The French credit President Michael D Higgins with authorship of their snappy slogan for post-Brexit Franco-Irish relations: "France, your nearest EU neighbour."
When senior French ministers visited Dublin this week, the phrase was part of every speech, appearing twice in the final text agreed by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
It was emblazoned on banners hanging from the French embassy and the Government guest house at Farmleigh. The underlying graphic shows melded French and Irish tricolours, and the blue-and-gold EU emblem.
“France, your nearest EU neighbour” even appears in Irish and English on the business cards of French diplomats, and on souvenir mugs.
Anglo-Irish relations appear to have hit their lowest point in the quarter-century since the Belfast Agreement. Britain's loss is France's gain. Coveney thanked Le Drian and minister for European affairs Clément Beaune for "the unwavering support France has given Ireland throughout the Brexit process". Ireland's "bond with France is like no other," he said. France was "in many ways our closest friend".
Weekly ferry crossings between France and Ireland have quadrupled, from 12 to 44 since Brexit. New business opportunities are springing up, particularly between northern France and Ireland. Coveney and Le Drian mapped out greater co-operation in culture, diplomacy and education.
For the time being, the focus is on the need to save the Northern Ireland protocol, which Boris Johnson's government and Northern loyalists seem determined to sabotage. A shared strategy emerged this week, when the French ministers and Coveney attempted to shame Johnson into respecting the agreement he signed, saying that Britain's "honour", "dignity" and "good word" are at stake.
Threats to the protocol and the crisis in unionism were the main topics of discussion during the 4½-hour dinner that ended at midnight on Thursday. Le Drian’s entourage is now fully versed in the significance of July 12th and the British government’s proposal to halt future prosecutions of British soldiers for crimes committed during the Troubles. There is a shared perception that, while the majority in Northern Ireland wish to maintain the protocol, Johnson is recklessly endangering peace in Northern Ireland to curry favour with the most anti-European elements of the Tory party. If loyalists succeed in scrapping the protocol, the French say it would mean a no-deal Brexit, with all the chaos and uncertainty that would engender.
Paris is sensitive to the close ties between Ireland and the UK but wants to ensure that Dublin not be tempted to sacrifice European interests out of the desire to maintain peace on the island at any cost.
Dublin is equally lucid about French interests. When France attempted to land a fleet at Bantry Bay in 1796, a French war minister wrote that "to detach Ireland from England is to reduce England to a second-rate power... There is little point in elaborating on the advantage to France that Irish independence would bring."
Le Drian cited the failed landing as a symbol of Franco-Irish friendship.
Franco-Irish co-operation is heightened by the fact that they are, at the moment, the only two European nations on the UN Security Council. "Sixty-three children are dead in Gaza, many of them buried in the rubble of their own homes. Two children in Israel are also dead," Coveney said with emotion. "If the Security Council, which is the decision-making body on war and peace... cannot find a way to agree to call for a ceasefire... there are some serious credibility questions that need to be asked."
The ceasefire between Israel and Palestinians was announced on Thursday night, shortly after Coveney praised “French leadership and Irish support” for attempts to achieve a Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. Le Drian’s efforts forced the Biden administration to exert pressure over Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to stop the bombardment.
Because of its seat on the council, Ireland has been named facilitator in negotiations to revive the Iranian nuclear accord which former US president Donald Trump scuppered. In that context, the chief Iranian negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, came to Dublin on the eve of the French ministerial visit. He gave a secret message to Coveney for Le Drian. The French hope an agreement can be reached before the Iranian presidential election on June 18th.
There are small irritants in the otherwise serene relationship between France and Ireland. Members of the 25,000-strong French community in Ireland have been angered by the pandemic requirement for mandatory hotel quarantine (MHQ). About 1,500 foreign residents of Ireland formed a Facebook group to oppose the regime. "It's against European law," says Stéphanie, a French human resources executive in Dublin, and an active member of the Facebook group. "Ireland has recruited thousands of foreigners to work here. We didn't sign up to be prisoners. A lot of people are leaving for good. There's a feeling of betrayal." Coveney and Le Drian expressed confidence that MHQ will be lifted soon, but neither provided a date.
France has railed against what it calls Ireland’s “fiscal dumping” – its low corporate tax rate – for decades. In an internet conference organised by the Institute of International and European Affairs, Le Drian acknowledged that “this subject is one of our rare points of disagreement with Ireland... Both sides have to make an effort.” The Biden administration has taken the “significant step” of advocating a minimum 21 per cent corporate tax rate. The internet giants “make profits all over the world and pay little or no tax. I think the US initiative brings a little morality to the issue,” he said.
Shared concerns over implementation of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the presence of France and Ireland on the Security Council, the expected visit by president Emmanuel Macron to Ireland this summer or autumn, and the upcoming French presidency of the EU will ensure that Ireland and France continue to work closely together for the foreseeable future.