After Years of Bickering, France and Britain Look for a New Start

When President Emmanuel Macron of France welcomed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain to Paris on Friday, commentators were quick to call it a communion of kindred spirits: Both are former investment bankers in their 40s. Both govern countries gripped by strikes, economic dislocation and political anxiety.

But while the importance of like-minded leaders can easily be overstated in foreign relations, the palpable rapport between Mr. Macron and Mr. Sunak has come to symbolize a potential mending of the badly frayed relationship between Britain and France.

The two men agreed on Friday that Britain would give France additional money to bolster patrols of the beaches in Normandy, where thousands of refugees set off in small boats on dangerous crossings of the English Channel to Britain. They announced plans to deepen military cooperation, including the development of a new generation of long-range missiles that could be used to deter aggressors like Russia, with the war in Ukraine as a backdrop.

Diplomats and analysts said the real value of the meeting, the first formal tête-à-tête between French and British leaders since 2018, was less about substance than about symbolism: two neighbors pledging to bury the hatchet after years of bickering over Brexit, fishing rights, even a submarine alliance between the United States, Australia and Britain that left a fuming France on the sidelines.

And that’s on top of the personal friction between Mr. Macron and Boris Johnson, the former British prime minister whose brusque, occasionally taunting, approach toward France to score political points at home worsened the relationship.

“The two men were clearly getting on very well,” said Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to France, who led a group of young British and French professionals to meet the leaders. “We’re back into a pattern where the leaders can meet in an atmosphere of confidence and trust.”

From the moment Mr. Sunak jumped out of his Range Rover at the Élysée Palace to the news conference after the meeting, reconciliation was in the air.

“Now, if we’re honest, the relationship between our countries has had its challenges in recent years,” Mr. Sunak said. “Today’s meeting does mark a new beginning,” he added, before turning to his host to say, “Merci, mon ami.”

Mr. Macron echoed the language of a new start. “We have to fix the consequences of Brexit,” he said in English. “Probably some of those consequences were underestimated, but we have to fix them.”

The two sides still have unfinished business. France did not agree to the return of asylum seekers in Britain to French soil. Mr. Macron made clear that would have to be decided in talks with the European Union. But they agreed to strengthen cooperation to crack down on gangs who transport people across the channel, an issue that has plagued Mr. Sunak’s Conservative government as the number of crossings has soared.

Britain will pay France 541 million pounds ($651 million) over three years to help pay for hundreds of additional police to patrol the beaches to stop refugees who recently arrived from other countries. It would also pay for more drones and a detention center in France. Mr. Sunak has made stopping illegal crossings one of the cardinal goals of his government, though migration experts said they were doubtful that even the extra spending would do that.

Mr. Macron said he wanted to take advantage of the reinvigorated relationship “to further coordinate our support for Ukraine” and announced that both countries would jointly train Ukrainian troops. But they steered clear of concrete promises on delivering the kind of advanced weapons, like fighter jets, that Kyiv has been pushing for.

Despite the show of unity, Britain’s military aid to Ukraine is still several times that of France’s. Britain has acted as an early and unflinching ally of Ukraine, while France has proved more hesitant.

“There are a lot of difficult issues between the two sides,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “They’re dancing around those issues because, at this point, the symbolic importance of being seen resetting relations is more important than the substance.”

“This is all about the chemistry between the two men,” he added.

Mr. Sunak’s outreach to Mr. Macron came a week after he struck a landmark deal with the European Union on the trade status of Northern Ireland, settling one of the most vexing legacies of Brexit. Britain’s threat to rip up a previous agreement with Brussels on Northern Ireland, promulgated by Mr. Johnson, had caused tensions across the trade bloc.

Relations with France, its closest Continental neighbor, were especially sour. Since Britain left the European Union in 2020, the two have sparred over trade, the safety of a British-made vaccine during the coronavirus pandemic and the right of French trawlers to fish in British waters off the island of Jersey.

In 2021, their two navies deployed warships to Jersey during a tense standoff between fishing boats. The Daily Mail’s online edition declared it “Our New Trafalgar,” a breathless headline that evoked the enduring domestic political value for Conservatives of an old-fashioned spat with the French.

Relations were not helped by Mr. Sunak’s predecessors, Mr. Johnson and Liz Truss, who often seemed more eager to exploit anti-French sentiment than to avoid disputes. Ms. Truss refused to say during her campaign for Conservative Party leader whether Mr. Macron was a friend or foe. When France expressed anger at being elbowed out of the defense alliance with Australia and the United States in favor of Britain, Mr. Johnson mockingly said, “Donnez-moi un break.”

The awkwardness of those episodes has not faded completely. Next Monday, Mr. Sunak will travel to San Diego to announce the next phase of that alliance with President Biden and the prime minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese. As part of the agreement, Britain will eventually supply submarines to Australia.

Still, the migrant crisis remains perhaps the thorniest and most intractable issue facing the two countries. Last Monday, Mr. Sunak announced tough legislation that would allow the government to remove nearly all asylum seekers who land in Britain illegally. Human rights groups condemned the proposal, and the timing, just before the summit with Mr. Macron, raised some eyebrows in Paris.

Mr. Macron, analysts said, has his own motives to rebuild relations with London. Britain’s active participation is important to the European Political Community, a group of 44 nations focused on security, that he inaugurated last year. French military officials are also keen to deepen consultations with their British counterparts, given its sophisticated military and robust support of Ukraine.

The post-Brexit distrust was exacerbated by Britain’s attempts to strike bilateral deals with European Union countries, which French officials viewed as undermining the 27-member bloc.

“On the Britain side, they felt that France was trying to punish the U.K. for exiting the European Union,” said Georgina Wright, head of the Europe Program at the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank.

Even on Friday, Ms. Wright said, the two sides had competing priorities. France did not want this to be a “small-boat summit,” she said. It was more interested in resuming closer defense cooperation with Britain, in keeping with Mr. Macron’s longstanding aim of greater European military cooperation that would reduce dependence on the United States.

“Both parties want to draw a line under Brexit, under the tensions, and want to reconnect,” Ms. Wright said. “But it’s the next summit that matters. The next summit will tell us if cooperation is really strengthened.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *