LONDON — Emmanuel Macron’s reelection as French president has taken some of the heat out of the complicated Franco-British relationship — but don’t bank on a fresh entente cordiale just yet.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to stress common ground after the victorious French leader saw off far-right challenger Marine Le Pen this weekend, telling reporters Monday that he and “Emmanuel” had been able to “work closely together on Ukraine over the last few weeks and months.”
French president’s reelection unlikely to ease long-running tensions over Brexit and more.
“We share a very common, very similar perspective, and the unity of the West, the unity of NATO, has been absolutely vital for the stance we’ve taken against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. And that will now continue — and I’m very, very reassured by that,” Johnson added.
Yet British officials — who have previously blamed the French electoral campaign for rows with Macron’s government on everything from post-Brexit fishing rights to a nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the treatment of undocumented Channel migrants — don’t expect a huge diplomatic reset to follow the result.
Instead, they’re eyeing more modest wins, and hoping for more dialogue between the two leaders in the coming months.
And, despite Johnson’s hopeful remarks, the mood music coming out of the French government Monday wasn’t drastically different either.
Asked if Macron will seek to restore his relationship with Johnson, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said the administration’s top priority “will not be the relationship between the U.K. and France,” but “to reinforce French unity to take into account all the concerns that have been expressed during this election.”
Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think tank, predicted that a reset in the Franco-British relationship won’t happen until Johnson ceases to be prime minister, and warned that contempt for the U.K. leader at the Elysée should not be underestimated.
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“The truth is that Macron doesn’t like Boris Johnson at all,” Grant said. “It is not just electoral politics — he really is fed up with Johnson. [The French] think Johnson is not an honest or a serious person they can deal with. That’s going to continue.”
Indeed, the bad blood between the two leaders has regularly made headlines, with satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné last year reporting that Macron referred to Johnson in a private conversation as a “clown,” and the U.K. Daily Mail writing that Johnson called the French “turds” over their behavior during the Brexit negotiations.
The prime minister’s spokesman on Monday insisted Macron and Johnson have “a good working relationship” as evidenced by recent G7 summits and other high-level meetings.
Paris and London are already at odds over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, which sets out trading rules across the Irish Sea and was drawn up to both protect the EU’s single market and avoid a politically sensitive hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
It’s proven politically toxic with Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians, while businesses trading across the border have complained of excessive red tape, and London has repeatedly flirted with unilaterally suspending it. Macron’s second victory is likely to see Paris — already talking tough on Britain’s threats — play an even more decisive role in shaping the EU’s response.
Yet the Ukraine war complicates the Brexit issue too — potentially in Johnson’s favor. The Brits have earned an abundance of credit among Baltic and Central European countries during the conflict, with these traditional allies of the U.K. now expressing gratitude for London’s rapid response to their call to strengthen security at their borders with Russia.
That’s split the EU internally on how to respond if Johnson’s government does tear up the arrangement, and a diplomat from a large EU country said they recognized that the Ukraine war has made it harder for member countries to come up with a coordinated response if the U.K. prime minister does so.
“If, because of the collapse of the Northern Ireland protocol, the [European] Commission proposes to suspend the [EU-U.K.] Trade and Cooperation Agreement — which is what they were going to propose in December — quite a lot of EU member states will not want to be as hard on the British as that,” said Grant. “Macron will find it quite difficult to persuade the whole of the EU to be tough on the British because of the Ukraine war.”