As I read The Wet Flanders Plain by Henry Williamson, a veteran of the first world war who encountered hostility from locals when he returned to the western front in 1927, a thought struck me: have I stumbled upon the source of Emmanuel Macron's Anglophobia?
Let's not beat around the bush; the president of France does not like us. Politicians and diplomats may gainsay, and claim that Macron has the greatest respect for the United Kingdom. But his behaviour during the last four and a half years indicates that the current resident of the Elysée is the most Anglophobic president since Charles de Gaulle.
Throughout the Brexit negotiations Macron was the most intransigent of the EU leaders, and following Britain's departure he has been the most embittered. In the last year, Macron has trashed the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine and threatened to cut off electricity to Jersey. Since the Aukus deal was announced, the Gallic contempt for Britain has only intensified and Macron is said to be in a 'dark rage'.
What makes Macron's attitude all the more curious is that he speaks fluent English, unlike many of his predecessors in the Elysée, and he's not averse to showing off this skill in public. So why the visceral animosity ?
Could it be the fault of Private George William Robertson. Born in Bristol in 1887, Robertson was a butcher prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. Two years later he fought on the Somme, and at some point he met a local girl, Suzanne Julia Amelie Leblond, eight years his junior. They married in May 1919 and Robertson worked for Suzanne’s parents at their hotel in Amiens. This was not that unusual, as Craig Gibson notes in his book, Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914–1918, although no accurate figures are available as to how many Tommies took French wives.
Within a few years Robertson was the father of three daughters, the middle one called Jacqueline.
But in the late 1920s the marriage broke down, and Roberston began a new life in Paris working for the cosmetics brand Elizabeth Arden. Reportedly he had little to do with his daughters thereafter. Jacqueline married André Macron, a railway worker, and their son, Jean-Michel, is the French president’s father.
Macron isn't embarrassed by his modest family history. He spoke of his grandfather's profession in 2018 while setting out his plan to reform France's state-owned railway, the SNCF. But it is curious that Macron, whose hometown is Amiens, has never made anything of his British blood for political gain. The French people wouldn't mind. They didn't when Nicolas Sarkozy talked warmly of his Hungarian father in 2007, or when the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, a candidate in next year's presidential election, expressed her pride in her Spanish grandfather, who fought for the Republicans against Franco.
Across the water, it didn't do Boris Johnson any harm when he boasted of his Turkish Muslim great-grandfather in 2019 while championing Britain's diversity.
In 2018, Macron and the then PM, Theresa May, attended a ceremony in the Somme to mark the centenary of the first world war armistice. It would have been an ideal moment – at a time when Brexit negotiations were strained – for the president to speak of his pride in his British great-grandfather, who had fought on the ground on which they were standing. Not a word.
In a speech under the Arc de Triomphe two days later Macron declared that:
'The traces of that war have never been erased in the lands of France, in those of Europe and the Middle East, or in the memories of people throughout the world.'
Macron was 21 when his grandmother died. What did Jacqueline tell her impressionable grandson of George William Robertson? Maybe he was a lovable rogue who never fully recovered from the trauma of war; or perhaps he was that feckless Englishman who abandoned his family.
Is that why Macron took Brexit so personally? It hurt to see history repeat itself as the British once more walked away.