From the start, Emmanuel Macron looked benignly on Rishi Sunak. After Theresa “Matron” May, Boris “Buffoon” Johnson and Liz “The jury’s still out” Truss, the French president felt the British political circus had finally coughed up someone who seemed sane, responsible, dependable – someone like him, in fact.
It had been all very enjoyable, he felt, when Brexit tied the UK into knots; but perhaps the time had come to do business with No 10 again. After all, Macron, with six years on the job, might give his British junior a few pointers. The two met at COP27 in Egypt last November, barely two weeks after Rishi’s accession, and by all accounts things went well. Weeks later, they were swapping tweets on the World Cup, where France defeated England in the quarter finals. Fast-forward four months, and Macron is in serious trouble. He’s managed to unite against him the CFDT (reformist) and CGT (communist) unions over his botched pensions reform. Tuesday was the sixth day of general strike in a month, with CGT leaders vowing to “bring the economy to its knees”, the kind of brutal language not heard in France since the 1990s. Abroad, France is mistrusted by most of Europe over its wobbly stand on Ukraine. (Ukraine “must win”, Macron says, but Russia mustn’t be “humiliated”). The actual humiliation is in fact France’s in Africa, where a combination of tone-deafness and lack of grand strategy has lost the very former French colonies which French presidents took too long for granted.
Since last summer, Mali and Burkina Faso’s new rulers have kicked out the French army, to be replaced by Wagner Group units; and there are hostile noises coming from Niger and Chad. In the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Mali, Chad, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso and more, France, and especially one Macron, are seen as patronising, dismissive of local concerns and arrogant. Russian propaganda is increasingly replacing France 24 and Radio France International, the French state broadcasters, which have been banned outright in Mali. Macron didn’t help his case last week during a trip to Angola, Congo and Gabon that had been billed as heralding a “new, humbler approach” to the continent. He managed, during a press conference, to lecture President Tshisekedi in Kinshasa on his alleged failings: “Since 1994 you have not been able to restore the sovereignty of your country, whether in military, security, or administrative terms. That’s the reality, and you should not look for blame outside.”
No wonder that Friday’s French-British summit in Paris seems, played right, like a lifebuoy. The French did notice that the supposedly insoluble Northern Ireland problem seemed to have been solved by the new PM, with a combination of politeness, earnestness, and practical sense. From here, he looks civil, conciliatory and full of goodwill. As a country with over 3,000 miles of land borders, the French don’t look at migrant small boats with the same urgency as Britain, but they have understood the need for Sunak to get a deal that moves enough to make a difference. Will it solve everything? Probably not, is the current Paris wisdom, but “even Meloni can’t fix it in Italy”. Still, Macron is aware that the Overton window over migrants has moved Right-wards all over Europe, so what Sunak is attempting might not lose him support in France.