Britain and France tend not to thrive at the same time

Emmanuel Macron displays regal certainties just as Britain turns hesitantly inwards

Call it grandiloquence but, with Angela Merkel to his east and Theresa May to his west, Emmanuel Macron's manner of speech offers a break from all that studied unpretentiousness.

Before he became president of France, he identified a hole in his nation's public life. "This absence is the figure of the king," he said, "whom I don't think fundamentally the French people wanted to kill." The theory, not new in France, might explain the country's periodic thrall to exceptional, almost monarchical leaders. François Mitterrand is the most recent in a gallery that includes Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon.

Each individual led his nation through a historic turning point. As Macron visits Britain this week, his hosts might wonder if they are living through the early stages of another, with France finding some direction under a kingly leader (as his critics see him) while Britain succumbs to relative drift.

For all their cordiality, Britain and France tend not to thrive at the same time, either as economies or as moulders of continental affairs. In the three postwar decades, it was France that built an economic advantage and set the terms of European integration. Britain experienced industrial disarray and rebuffs in its dithering bids to join the European project. In the three decades from the 1980s, Britain’s Thatcherised economy caught up and edged slightly ahead. The EU’s most important developments, such as the single market and eastern enlargement, were authored or advocated by London.


Whether the next three decades belong to France is entirely unwritten. It will come down to the accumulated decisions of leaders who follow Macron and May. All the same, the early form is unpromising for the UK.

Brexit preoccupation

The country has a prime minister in May who is too weak to adjust her own cabinet without inspiring schemes to ditch her. For the foreseeable future, the entire political and bureaucratic class is occupied with the negotiation of an EU exit whose towering aim is to cause the least possible economic harm. The last three general elections have returned small majorities or hung parliaments, which testifies to voters’ dismay with all their governing options and prevents any serious reform passing the legislature. Britain is not in crisis, or anywhere near it, but it does seem locked in a stalemate with itself.

The French know the feeling. They have a stasis of their own, which is why they gambled on a tyro president to break it. Nor is he beloved, even if his ratings have stabilised since last summer’s dip. What matters more is the sense of a nation turning outward just as Britain winds down its own period of exceptional openness. Macron has started to liberalise France’s labour regulations and reduce the state’s holdings in major companies. He uses his office to encourage talent and capital into France. May, at least until her chastening election in June last year, showed a stern face to international business.

More than this, he plainly hates the idea of France as the passive subject of continental events. Some of his proposals for EU reform will hit a wall of German doubt, but they show his impatience to make, not receive, Europe-wide decisions. At the Anglo-French summit on Thursday, he is expected to bring ideas for military co-operation.

Gravitational sway

In London, by contrast, it is only now dawning that formal departure from the EU is not the same as meaningful independence from it. If anything, it could involve exposure to EU standards, judicial processes and budgetary liabilities, minus a say over them. Unless Britain pulls off a vast change in the profile of its trade away from the EU, which accounts for 43 per cent of it, Europe will retain gravitational sway over its nominally sovereign internal affairs.

In a recent interview with the German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag, Britain's chancellor Philip Hammond boasted of worldwide interest in bilateral trade deals with the UK. "But we don't hear that from Europe," he said. If, as briefed, the interview was meant to communicate strength, you would cringe at the government's idea of weakness.

The old liberal-left awe of France as a place that “just does things better” is as crude as the recent (and bizarre, given French per capita income) Conservative view of it as a basket case. Its superior productivity is often quoted without reference to its high unemployment. There are rigidities of culture as much as law.

At times, it has been no country for young men (or women). But then that is why it took a chance on the president who is bringing his regal certainties to Britain, which appears much less sure where to go and who is to lead it there. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018