Macron skewers Truss over ‘friend or foe’ comments

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ALGIERS — In Paris, they dreamed of a ‘reset’ in Anglo-French relations once Boris Johnson departed as British prime minister.

But the expected arrival of Liz Truss as his successor in 10 Downing Street next month is instead sending tensions into overdrive.

The maverick U.K. foreign secretary set the tone during an explosive leadership campaign event Thursday night, vowing to judge French President Emmanuel Macron by his “deeds not words,” and warning “the jury is out” on whether he is Britain’s “friend or foe.”

Her less-than-diplomatic comments — red meat to the Tory members in the audience — triggered an immediate storm on both sides of the Channel, with former U.K. Ambassador to France Peter Ricketts condemning them as “irresponsible.”

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Seizing the statesmanlike moral high-ground, the French president stressed the need for clarity of thought in a geopolitically chaotic world and underlined the absurdity of cheap political shots suggesting enmity between such close allies as Paris and London.

Quizzed by POLITICO on Truss’ remarks during a trip to Algiers on Friday, Macron paused, inhaled deeply, then puffed out his cheeks in mock despair.

“It’s never good to lose your bearings in life,” the French president said. “We live in a complicated world, you have more and more illiberals, authoritarian democracies, destabilizing powers.

“If we are not able to tell between France and the U.K. whether we are enemies or friends — the terms are not neutral — we are heading towards serious problems.

“For sure I say the British people — the nation that is the United Kingdom — is a friend, a strong and allied nation, whatever its leaders.”

“And,” he added waspishly, “sometimes in spite of, and beyond, its leaders… or the little mistakes they make with campaign pot shots.”

The exchange is just the first skirmish in what looks likely to be a relationship every bit as difficult as that between Macron and Johnson, which was chequered by bad-tempered comments and aggressive briefings from either side.

Johnson himself tried to play down the row, insisting his relations with Macron had always been positive and describing the French president as a “très bon buddy.”

But — though Truss is not yet in power — further flash points already loom large.

Her allies suggest one of her first acts as prime minister may be to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol — a mechanism to unilaterally suspend some of the controversial rules regulating trade in the region after Brexit.

Triggering this so-called ‘nuclear option’ built into the Brexit agreement would further enrage Paris, given Truss, as foreign secretary, is already spearheading a U.K. threat to permanently walk away from some of those rules. Draft legislation permitting London to do so will continue its parliamentary passage in the fall, despite outrage across the EU.

With David Frost, the U.K.’s former chief Brexit negotiator and one of the loudest advocators of invoking Article 16, tipped to join Truss’ Cabinet this fall, and with a 2024 U.K. general election already looming on the horizon, few expect Truss to tone down the rhetoric against the EU assuming she becomes PM.

In Paris, patience is already thin. Relations have been badly strained in recent years by a succession of disputes including post-Brexit fishing rights, Channel migrants, a controversial security deal, the trade of sausages and other meats across the Irish Sea, and Johnson’s reported insults.

This week, France added U.K. sewage dumped in the English Channel to the list of its grievances regarding its neighbor’s behavior. French officials also harbor concerns over her foreign policy.

‘BoJo without the jokes’

Inside the Elysée, Truss is seen as “BoJo without the jokes,” according to one senior official, who said their favored choice of Tory leader was “anybody but Truss.” They described her as lacking in talent, and criticized her [Margaret] “Thatcher persona.”

“It’s going to be a rocky ride,” sighed another French government adviser, traveling with Macron Friday. “But she’s on the campaign trail. We’ll have to see what she does afterwards.”

They added: “There’s a populist wave in the U.K. — it’s doubtful any British politician can be totally sincere right now. But there are also some deep convictions with Truss. On Ukraine, she will fight until the last Russian soldier has left the country.”

A French diplomat said Paris wants to see the U.K. taking steps to rebuild bilateral trust and show willingness to tackle disputes in a “constructive, non-political way,” including the Northern Ireland protocol row.

Showing polite interest — as Johnson appeared to do — in Macron’s idea of a ‘European Political Community’ might be a start. But in July, Truss told a parliamentary committee she is not a fan. And as prime minister, she is set to miss the first informal meeting of European leaders to discuss the idea, in Prague on October 6, because of a clash with the Tory Party conference.  

A long-overdue U.K.-France summit also remains on ice. The French envoy said the event, last held in early 2018, is unlikely to take place this year given the new British prime minister will only be in post from September.

But Ricketts predicted Macron will not agree to a high-profile summit with Truss at all if she pushes through the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in its current form.

“Both sides will need time,” he said, “and the French will want to be convinced that there’s been a little bit of a change of heart in London, and that some of the aggressive approach of the last two or three years has gone.”

Fellow European powers are increasingly worried by the collapse in relations.

Miguel Berger, the German ambassador to the U.K., urged the U.K.’s relationship with France to be “as close as possible,” especially after Britain decided to join the new AUKUS security partnership with the U.S. and Australia last year, causing France to lose a submarine deal with Canberra worth more than €50 billion.

“I think there needs to be an effort to reach a good understanding and cooperation with our French neighbors,” Berger told BBC Radio 4’s Today program Friday.