Today’s announcement of the loan of the Bayeux tapestry to the British Museum may have been in discussion for months, but it will be read principally as another foreign policy coup pulled off by the French President, Emmanuel Macron.
This is an act of deep symbolic significance that speaks both to the troubled history of Franco-English relations and to the possibility of fruitful partnership between the two powers.
As Harold Godwinson’s (disputed) coronation is stitched into the opening scenes of the tapestry, a starry comet appears in the sky above.
This dark omen foreshadows the disasters that unfold in rest of the tapestry.
But it also tells of the strange birth of medieval England, a nation forged from foreign conquest and invasion. Half the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was wiped out at the battle of Hastings, alongside England’s new King Harold. A new Norman aristocracy and a new Norman King took their place.
Macron’s message is obvious – the English story is impossible without France. Without the continent, England’s story is incomplete. We cannot drift off into the Atlantic. We are nothing without our neighbours across the channel. We have obligations to our European allies that are far more ancient than those to the ‘Anglosphere’ or the Commonwealth.
Macron has a rare genius for turning often mundane foreign policy encounters into spectacular media events.
Loaning the tapestry sits alongside his gift of a horse to President Xi of China and his show of military power to Donald Trump on Bastille day, as concrete symbols of miraculously persistent French power.
Britain is doing its best to diminish its influence in world affairs. We have a Prime Minister who has no eloquence, no vision and no weight on the world stage. And a transparently thick leader of the opposition, for whom foreign policy is a facile game of moral equivalence between the West and its enemies.
At least France has a leader who has a voice, and is not afraid to use it.
France has deep structural problems. It is trapped between its past and present in ways that no other country in Europe is: its economy sluggish; its politics sclerotic.
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Unable to rid itself of a social settlement that is now decades old, France has so far resisted sensible liberalisation reform, giving market-led economies a blanket negative gloss, disparaged with Olympian disdain as ‘Anglo-Saxon’.
Yet French identity has not been so divided from itself since the crisis of Algeria – ever more vociferous culture wars are consuming the national debate. A dominant culture of aggressive secularism rubs against the largest Muslim minority in Europe.
France is no longer one but three, split by geography and by race: les banlieues (populated by France’s ethnic minorities); the beautiful city centres (predominantly white professionals); and poor, rural ‘France profonde’ (white working class).
But in projecting a vision of France onto the world stage, Macron gives the nation a seeming coherence and grandeur that it lacks in reality. This will give him precious time to enact his ambitious labour reforms, which should go some way towards mending France’s broken economy and healing France’s social divisions.
So, three cheers for Emmanuel Macron! Aux armes, citoyens!