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The UK’s fraught relationship with France

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Written by Robert Tombs

In his Interview with Gilles Senges of L’Opinion magazine, Robert Tombs described the French reaction to the UK over Brexit as aggressive with many spokesmen using a tone which is often insulting, threatening and provocative.

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Q. How do you see relations between the United Kingdom and France today?

I am in favour of Brexit and I do not see things in the same way as most of the media in France. I think I share the sentiment of a large part of British public opinion. In England, we consider that France has always pursued a very hard line vis-à-vis the United Kingdom since Brexit to punish it for having had the temerity to leave the European Union. The Northern Ireland Protocol has thus been interpreted in an extremely tendentious manner, not respecting the terms of the text. Contrary to what is claimed, the latter allows, in fact, modifications in very clearly explained circumstances. The tone used by French spokesmen and many  political figures in your country is often insulting, threatening and provocative. I very much regret it as a Francophile, but we see France as the leader of Anglophobia in Europe. All this is just an excuse to put pressure on Britain.

On the protocol, the Republic of Ireland is nevertheless on the same line…

Of course! Dublin seeks the unification of Ireland

Among the hot issues, Paris denounces London’s lack of goodwill on fishing

The fisheries agreement has given a lot of advantages to Europeans, including the French. Most of the permits applied for by French fishermen were awarded. Those who were refused could not prove that they had actually operated legally in British territorial waters. The dispute is between France and the Channel Islands,  which have never been part of the European Union and are not part of the United Kingdom. They are autonomous entities under the British crown.

On the migration file, Gérald Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior, deplores that the United Kingdom, which had committed at the end of July to pay France 62.7 million euros in 2021-2022 to finance the strengthening of its police forces on the coasts, has not kept “its promise”…

I do not know the precise terms of the agreement, but the number of migrants leaving France for England has been rising steadily in recent months. One wonders exactly what the French are doing to justify this payment, even if it is admittedly difficult to control an entire coastline. Many people think that the French authorities are allowing illegal embarkations to our shores and that it is rather a cheek to demand to be paid for not doing what they had promised. The tone used by some French leaders like Clément Beaune, your Secretary of State for European Affairs, and deputies and mayors of northern France is very violent for representatives of a democratic country, towards another democracy which is also an ally. Many Britons therefore believe, today, that France is not our friend and that it will use all means to make life difficult for the British government. A certain Anglophobia has always been latent in France, just as a certain Francophobia is present in our country. If we continue to heat the saucepan, it will sooner or later boil over and aggravate ill feeling on both sides of the Channel.

Don’t you think Boris Johnson is playing it up on the domestic political level?

There is still a minority of EU sympathizers in Britain — especially in London and among parts of the political elite — for whom everything our Prime Minister does is bad and everything Brussels and Paris do is good. But among most people who are not very politicized Boris Johnson remains quite popular. Some might say that he is seeking popularity by fueling anti-French sentiment, just as Emmanuel Macron may be doing with anti-English sentiment.  But Boris Johnson has always been very moderate in his language, referring to ‘our French friends’ even when President Macron and other French politicians were  calling him liar, traitor, cheat etc., for example on the occasion of Australia’s cancellation of the submarine order.


Robert Tombs is Professor of History at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. He is the co-author with Isabelle Tombs of La France et le Royaume-Uni: Des ennemis intimes  (Armand Colin, 2012).  This interview appeared in L’Opinion magazine at https://www.lopinion.fr/edition/international/robert-tombs-nombre-d-anglais-pensent-que-france-veut-punir-brexit-256565

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Robert Tombs