The real story of Boris and Macron's fractured double act

They started with a genuine rapport, but a lack of trust between the Prime Minister and his French counterpart appears to have divided them

France, Boris Johnson

12/3/2021 3:14:00 PM

🇬🇧🇫🇷Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson says that Johnson’s deployment of Franglais was a hostile act against Macron. 🔓This article is currently free to read

They started with a genuine rapport, but a lack of trust between the Prime Minister and his French counterpart appears to have divided them

Lord Ricketts, former ambassador to France, says the current Anglo-French relationship is now the worst in his 40 years as a diplomat. Sylvie Bermann, the former French ambassador to the UK, disagrees. In her opinion relations have “never been as bad since Waterloo”.

Macron, meanwhile, has been repeatedly accused of whipping up anti-British sentiment in Brexit negotiations, in the spat over fishing rights and in the vaccines row, in order to play to the gallery at home ahead of next April’s presidential election. Is it all just a game?

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Remember when Boris Johnson wanted to build a bridge to France? Theresa May certainly does. It was in 2018 that the then foreign secretary hijacked a UK-France summit by coming up with his headline-grabbing scheme and tweeting out a thumbs-up selfie with Emmanuel Macron. May was furious, not least because Johnson had managed to establish a genuine bonhomie with Macron that eluded the automaton prime minister. Three years on, a lot of water has passed under the bridge (though not the one across the Channel, because it never got built) – and Johnson is being dismissed as “un clown” by Macron, while the Prime Minister mockingly tells the French President to “prenez un grip”. Lord Ricketts, former ambassador to France, says the current Anglo-French relationship is now the worst in his 40 years as a diplomat. Sylvie Bermann, the former French ambassador to the UK, disagrees. In her opinion relations have “never been as bad since Waterloo”. Any political friendship would be strained to breaking point by bruising rows over Brexit, migrants and vaccines, but whether the two men genuinely loathe each other on a personal level, or rather are stoking up the tension to serve their own political purposes, is open to debate. This week the French satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaine claimed Johnson had privately said “sorry” to Macron for having to “cater to his public opinion” by ramping up his anti-French rhetoric, implying that the Prime Minister’s outward bluster ran contrary to his personal feelings towards the president. Macron, meanwhile, has been repeatedly accused of whipping up anti-British sentiment in Brexit negotiations, in the spat over fishing rights and in the vaccines row, in order to play to the gallery at home ahead of next April’s presidential election. Is it all just a game? There is certainly evidence that the two men had a genuine rapport at the start of their relationship. “There was a bit of a bromance going on when Boris first became prime minister,” says one Government insider. “In Biarritz in August 2019, when he attended his first G7 summit after succeeding Theresa May, he really charmed Macron and even Angela Merkel, who had seen him as some sort of mini-Trump. “There was an element of stags clashing antlers, Macron and Boris both wanted to be the dominant male, but there was definitely mutual respect between them despite all the rows over Brexit.” Days later, Johnson travelled to Paris, where he put his foot up on a table during a relaxed meeting with Macron, earning him a rebuke from the French media but not from the president, who had effectively invited him to do it for a prank. Over the following months, the two leaders regularly exchanged messages over WhatsApp, sharing private jokes and infuriating officials who wanted all communication done through proper channels. “On a personal, individual level, they get on fine,” says Adam Plowright, author of the Macron biography The French Exception. “There are lots of things they have in common; they both see themselves as intellectuals, they love history and literature. There is a connection on that level. “I think they also respect each other for what they have achieved – Johnson recognises Macron’s political talent in founding his own movement [En Marche!] and getting elected, while Macron respects Johnson’s ability to connect with people and as a serial winner.” Macron even borrowed from Johnson when he visited London during his presidential campaign in 2017, telling an audience of French expatriates that London was France’s sixth-biggest city, repeating a phrase coined by Johnson when he was the city’s mayor to describe the huge number of French citizens living in the capital. Championing distinctly Johnsonian principles, he also praised the entrepreneurial, risk-taking attitudes that had attracted much of his audience to Britain. Nor is Johnson a natural Francophobe. He enjoys speaking French, having lived in Brussels for part of his life, and was an admirer of the former European Commission president Jacques Delors whom he regarded as a shoulder-to-the-wheel leader who got things done. Those who have worked with the Prime Minister say he is a fan of cross-channel collaboration, such as the Channel Tunnel and Concorde. The odds against the purported Macron-Johnson “bromance” remaining intact were always long, however. Macron is a man who takes his political office extremely seriously, and lately believes Johnson’s shambling, laugh-a-minute style is unbecoming of the leader of a great country, one which has been reduced to “a circus” under his leadership, according to the comments in Le Canard. And while Macron’s personal life is hardly conventional, having persuaded his former French teacher to leave her husband and marry him despite a 25-year age gap, observers like Plowright believe he disapproves of Johnson’s history of bed-hopping, which plays into his perception of him as an “unserious” person. Johnson is a huge believer in his own ability to mend fences, but he may never repair his relationship with Macron following the toxic spat over who was to blame for the deaths of 27 small boat migrants last month, the ongoing row over the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Australia-UK-US (Aukus) submarine deal, which caused apoplexy in the Élysée Palace over the resultant cancellation of a £47billion order for French subs. It was Macron’s reaction to Aukus that prompted Johnson to tell the French to “Prenez un grip and donnez-moi un break”. Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson says that Johnson’s deployment of Franglais was a hostile act against Macron: “The truth is that Boris speaks good French, so by speaking Franglais he is playing Macron for laughs. “I think it reflects the way he sees the comical side of Macron, like an Inspector Clouseau figure, or a small, imperious Napoleon, someone he finds a little bit ridiculous.” Macron, in turn, appears to have lost patience with the man whose common touch he once admired. His recent description of Johnson as “un clown” rather than the French equivalent of “pitre” was seen by some as his own version of Franglais, though the word clown is commonly used in France. A less commonly-used word is gougnafier, an archaic French term that has largely slipped out of use, but which Macron resurrected to apply to Johnson. It is variously translated as knucklehead, cad, ne’er-do-well or good for nothing. Perhaps more telling was the fact that Macron’s comments, reportedly made just hours after the migrant tragedy, made it into the public domain at all. Macron exerts a tight grip over what leaves the Élysée and there is an assumption in Paris that he gave the nod to the material being leaked. His staff have not denied the story, saying only that they do not comment on leaks. Even before this, in recent months phone calls between the two men have been described as “difficult”, with Whitehall sources suggesting the turning point in their relationship came during the row over Covid. Macron’s threat to close the French border to British travellers if Johnson did not toughen up coronavirus restrictions was met with fury in Downing Street, which only got worse when Macron tried to undermine public confidence in the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine and talked up an export ban on UK-destined vaccines produced on the continent. “That was the thing that got the Prime Minister most angry,” says one Whitehall source. “It frustrated him more than anything that happened over Brexit.” Johnson believed Macron was putting lives at risk by questioning the efficacy of the AZ vaccine, and wanted him to apologise and admit that he had misunderstood the science (recent briefings against Macron have also suggested he misunderstood that Northern Ireland was part of the UK). The fact that Macron would not admit his mistake was seen as further evidence of his desperation to punish Britain for Brexit, no matter the cost. Behind the scenes Macron has made attempts at reconciliation, using private meetings at the G7 in Cornwall to request a “reset” of relations. Sources in the Élysée, though, complain that every time he has held out an olive branch to Johnson, the Prime Minister has thrown it back in his face with hostile briefings. It is this breakdown of trust that appears to be the final straw for their man-to-man relationship.