March 2. 2024. 2:10

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French-UK leaders’ changing tone: From ‘Donnez-moi un break’ to texting about football

As British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron exchanged rugby shirts at the Elysée palace on Friday (10 March), it was in sharp contrast in tone to years of acrimony between London and Paris.

The two leaders, both former investment bankers, had even exchanged friendly text messages when France knocked England out of the football World Cup in December, Sunak told Le Figaro newspaper, in a further sign of what British media have called “Le Bromance”.

“He was very elegant,” Sunak said about Macron.

It was a far cry from the barbs Macron traded with Boris Johnson when he was in Downing Street.

When Johnson was asked in 2021 about Macron’s fury over a deal he signed with Australia and the United States that had upended a planned French submarine contract, he responded with mocking use of Franglais to tell France to get a grip and give him a break.

“I just think it’s time for some of our dearest friends around the world to ‘prenez un grip’ about all this, ‘donnez-moi un break’, because this is fundamentally a great step forward for global security,” he said.

The so-called AUKUS deal marked a low point in Franco-British relations. The French foreign minister at the time, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said France had been “stabbed in the back”.

Johnson and his Australian and American counterparts had negotiated the deal in total secrecy during a G7 summit in Cornwall, leaving Macron in the dark, French and British diplomatic sources have said.

Brexit disputes

Their relationship had already been tested by years of bitter negotiations on the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union since it voted to leave the block in 2016. Macron’s hardball tactics to ensure French fishermen got a good deal had made him the bete noire of British tabloids.

An aide to Johnson told Reuters during the Brexit talks that if they failed, his team had decided “we can always blame the French”. That was always the default position of British diplomacy, the official joked.

A former French official said Johnson, in office from July 2019 to September 2022, had initially charmed Macron and the French leader appreciated his sharp wit and ability to connect on an intellectual level in private. But the situation unravelled quickly.

Macron had come to Cornwall with an offer to “reset” Franco-British relations. But even before news of the AUKUS deal he was incensed by Johnson’s decision to leak details of their conversation to the press, a French official said.

Relations with Johnson’s successor Liz Truss, who was in office just briefly in September and October last year, got off to a bad start, after she replied in jest “the jury’s still out” when asked if Macron was a “friend or a foe”.

But Macron concluded she had been pandering to a conservative audience during her party’s leadership contest, French officials said, and didn’t take offence.

In New York for the United Nations’ General Assembly, the French leader had a long conversation with Truss, and persuaded her to join his new initiative, the European Political Community, which he then launched in Prague a month later.

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But it was really with Sunak, who after a smooth news conference on Friday called Macron “a great friend”, that relations have warmed.

A French official let out a sigh of relief after it wrapped up: “It went well, didn’t it?”