10 March 2023

Does the Sunak-Macron meeting mean a new Entente Cordiale?


‘A new beginning’ was the phrase used by Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak at the joint press conference that concluded today’s Anglo-French Summit in Paris.

Boris Johnson wasn’t mentioned, but his was the ghost that haunted the Elysée Palace as the two leaders met for the first summit of its kind since 2018. Sandhurst was the venue on that occasion and the meeting was hosted by Theresa May, like Sunak a conciliatory and courteous Prime Minister. Then came Johnson, described in an editorial in today’s Le Figaro, as a leader who promoted ‘anti-French populism’. He was replaced in No.10 by Liz Truss, who was famously unable to decide if Macron was a ‘friend or foe’ of Great Britain’s.

Le Figaro put that same question to Rishi Sunak in a pre-summit interview and his response was emphatic. ‘A great friend, certainly.’ The PM was even more gushing during the press conference, telling Macron he was ‘fortunate’ and ‘excited’ to have such an ally. ‘Merci, mon ami’, he said in French, extending his hand to the president. Macron beamed from ear to ear.

Will flattery get Sunak anywhere? After all, to blame Johnson alone for the disastrous disintegration of Anglo-French relations in the last three years is disingenuous. It wasn’t him who questioned the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, or threaten to cut off Jersey’s energy supply.

But the mood music from Paris is that France is keen to move on from the rancour of recent years. Not only does that Figaro editorial talk of a ‘new Entente Cordiale’, but the headline in the left-wing Liberation – a fierce critic of Brexit – is ‘Truce Party’, with the paper welcoming what it believes will be a ‘renewed and constructive relationship’ between the two countries.

Macron used the word ‘reconnection’ in his address, and then listed the five areas where Britain and France have agreed to strengthen co-operation: Ukraine, Energy independence, the Environment, Illegal Immigration and Civil Society, which includes deepening cultural and educational ties.

Not wishing to steal Sunak’s thunder, Macron was purposely light on how the two countries will tackle the small boats in the Channel, though he did justifiably say that it was a European crisis. not one confined to northern France. He also pointed to the fact that last year France prevented 30,000 small boats crossing the Channel and police broke up 55 smuggling networks.

Sunak went into specifics. He mentioned the smugglers, the ‘criminal gangs’, as he called them, who are active in North Africa, the Balkans and northern France. He announced that a new detention centre would be built in France, as well as a command centre, and more drones and other surveillance technologies will be deployed.

Similar pledges have been made in the past; in her Sandhurst speech of 2018, Theresa May spoke of the determination of France and Britain to ‘tackle the people traffickers and migrant smugglers who exploit the misery of those making the perilous journey to Europe’.

Might these promises also come to naught?

There is more urgency now. Sunak knows that the Tories face electoral annihilation next year if he doesn’t get the migrant crisis under control, and last year Macron lost his absolute majority in the National Assembly as Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Rally won 89 seats in the National Assembly. This was largely as a result of his government’s failure to get a grip on illegal immigration. The election last September of Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s Prime Minister demonstrated that voters across Europe are running out of patience with leaders who break promises.

The war in Ukraine was the other area that dominated the press conference, and Macron and Sunak were strident in their support of the Ukrainians. France and Britain will continue to offer material support and Sunak announced that they have agreed to train Ukrainian marines.

Towards the end of his speech, Sunak said that ultimately building strong alliances was ‘about people’, which could be construed as a dig at Boris Johnson, whom Macron reportedly referred to as the ‘clown’.

The circus has now left town and what Sunak described as an ‘Entente Renewed’ has begun.

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Gavin Mortimer is a journalist based in Paris.