‘UK and France must work together now more than ever’

Columnist Simon Heffer explores how Truss and Macron are moving on from the UK PM’s ‘friend or foe’ comment

Emmanuel Macron took a diplomatic attitude following Liz Truss’s comments about him during her leadership campaign

In a fractious world, with a maniac in Russia threatening nuclear war, it would seem a great time for the forces of civilisation to stick together.

It was, therefore, hardly the high point of Liz Truss’s successful campaign to become prime minister of the UK when she made the bizarre decision to question in public whether Emmanuel Macron was “friend or foe”, when asked the question by the moderator of one of her hustings.

Diplomatic gaffe from Truss

She said “the jury’s out”, and added that she would judge the French president “by deeds not words”, a remark that prompted sustained cheers and applause from her audience of Tory faithfuls.

Even if she had not been Foreign Secretary at the time this would have been a diplomatic gaffe of the first order.

As it was, she was extremely fortunate that it did not torpedo her entire campaign: statesmanlike it was not.

She was lucky for two reasons

First, many Britons had a little earlier witnessed with dismay queues of up to 21 hours at the Channel Tunnel when, on one of the busiest days of the holiday season, France had left four of its nine passport control booths unmanned.

With those officials who did turn up carefully checking and stamping all passports of those entering France, it seemed to many in Britain that France had decided to make a point, and not for the first time, about its disapproval of Brexit.

French authorities said they planned for maximum staffing but some staff were over an hour late due to a technical incident in the Tunnel; Calais’s MP blamed Brexit and extra checks.

Therefore when Miss Truss insulted France as she did at her hustings, she was not short of sympathisers.

Most, too, had watched daily news reports about boatloads of illegal immigrants setting off from France across the English Channel without the French authorities apparently lifting a finger to stop them, which caused growing anger, especially among those who might end up voting Conservative.

Macron’s sensible response

But her second piece of good fortune was the infinitely more diplomatic attitude of Emmanuel Macron, a man with far greater experience of high office than the new British head of government.

Read more: France and UK ‘strong allies’ says Macron in response to Truss comment

His sensible response was to insist that France remained an ally of Britain, but to qualify that with the observation that if the two countries decided to bicker there would certainly be problems ahead.

Even the outgoing prime minister, Boris Johnson, stood up for France after his successor’s remarks, calling Mr Macron “un très bon buddy de notre pays”.

This came despite the fact that during his three inglorious years in office he had been guilty of goading France over its attitude to Brexit, when a more straightforward approach might have made France understand better the nature of British democracy.

Comments undermined NATO

Mr Johnson was not the only one of Miss Truss’s fellow Conservatives dismayed by her poor judgement in making that remark.

Others asked whatever had got into her, when France and Britain were partners in the NATO alliance, whose maximum cohesion was vital given the situation in Ukraine.

Attempts by some of her closer colleagues, hoping for jobs in her administration (she was at the time favourite to win the leadership election), to claim her remarks were designed to be humorous were rightly dismissed.

She was playing to the gallery and she knew it: it was an appallingly stupid thing for her to do in relation to so close – geographically and spiritually – an ally.

Macron takes initiative again

Again, the more experienced French president proceeded to take the initiative, seeing the change of prime minister as the perfect moment to put relations with Britain on a new footing – and it is vital that Miss Truss stops playing to the gallery and does all she can to improve and enhance Anglo-French cooperation.

This would be vital even if the international situation were not so tense as it is: as things are, the best possible relationship is essential.

Death of Queen brought leaders together

The change of prime minister was, of course, far from the most significant event in Anglo-French relations in the last month.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II, a pronounced Francophile, also marked a new chapter in the two countries’ relations.

The late Queen spoke French and frequently visited the country not least to pursue her horse-racing interests.

Read more: Seven facts about the Queen’s relationship with France

Two days after the Queen died, Mr Macron spoke to Ms Truss by telephone to convey France’s condolences; he paid the highly tactful and gratifying tribute to the late Queen by saying she was known in France as “the Queen”, and required no further description.

He came with Mme Macron to the funeral and met the new prime minister briefly; they then had a longer meeting in the margins of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, where both travelled immediately after Her late Majesty’s obsequies.

Truss can stop ‘point-scoring’

Mr Macron talked about the need to “move on” and Ms Truss talked of the need to work together, not least for energy security.

Talking must be better than name-calling, so it is good it has started.

Like her more experienced interlocutor, Ms Truss appears quickly to be learning that scoring cheap points to boost herself among her supporters achieves far less than safeguarding the true interests of her country.

But there could be an even more formidable boost to relations between the two countries than that.

The King and the President

King Charles III is said to have “bonded” with President Macron some time ago over their shared commitment to environmental matters, and the possibility has been mooted that France could be the scene of the King’s first state visit, the government deploying him as the country’s ultimate diplomatic force.

Read more: King Charles could travel to France for first state visit as monarch

They are both supporters of a plan to plant a 30-mile wide belt of trees across the continent of Africa to stop the spread of desertification.

There are enormous numbers of bridges to be rebuilt in Europe after Brexit and the inadequacies of Britain’s last prime minister: France is not only the best place to start, but the place Britain is best equipped to start with.

Related articles

‘This is the calm before a stormy winter in French politics’

France’s ‘most British airport’ to be renamed after Queen Elizabeth II

‘We loved her so much’: France reacts to news of the Queen’s death