Europe

As PM Rishi Sunak takes the reins in Britain, hopes for improved France-UK relations

UK-France relations have been marked by tensions ever since Brexit, whether over fishing rights or submarine deals. Will new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak improve relations with Britain’s neighbour and ally across the Channel – and notably French President Emmanuel Macron? We take a look at some of the key similarities, and differences, between the two leaders.

Relations between France and the UK have been tense, with the animosity between French President Emmanuel Macron and former UK prime minister Boris Johnson so pointed that Macron reportedly called Johnson a clown last November.

In August, then foreign minister – and prime ministerial hopeful – Liz Truss seemed likely to continue on the same footing. Asked whether France was friend or foe, Truss replied bluntly that “the jury was still out”.

She quickly came under fire from the opposition and even those in her own party, particularly given that diplomacy was part of her dossier as foreign minister.

“It was a silly, offhand joke,” says Andrew Smith, director of Liberal Arts at Queen Mary University of London. “But under her government there was a feeling that silly, offhand things could suddenly become policy.”

With Truss’s departure, new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has ushered in hopes of a reset in relations between the UK and France, largely due to some of the perceived similarities between him and his French counterpart.

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Papers in the UK have even hailed the possibility of a “beautiful bromance” blossoming between Sunak and Macron. But how much do the two leaders have in common?

Background: ‘speaking the same sort of language’

Both leaders are the sons of medical professionals and were educated at prestigious schools before making their fortunes as bankers. After shifting to the world of politics, both worked as finance ministers before rapidly ascending to the top leadership.

Young, wealthy and successful, both Macron (44) and Sunak (42) are also skilled at managing their personal brands, whether in impeccably tailored suits or hard at work in hoodies ­– as captured by their professional photographers.

“They both look the same: urbane, well-groomed, well-presented,” says Paul Smith, associate professor of French politics at the University of Nottingham. “One might imagine that they speak the same sort of language.”

“Superficially, there's certainly a possibility for a positive working relationship,” adds Andrew Smith.

Economics: ‘realism and pragmatism’

Economically, there is much the two former bankers might agree on. Both are proponents of free markets and reduced public spending. As UK chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) Sunak was quick to argue for austerity measures in the wake of vast public spending during the pandemic. As prime minister he is expected to make cuts to reduce national debt.

“We're likely to see increased tax, even very modest tax increases or abandoned tax cuts, alongside cuts to public spending,” says Andrew Smith.

“That's very much the measures that Macron has been pushing for some time.”

In a country with strong unions, there are greater limits on how far Macron can pursue such an agenda in France. Yet a shared approach of “realism and pragmatism in the face of systemic challenges is certainly common ground between Macron and Sunak”, Andrew Smith says.

Crucially, Sunak is seen internationally as someone who “understands the international markets and that economies are interlinked”, says Paul Smith. After weeks of economic turbulence in the UK during Truss’s premiership, “that's the important thing that underpins the potentially good relationship” between the two men.

Ukraine: ‘The challenges of the moment’

After Sunak was chosen as prime minister, Macron was quick to tweet a message of congratulations in which he pledged to work together “to tackle the challenges of the moment, including the war in Ukraine”.

Congratulations to @RishiSunak, who has become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Together we will continue working to tackle the challenges of the moment, including the war in Ukraine and its many consequences for Europe and the world.

— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) October 25, 2022

Yet evidence of a divergent approach is already emerging. Macron recently announced increased military spending in Ukraine and is seeking to increase overall military spending in the context of the war while there is already some “suspicion that Sunak is in favour of trimming the defence budget”, says Paul Smith.

Europe: ‘a good working relationship’?

On Europe, too, the two leaders differ. Macron is a proponent of France playing a leading role in a united Europe, while Sunak is pro-Brexit. Yet differing ideologies might not lead to a direct clash; ongoing Brexit negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol are likely to be left to EU and UK negotiators rather than the prime minister and the president.

Instead, Sunak is likely to be invited to the next meeting of the European Political Community, a gathering of 44 European countries founded by Macron that Truss also attended in October. Accepting could be a way to build relationships with European countries outside of the confines of the EU.

In this context, Sunak could aim to “look for progressive points of alignment to create a good working relationship, rather than seeking to redress the wider issue of Brexit”, Andrew Smith says.

Migration: ‘Talking a hard game’

But a sticking point could arise over attitudes towards migration across the English Channel, long a political football. Here, the relationship between French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman will be crucial.

Both appeal to the hard right and both “talk a hard game with regard to immigration”, says Paul Smith. Neither are averse to controversy.

“It might mean that there's a meeting of minds, but one can also imagine a very difficult situation in the Channel,” he says. “It depends on the extent to which Sunak reins Braverman in – or not. Macron gives Darmanin a great deal of licence.”

Political will: time for ‘grown-up politics’?

Macron largely overcame tensions with Truss during her short tenure, and seems keen to maintain a stable relationship with the UK.

“He will probably seek to cool the difficult relationship that there has been over the last few years,” says Paul Smith. “In France there does seem to be more of a desire for some grown-up politics.”

>> France is a friend, says UK’s Truss, in a bid to turn page on bilateral strains

In fact, the French president has other international relationships to prioritise, chief among them the relationship with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, with whom differences have started to emerge. Maintaining EU relations are likely to come first for the French president. “Macron will be the first to say that he would want good relations with Great Britain, but it’s the relationships within Europe keeping French trade going,” says Paul Smith.

Sunak also has other priorities, but his relationship with Europe and France might be key to his ability to govern his party. Recent months have seen the Conservative Party he now leads riven by internal squabbles. Even with Sunak as a unifying leader, “there is still the risk of big, explosive disagreements within the government”, says Tim J. Oliver, lecturer in British politics and public policy at the University of Manchester.

Attitudes towards Europe – the catalyst for the Brexit referendum ­– have been at the heart of internal debates for decades. “It goes all the way back to Churchill,” Oliver says.

As such, Sunak must strike the right tone – successful international relationships are important for stability, but a wholehearted embrace of European neighbours would be frowned upon. The relationship with France is especially tricky. For some UK politicians and media, the country is a symbolic scapegoat. “There's a saying in British politics: When you're desperate, blame the French,” says Paul Smith.

At the same time, “there’s a very angry, agitated, right-wing media that will go off Sunak in due course”, Paul Smith says. When this happens, Sunak might come under pressure – like his predecessors – to get an easy win by making jibes at Macron. Alternatively, a fully-fledged “bromance” with the French president could be perceived as a flaw, especially if the UK then agrees to French demands. He “could be accused of being weak or subservient”, says Andrew Smith.

This leaves Sunak in a precarious position, yet it seems likely he will take a less strident approach than his immediate predecessors. Asked the same question as Truss – Is France a friend or a foe? – back in August, Sunak simply said France was a “friend”, an answer that made no headlines.

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