UK prime minister Boris Johnson has ordered his team to de-escalate tensions with French president Emmanuel Macron, telling colleagues not to retaliate against what London regards as recent provocation from Paris.
Johnson is convinced that Macron is going to win a second term, according to allies, and wants to prepare the ground for better relations after next April’s presidential elections, possibly via a new Anglo-French treaty.
With Macron reportedly labelling Johnson a “clown” — amid a bitter row over how to respond to the deaths of 27 migrants who last month tried to reach the UK by crossing the English Channel in a small boat — the idea of any post-election “entente cordiale” seems far-fetched to some diplomats.
Johnson is regarded by Macron as not “serious” and the prime minister has antagonised Paris on a range of issues beyond migrants, including Brexit and a new security partnership between Australia, the US and the UK that will enable Canberra to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
Downing Street now wants to draw a line under the cross-Channel war of words. “There have been a whole series of comments that we have just let go,” said one ally of Johnson. “There has been a lot of sucking of teeth.”
Number 10 did not hit back at Macron’s reported comments to colleagues, outlined by French satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, that Johnson was behaving “like an idiot” and that it was sad Britain was being “led by a clown”.
There was then only a modest plea by Number 10 for people to choose their words “carefully” after Macron said the handling of post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland were a matter of “war and peace for Ireland”.
Nor was there a robust British response to claims last week by Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, that migrants were attracted to the UK by an economic model featuring “quasi modern slavery”.
Some diplomats, however, believe Johnson has left it too late to smooth tensions and is deluded in thinking that Macron’s attacks are down to electioneering — they think the French president is simply fed up with a prime minister who he regards as unreliable and trivial.
While Macron’s comments have attracted headlines in the UK, they have generated little interest in France. Aside from a row over the UK’s allocation of licences to France’s fishermen operating in British waters, French media are much more focused on Covid-19, immigration and relations with Germany.
Sir Peter Westmacott, Britain’s former ambassador to Paris, said: “I don’t think the French are nearly as obsessed about what goes on in Britain as we are about what’s happening in France. I don’t think it wins Macron votes.”
Downing Street insiders do not buy that argument. Johnson and his team expect relations to remain rocky for the next few months but think that the expected re-election of Macron could offer the chance of a fresh start.
There have been signs in recent days of some cooling of tensions: a recognition that the two countries are condemned by geography, economics and security considerations to work together.
The allocation of 40 fishing licences by Guernsey, a British crown dependency, to French boats was a sign of the dispute starting to ease, although it is not over.
The threat by France to carry out “reinforced” checks on British goods crossing the Channel in retaliation over the dispute was a reminder of how Paris could swiftly choke Britain’s trade routes if it wished.
Meanwhile Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, wrote to Johnson last week suggesting a “possible new framework for co-operation between the UK and EU” to tackle the small boats migration crisis in the Channel.
But the fact that it was Castex who contacted Johnson, rather than Macron, is an indication of the toxic state of relations between the two leaders.
Johnson’s allies have floated the idea that once the presidential elections are over, there could be scope for improved relations, possibly through a new treaty between the two sides.
British officials said a treaty might focus on defence and security co-operation — building on one part of the UK-France relationship that is functioning well — but also cover science, technology and culture.
Defence options being examined on the UK side include joint aircraft carrier operations, nuclear co-operation and the possibility of Britain and France working more closely in the Indo-Pacific with the “quad”: Australia, India, Japan and US.
But Lord Peter Ricketts, another former British ambassador to France, said: “There’s such a big gap between the idea of a new treaty and the way the two governments are treating each other, it can’t happen at the moment.”
In Paris, the Macron administration suspects the idea of a new treaty is another attempt by Johnson to appear reasonable in public while persisting with difficult behaviour on the ground, according to French officials.
For Macron’s team, a much more important issue is whether the UK can prove itself once more to be the reliable partner France wants in the aftermath of Brexit.
Tensions over Johnson’s attempts to rewrite parts of his Brexit deal in relation to Northern Ireland could resurface early next year if the prime minister seeks to suspend the trading arrangements for the region.
Diplomats question whether — even if Macron is reinstalled in the Elysée Palace in April — any new entente cordiale can be reached given the president’s deep distrust of Johnson.