mitigate the impact on ports or airports with the presumed need for additional customs officials after a hard Brexit. The plans also try to address an area that will be affected immediately, whatever the nature of Britain’s exit: fishing. Already French fishermen are up in arms at the prospect of being denied access to Britain's coastal waters, claiming that they will block all sales of British fish to the European continent. The French government has pledged some of the £43m (€50m) from the hard Brexit fund to come to their aid. Yet as vocal and militant as they are, French fishermen are few in number and insignificant in trade terms compared with other sectors that risk a major hit.
According to French foreign ministry figures, in 2017 the sector with the largest surplus with Britain £906m (€1.1 billion) is the wine industry, followed by jewellery £705m (€805 million) and perfumes and cosmetics £663m (€757 million). Wine sales to Britain, other than their scale, will be a particularly thorny issue for president Macron. Unlike jewellery, perfumes and cosmetics it is an industry composed of 87,400 vineyards each employing on average a mere two people (Le Monde 14 Sept 2016), few of whom are wealthy and who are proud of a militant tradition of protest. The international wine trade is also particularly competitive. At present French exporters to Britain are protected from non-EU producers in the new world by the EU’s common customs tariff; if this is removed, French wines will be obliged to pay a British import tariff, making Australian, American, South American wines more competitive in the British market. It is the cheaper French wines that will suffer as a result. To make matters trickier for Macron, 37 per cent of French wine production comes from cooperatives in the Languedoc-Rousillon and Côtes du Rhone regions which have been the most politically militant for over a century. Although some large French wine exporters can of course stockpile in the UK, small producers do not have that luxury. Furthermore, if British wine importers turn increasingly to suppliers outside Europe, it is not only French, but also Spanish and Italian producers, who will be hit. This will leave the European market awash with wine, driving down European prices and putting more producers out of business.
The same danger would threaten France’s agricultural sector. Plunging agrifood export volumes to the UK would make France one of the worst affected EU states, according to a 2017 report for the European Parliament on Brexit. As with wine, French agriculture is made up of many small producers with a formidable tradition of protest; few are admirers of Macron. Similarly threatened – and just as radical – are the independent hauliers and northern French dockers. French industrial exports to the UK might also take a hit, worse than any country except Germany, according to CEPII. Meanwhile the leading German Halle Institute for Economic Research released a report yesterday putting job losses in France from a no-deal Brexit at some 50,000.
Parts of the British economy might suffer too, of course. But in the event of a no-deal Brexit, UK trade will be cushioned, rather than aggravated, by the cheaper pound. A further crucial difference between Britain and France is that key parts of France’s trade with Britain are reliant on small, very vulnerable suppliers with a long history of militancy. This is not what president Macron needs given his dismal poll ratings, the yellow vest protest movement, a fractured society, European elections in May and crucial French local elections ten months later.
With the French economy slowing dramatically, Macron could choose to promote a conciliatory path in the Brexit negotiations that would benefit both his own country and that of his great-grandfather. It's in his – and France's – interests for him to do so.
John Keiger is professor at the University of Cambridge's department of politics and international studies