If Emmanuel Macron is intending to extract a pound of flesh from the United Kingdom as the price of Brexit, that’s certainly not the optic he projected today. On his visit to London, he deployed the French air force to fly over the capital in formation with the RAF in a display of entente cordiale that will have come as a welcome respite to the besieged inhabitant of Downing Street.
Macron and Boris Johnson have seemed thick as thieves for months and they both beamed broadly as the president arrived at Downing Street this afternoon. But the dynamics have changed for both of them since the plague descended. If political misery loves company, then the two are more than ever made for each other. Macron and Johnson are both widely believed to have fumbled the corona crisis. Polls for both have descended into the danger zone. It’s at such a time that tested political balm must be applied. Put out more flags.
Macron began his day in the sombre setting of Mont-Valérian outside Paris, the memorial to the partisans executed by the Germans during the war. It was an archetypal French affair with much parading and typically French shots of the president adopting his most austere and unsmiling mien.
But then the scene moved to London, where it all quickly became rather jolly. The president was welcomed by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, at the mercifully not-yet-desecrated statue of General de Gaulle. At the ceremony, Macron awarded the Legion of Honour to London, on the 80th anniversary of de Gaulle’s famously uplifting BBC broadcast declaring that while France had lost a battle, it had not lost the war.
Charles was especially impressive, indeed rather convincing as surrogate head of state, during his mother’s confinement in Windsor. Where one suspects she was watching Ascot, on television. Charles delivered his speech largely in excellent French, recalling his grandfather’s welcome of de Gaulle and tactfully declining to recall that today is also the 205th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Macron was also on form, discovering an unaccustomed brevity, and praising the British without restraint. He even lapsed into English, noting the indomitable spirit of London and thanking the grandfather of Charles for offering his kingdom as the cradle for the rebirth of the French republic. ‘Keep calm and carry on,’ he said, characterising the phlegm of his hosts. This was all carried live on all French news channels, where the anchors were falling over each other to praise the British, Churchill and even Charles’s excellent French.
Then it was to Downing Street where Macron arrived beaming like a Cheshire cat, observing social distancing, putting his hands together in a gesture of namaste, greeted by a grinning prime minister. The body language says these two guys really like each other.
What all this means as Brexit reaches its denouement is perhaps hard to say, other than it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that either leader, with their ruined economies, really relishes the prospect of an ideological bust-up, even if the fanatics in Brussels brandish their threats as if nothing has changed.
As the Red Arrows and the Patrouille de France roared over the capital this evening, both leaders were likely to be congratulating themselves on having produced a spectacular afternoon of political theatre. They may both have lost recent battles, but might have convinced each other that they’ve not yet lost their wars.
Jonathan Miller is the author of France a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square). He tweets at @lefoudubaron.