The first thing to say about the French and Brexit, even at this critical stage, is that it is not the topic on everybody’s lips, including those of Emmanuel Macron. If the national press is any guide, the issue of Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union is what used to be known in the trade as “below the fold” – in other words, not face-up on the local newsstand.
It is certainly the case that the French are baffled by the convulsions over Europe that have turned the House of Commons in recent weeks into a comedy of the absurd. They find Brexit a curious, and deeply English, preoccupation. But, after more than two years of largely unfathomable horse-trading, they have just about had enough and are ready to move on to something more important, like the cost of domestic electricity that could be set to rise by as much as 6 per cent.
It’s not that our neighbours 20 miles the other side of the Channel don’t have problems of their own with Brussels and the stuttering European Project. They do. It’s just that they could no more think of pulling out of the EU than they could contemplate giving up wine or croissants, or all going on holiday on the same day. It has been a feature of their lives for 62 years, more than most of them have been alive. The fact that it is bureaucratic and frequently unaccountable and remote from the everyday life of the citizenry is met with a derisive shrug rather than a rictus of rage.
Most French people, including a majority of the gilets-jaunes, don’t even want to ditch the euro; they just don’t want more of it for themselves. And while they blame Brussels for much of the confusion surrounding mass immigration from the Muslim world, they also know that the pressure from North Africa and beyond would continue even if the Commission announced that they were going to build a wall around Europe and Saudi Arabia and Libya would pay for it.
Thus, when Macron announces that he has no intention of backing a revised deal for les anglais and that he intends instead to stand behind the Commission and Dublin in support of the Irish backstop, most of the French agree with him. Les rosbifs have had their fun. Now it’s time for them to accept the consequences.
And the plain fact is that the rest of Europe takes a similar line. Yes, there have been mutterings in recent days from various capitals to the effect that poor Mrs May has been given a hard time and ought perhaps to be offered something palatable to take back to her MPs at Westminster. But when push comes to shove, not even the Greeks and the Italians – both of whom regard themselves as victims of EU imperialism – are willing to step out of line to help the British, who are generally seen as the principal authors of their misfortune.
For the French, of course, giving the Brits a hard time has been something of a national pastime down the decades since World War II. It is often said that they cannot forgive Britain for coming to their rescue in World War II. That particular humiliation seared its way deep into the French psyche. The idea that the Brits, with their hard cheese and their waterproofs, could stand up to the Nazis when the heirs to Napoleon’s Grande Armée could not, still rankles after all these years. The fact that we went on in the 1980s to overtake their state-sponsored economy and then to leave it trailing in our wake did nothing to make them feel better about us.
There is also the fact that while the English (and it nearly always is the English) have come to regard France as a beach resort or retirement community, the French view England as a place where they might actually make a living. The 300,000 of them who have taken up residence in England are mostly hard at work and paying their taxes. They are educated, bilingual and ambitious. By contrast, a majority of English expats living in France are retired and living off their pensions, most of them barely able to say anything more in French than “merci” and “voici ma carte vitale”.
The irony is that they earn, while we spend. But the story doesn’t end there. While it is true that many rural communities in France have come to depend on expats to keep their local shops, bars and restaurants in business, it is also the case that the waiting rooms of their doctors’ surgeries and local hospitals are thronged on a daily basis with elderly men and women from Birmingham and Leeds demanding to know “parlez-vous anglais?”. There are hardly any Brits over 60 in France who don’t rely on French doctors, dentists and ophthalmologists to keep them up and hobbling. And nearly all of them – the medical people, that is, not the Brits – do in fact speak English.
Macron (whose English, amusingly enough, is not all that hot) is keenly aware of this. On the one hand, he wants to steal as much as he can of the City of London’s business so that he can re-poach his country’s highly-skilled diaspora. Never doubt that this former hedge fund manager dreams of La Défense as Europe’s future Square Kilometre. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to lose the wrinkly army who have done much to revitalise remote villages and who spend, in my estimation, at least €3 billion a year of UK pension money and another half billion at least on property.
That doesn’t mean the President won’t say harsh things about the British and Brexit. For the truth is, he can’t help himself. He is a 40-year-old EU federalist, who grew up believing that the greatness of France is bound up with the “completion” of Europe. To him, the bitching Brits are anathema to the European ideal, always standing at the door hurling in insults. If they cannot be reformed, or, failing that, muzzled, he wants them gone.
At the same time, ever the would-be realist, he is presiding over the sort of practical preparations for a No-Deal Brext of which Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage can only dream. While Chris Grayling doodles on his office computer and Matt Hancock frets about shortages of medical supplies on April 1, Macron has overseen an impressive commercial mobilisation designed to ensure that the Channel ports continue to function with the minimum of disruption after the UK is demoted to third country status. Roads, parkways and customs clearance areas have all been expanded. The relevant police and immigration services have seen a surge in recruitment. The only serious concern seems to be over what will happen on the other side. Calais and Dunkirk are ready. But what about Dover?
So much, you might say, for British pragmatism. We don’t seem able to put our planners where our mouth is.
Looking back over just the post-war history of Anglo-French relations, it is possible to see that where we are now is in fact where we have always been. General De Gaulle vetoed our original application to join what was then the Common Market on the basis that, as Churchill had previously advised him, if Britain had to choose between Europe and the open sea, it would always choose the open sea. We hear this again today from hardline, and even moderate, Brexiteers.
In 1984, when Margaret Thatcher secured her famous rebate (“Give us our money back”), the response of the French was scathing. According to Jacques Attali, one of President François Mitterrand’s most senior advisors, Thatcher only got half of what she asked for, so that she was extremely upset by the outcome. “She cried,” was what Mitterrand told Attali. “She’s broken like a piece of glass.” You can almost hear the relish in his voice.
In much the same vein, but with typical British directness, when the French President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, cranked up the process that would result in the Single currency back in 1990, the British could hardly get out of the door fast enough, “Up yours Delors!” was the two-fingered salute of the Sun’s front page, and few in London disagreed. Later, when the Schengen Agreement came along, establishing open frontiers across the EU, the UK announced on Day One that it wanted no part of such an abomination. Today, with Take Back Control as its mantra, the British have finally reached the end of the line, and the French President doesn’t see why he should make it easy for them.
Is he being beastly to the British or just protecting French and European interests? It all depends on your vantage point.