When Liz Truss said ‘the jury’s out’ on whether France was a ‘friend or foe’, Emmanuel Macron publicly corrected her: of course Britain was a friend, he told a TV camera, adding with a grin: ‘Whoever its leaders are, and sometimes despite and beyond its leaders.’ As a British journalist who has lived in Paris for 20 years, I’d call that mostly true. French leaders consider Britain a friend, albeit probably not top five. But Macron and Boris Johnson were often personal foes, and Macron’s relationship with Truss may play out equally badly, especially if French and British differences over Ukraine come to a head in the coming months.
As Johnson noted, the two countries have got on pretty well since Napoleon departed. Remarkably for ambitious military powers separated by just 20 miles of water, they haven’t fought each other since Waterloo, if you discount Britain’s bombing of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir off Algeria’s coast on 3 July 1940, intended to keep Vichy France’s ships out of Nazi hands. The attack killed 1,297 servicemen, and is still remembered by some here as the French Pearl Harbor.
The big modern jolt to the relationship was Brexit – a shock to the French precisely because they saw it could have happened to them. When I mentioned to one official that his compatriots in 2016 might have voted for Frexit, he replied: ‘Yes. But we wouldn’t have been dumb enough to hold a referendum.’
Most French people spent about five minutes on Brexit. They had bigger worries, and their far right had its own pre-appointed national enemy in Islam. But mainstream French politicians needed Brexit to fail – not because they are anti–British, but because they are pro-French. Their bogeywoman is the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who went into the 2017 election against Macron promising a referendum on Frexit.