A welcome return to normality: how France sees the Macron-Sunak summit

Élysée sees moment as a turning of the page after a nightmare chapter in cross-Channel relations

As Emmanuel Macron prepares to welcomes Rishi Sunak to Paris’s Franco-British summit on Friday, the Élysée sees it as a “turning of the page” – the end of a nightmare chapter in cross-Channel relations.

The mood between France and the UK had in recent years plummeted to its worst state in decades with bitter rows over submarine contracts, fishing rights and who was to blame for the catastrophic deaths of people trying to reach the UK coast on small boats.

The fact that a Franco-British summit is taking place at all is seen as a kind of victory in Paris. “Our priority is to reconnect and get back into the habit of working together,” an Elysée official said.

Language in recent years had been inflammatory – from Boris Johnson’s franglais message of “donnez-moi un break” to Liz Truss refusing to say whether Macron was a friend or a foe while running for the Conservative leadership. French officials saw Johnson as a populist engaged in constant France-bashing to numb the electorate to the impact of Brexit. As one diplomat said at the height of the bad times, trust between the two countries had evaporated.

Historically, Franco-British summits happened almost yearly, but the ill-feeling saw a five-year hiatus since the newly elected Macron met Theresa May at a Sandhurst summit in 2018, at the time of the centenary events to mark the end of the first world war.

Now it’s Russia’s war in Ukraine that has given impetus to the neighbours to “reset” the relationship. “War in Ukraine has brought sense of urgency and a clear rationale for Paris and London to find solutions to their differences,” said Alice Billon-Galland, a research fellow in the Europe programme at thinktank Chatham House, and co-author of the report, Rebooting the Entente, on defence cooperation. Joint announcements are expected on the training of Ukrainian forces, as well as fresh cooperation on future weapons development and nuclear energy.

France also wants to improve the flow of young people and students – as well science and research, between France and the UK – which has suffered since Brexit.

But for the UK, the issue of migration and the crisis of people risking their lives to cross the Channel on small boats has taken centre-stage. The two leaders are expected to agree a further joint drive to “strengthen” security operations on the French coast with a new “multi-year financing” plan to bring more security staff, equipment and infrastructure to the rugged beaches around Calais to stop boats departing and people gathering. About 800 people including regular police, border control forces and customs officers are already deployed daily in anti-migrant operations in northern France. The drive to ramp this up is already sparking concern from charities that the security crackdown and hostile policies towards migrants in perilous conditions in northern France is not a solution. Charities argue that the only solution is legal routes for safe passage.

Sunak’s proposed new draft immigration law, which would prevent people who arrived in the UK illegally on small boats from making an asylum claim, is, for now, seen in France as an issue for UK domestic politics. An Élysée official pointed out that the proposed law was at a very early stage. Paris said it had taken note of the questions by bodies such as the United Nations over whether Sunak’s plan respects international law. An official said they did not see “any major impact on the French coast” at this stage.

“It’s a British debate,” said Elvire Fabry, a senior research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute. She said the French and British positions on dealing with the asylum issue stood in contrast to one another. France would still like to see Britain set up an asylum processing centre in northern France, to examine claims and allow people to travel legally to the UK if accepted, whereas the UK was currently sending out the opposite message on stopping applications.

Ultimately, the Élysée sees Friday’s summit as an important first opportunity for Sunak and Macron to spend “real time” working together. With the new Windsor framework smoothing UK relations with the EU, the pro-European Macron and pro-Brexit Sunak can fall back on what they have in common: both are former investment bankers of around the same age, both are facing strikes on the domestic front – the UK’s public sector strikes and France’s protests over raising the pension age.

“The summit is a welcome return to a kind of normality after years of fracas and Brexit ideology where UK politicians and media used French-bashing for their own internal politics, which was very irritating to the French,” said Pauline Schnapper, professor of contemporary British civilisation at the Sorbonne university. “The return to diplomatic normality and serious work between the two governments is a big relief for everyone.”


Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

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