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Macron’s Support for Boris – Franco-British relations and the weight of the past

Few would contest that he was attempting to pressure British MPs to vote through Boris Johnson’s newly negotiated withdrawal agreement. He went much further publicly than any other European leader, short of using his veto in the European Council.

But however much Macron might like to portray himself as the ‘start-up’ kid, blocking an extension would have been one ‘disruptive’ move too far. Not only would it have seriously irritated European leaders, not least Germany, but it would have demonstrated French lack of EU solidarity, something Macron will require for later. It also risked provoking a British ‘no deal’ withdrawal and damaging France’s £9 billion trade surplus with the UK just in time for the first anniversary of the gilets jaunes protest movement on 17th November.

So why did Macron stick his neck out for Boris Johnson, having branded him a liar on several occasions before he entered Number 10? Was it that ‘foot on the table’ Elysée meeting of minds (22nd August), the numerous all-hours phone calls and the 24-26th October Biarritz G7 summit that so converted Macron to declare on 18th October that Johnson was ‘a leader with genuine strategic vision’ who should be taken seriously? Or was it that Macron’s motivation was to get Brexit off the EU agenda to begin at last implementing his reforms for European institutions, given that he is the first French President since Mitterrand to make the ‘European project’ a cornerstone of his foreign and domestic policy?

All these things may have played their part. But a deeper and more far reaching motive was revealed in the magisterial two hour long speech President Macron made to assembled French ambassadors on 27th August, a day after the G7 summit with Boris, setting out France’s strategic objectives for the long term. Breathtaking in its sweep, geopoliticial underpinnings and ‘audacity’ (a method he specifically proclaims) most surprising of all is the special place it reserves for Britain. Other than bringing Russia back into the European fold, establishing a Euro-Chinese partnership (in which the UK is prominently referenced) and an Indian Ocean-European dimension (where Britain could figure), the fundamental objective is to construct what he calls ‘European sovereignty’. And Macron clarifies that ‘this European sovereignty agenda must in my eyes include very deeply Great Britain. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, it is indispensable that we continue to think our sovereignty with Great Britain. On the military front, on the strategic front, on all subjects.’ Why then must Britain figure so prominently? Because in Macron’s words ‘history and geography have their reality. A sort of determinism.’

Surprisingly Macron’s speech has received little attention, despite already having begun implementing it with Russia and a three-day visit to China which ended on 6th November. What is clear is that in Macron’s grand sweep of history and geography Brexit is mere froth and that France conceives her future relations with Britain in ways she cannot with Germany. As the USA slips away, untethered by geography, and NATO ‘brain-dead’, according to Macron’s 7th November Economist interview, so France requires a partner that will play an international strategic and military role in Europe and beyond. Geography and history have underpinned that determinism since the nineteenth century, as a large ongoing research project looking at the weight of the past in Franco-British relations is likely to confirm. Interestingly from the British side, the 2016 Strategic Defence and Security Review states that post-Brexit Britain’s defence and security objectives will not change and that London will remain fully engaged in the defence of Europe.

One can only conclude that in their bubble of bonhomie Emmanuel and Boris have agreed on this ‘vision’ of Franco-British relations. Whether all wings of the Conservative Party are signed up to this view of Britain’s continuing relation with Europe remains to be seen.


Professor John Keiger

John Keiger is a Professor of French History and former research director of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. His expertise covers France in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a special interest in foreign policy and international relations. His books include: Raymond Poincaré; France and the World since 1870 and Ils ont fait la paix: le traité de Versailles vu de France et d’ailleurs.

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