‘Little chance’ of a re-set in France-UK relations under Truss

There is little chance of Britain resetting relations with France under incoming prime minister Liz Truss, experts say, with the neighbours' geographical proximity and sometimes diverging interests making for a testy post-Brexit relationship.

'Little chance' of a re-set in France-UK relations under Truss
New Conservative Party leader and Britain's Prime Minister-elect Liz Truss. Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP

Truss played on tense cross-Channel ties during the Conservative party leadership election, declaring, “The jury’s out” when asked whether French President Emmanuel Macron was a “friend or foe”.

It was the latest in a string of barbs at Paris from UK leaders that have at times exasperated the French.

“The United Kingdom is a friendly, strong and allied nation, regardless of its leaders, and sometimes in spite of its leaders,” Macron later responded.

“(Truss’s) pitch to the party faithful is that she’s going to be very tough on Europe and very tough particularly on Macron, because that plays well with the Conservative base,” former British ambassador to Paris Peter Ricketts told AFP.

Led since 2017 by the passionately pro-EU Macron, Britain’s historic rival France has become a preferred scapegoat for post-Brexit tensions.

“Because of the nearness and because of the huge movement of people and freight… the Brexit irritations and annoyances tend to happen mostly between Britain and France,” Ricketts said.

Around 55 percent of goods trucks – around a million vehicles – leaving Britain in 2020 used the ferry or rail crossings between Dover and Calais, according to UK government figures.

Meanwhile the French government reported 12 million British visitors in 2019 – the last year before the coronavirus crisis – and Britain 3.6 million French.

Since 2020, restrictive coronavirus measures and Brexit rule changes have triggered border jams, often blamed by eurosceptic UK politicians and tabloids on French intransigence.

London and Paris also rowed in 2021 over shortages of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine.

“We can be sure of a continued high level of stress and friction” at the border, Ricketts said, highlighting a new EU advance travel registration system known as ETIAS beginning next year.

In fact, “we could be in a full-fledged trade war with the European Union in eight months” if Truss abandons parts of the Brexit deal relating to checks at the Irish border, said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London.

But Menon argued escalation was unlikely given the danger it might worsen the cost-of-living crisis.

Less crucial to the economy have been noisy disputes over issues like fishing licences for French boats around the Channel islands — now mostly resolved — and migrants trying to cross to Britain in dinghies.

London has repeatedly threatened to withdraw tens of millions of euros paid to support French coastal policing.

More than 27,000 people have attempted to cross the Channel so far in 2022 — almost as many as in the whole of 2021.

British and French interests further afield can be closely aligned — for instance in trade and security.

The two governments “don’t always come to the same solutions … but they do share many of the same instincts”, said Georgina Wright, Europe programme director at French think-tank Institut Montaigne.

Since 2010, they have been linked by treaties providing for a shared expeditionary force, missile development and even nuclear testing.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, herself a former ambassador to London, nevertheless told RTL radio on Monday that “because of Britain’s attitude to the European question, (relations) aren’t up to the role our two countries ought to play” on the global stage.

For now, Britain’s leaders are pursuing the go-it-alone slogan of “Global Britain”.

“There’s absolutely no political payback for working closely with the EU” on foreign policy, Menon said.

Britain has sided with other European powers including France in trying to bring the United States and Iran back to the deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

But while both have responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with strong sanctions, some in France complain of British grandstanding over arms deliveries, while London mistrusts Paris’ insistence on keeping talks going with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And there was a fierce clash with Paris last year over the Indo-Pacific, when Britain struck an alliance dubbed AUKUS with the US and Australia that saw Sydney cancel a lucrative order for French submarines.

“The AUKUS affair is ‘Global Britain’ applied to Asia… It’s logical,” said Jean-Pierre Maulny of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

“But that logic runs against French interests and those of the Europeans in general,” he added.

“I don’t think that Liz Truss (becoming prime minister) will change a huge amount,” Maulny predicted, adding, “In the short term we have no hope (of improving ties)”.

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OPINION: Putin is advancing rapidly – in his invasion of French-speaking west Africa

Events in Mali and more recently Burkina Faso have proved humiliating for the French government - and while many people won't be shedding any tears for the former colonisers, the advance of Russian militias should concern us all, says John Lichfield.

OPINION: Putin is advancing rapidly - in his invasion of French-speaking west Africa

Russia may be retreating in Ukraine but it is advancing rapidly on another front 7,000 kilometres away in what used to be French west Africa.

Vladimir Putin’s great African offensive – using bribery, lies, mercenaries and some genuine development aid – scored a new victory in recent days in Burkina Faso, one of the ten poorest countries in the world.

The second coup d’état in Ouagadougou in eight months brought to power a 30-something army captain who lauded Moscow and berated the “colonial” iniquities of France.

The immediate loser from Russia’s African campaign is what used to be called “Françafrique” – the once-deep political and economic involvement of France in its former African colonies. That decline is not new and has many causes. It is probably inevitable and might eventually be healthy, for both Africa and France.

If the Kremlin wasn’t involved…

The great losers from Russia’s stealthy invasion of west and central Africa will be the Burkinabés and other Africans. Whatever Vladimir Putin’s motives in building an African empire, it is certainly not to help Africans achieve greater control over their own lives, resources and governments.

The spearhead of Putin’s Africa policy is the Wagner mercenary army, run on the Kremlin’s behalf by a billionaire oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagner army has already been implicated in brutal incidents and massacres in several African countries.

Who popped up this week to praise Burkina Faso’s new young strongman? Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In a bizarre statement, more like that of a government than a billionaire businessman, Prigozhin said that he “saluted and supported” Captain Ibrahim Traoré, a man who acted in the name of “liberty and justice”.

In return, Captain Traoré lambasted France and said that Burkina Faso was ready to seek “other partners ready to help in the fight against terrorism”. The next day the French embassy was attacked and vandalised.

The two statements amounted to a brazen admission that the  coup was planned in Moscow. They also reflect a confidence that many west and central Africans now see Russia as their liberator from “imperialist” France.

Burkina Faso has been bombarded in recent months by social media propaganda accusing the deposed Colonel Damiba of being a French stooge. Similar material has appeared in the French language Russia Today TV channel and Sputnik news agency, which have a growing following in all Francophone central and west Africa countries.

Meanwhile, the various jihadist, radical Islamist forces operating in the Sahel and west and central Africa have been gaining ground (including one third of the territory of Burkina Faso). Russia is not in alliance with the Islamists but it does exploit their success for its own gain.

Trust by local people in the French forces deployed (with mixed effect) to fight the jihadis has been constantly undermined by Russian propaganda. The Islamist insurgence is, the propaganda says, just a pretext for “French colonial” interference. Otherwise, the jihadis would have been defeated long ago.

Mali, next door to Burkina Faso, also suffered a double coup by officers hostile to France in 2020 – leading Emmanuel Macron to end the nine years old French anti-Islamist military deployment in the country. Wagner Russian “mercenaries” are now heavily active in the country (though officially just “instructors”).

Similar anti-French feeling is being stirred up in Niger. In June, President Emmanuel Macron suspended all financial and military aid to Centrafrique (the Central Africa Republic) after accusing its government of being “the hostage of the paramilitary Russian Wagner group”.

France fears similar advances in Senegal and Ivory Coast.

This lightning advance of Russian influence in Africa explains in part Macron’s eloquent and angry speech to the UN last month in which he accused (by implication) African countries of betraying their own long-term interests by refusing to condemn the “new colonialism” of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Anti-French feeling in Africa is not entirely a Russia invention. Successive Presidents since Jacques Chirac have tried to unwind the unhealthy and corrupt relationship which existed until the 1990s between Paris and African political elites. Resentment of France as the former colonial power remains – sometimes justified, sometimes fanciful.

In a sense, France has the worst of both worlds. It paying for its past sins rather than benefiting from its present, sometimes clumsy, efforts to fight Islamist terrorism, reduce corruption and foster democracy. Russian power has spread partly because France can no longer call those shots in Africa which Moscow accuses Paris of calling.

Emmanuel Macron has gone even further than his predecessors in trying to create a new relationship with “Françafrique.”  He invited students, artists and successful entrepreneurs, as well as the usual politicians, to the annual France-Africa summit in Montpellier this year.

Macron has said that it is up to African countries whether they want to carry on with the so-called “African franc”, a shared currency (or actually two regional currencies), tied to the Euro and guaranteed by Paris. The “CFA” is the object of many anti-French fantasies in Africa but provides a stability which has helped all its member countries grow faster than most other African nations.

Into this difficult ground, Russia has advanced with much greater skill than it has shown in its brutal, failed attack on Ukraine. Many Africans have been persuaded that Moscow is their ally against a greedy, hypocritical West.

China has advanced with even more subtlety in other parts of Africa. In both cases, African countries may learn to their cost that they have exchanged one form of colonialism for another – even greedier and more corrupt.