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Boris Johnson; finally a politician to unite the whole of France

The success of Johnson, whom Charlie Hebdo described as a ‘cockerel who sings while its feet are stuck in shit’, mystifies the French public

Marie Le Conte
5 November 2021, 12.00am
Boris Johnson greets France's President Emmanuel Macron during the G7 summit in June 2021
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REUTERS/Phil Noble/Pool/Alamy Stock Photo

It isn’t just that Britain loves to hate France; for entire quarters of the press and the political sphere, the whole fun in the relationship between the two countries comes from the certainty that France also loves to hate Britain. We’ve had the best of times and the worst of times together, and for hundreds of years, we have been the best of frenemies.

“The French are always grumpy in October,” leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted earlier this week, “the anniversaries of Trafalgar and Agincourt upset them.” The spiky remark, obviously intended to offend those on the other side of the Channel, was childish but not out of the ordinary.

It was also incorrect; though it is true that Paris isn’t currently on the best of terms with London, it has nothing to do with archers, mud, or wars long won and lost. In fact, the post-Brexit battle between the two countries was largely one-sided until recently; Fleet Street’s tabloids yearned for a scuffle, but they were the only ones.

Far from fury, the events of the night of 23 June five years ago led to pained surprise in France, followed by a strong desire to swiftly move on.

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“In the five years following the British referendum of June 2016, Brexit sparked more indifference than anger in France, once the shock of the vote had subsided,” newspaper Ouest France wrote last month.

“The considerable interests put at stake by Britain’s exit mobilised the energies of Paris and Brussels in difficult negotiations. When it came to the country at large, however, indifference reigned.”

Thorn status restored

That is no longer the case. Through a combination of fishing wars, the migrant crisis, perceived betrayals on the AUKUS deal and endless quarrelling about the Northern Ireland protocol, Britain has regained its status as the largest thorn in France’s side.

Though the issues are many, this perfect storm isn’t exactly the reason behind this diplomatic headache; instead, one man is to blame. Described as a “cockerel who sings while its feet are stuck in shit” by Charlie Hebdo, Boris Johnson has managed to irritate the French in a way few of his recent predecessors have.

His tendency to joke about even the most dour of topics irritates them, and so does his relentless optimism; his innate lack of diplomacy rankles, and his very character.

“Since taking his country out of the EU, Boris Johnson seems convinced that the permanent confrontation with the continent will be more beneficial to him than arrangements that could satisfy the Irish, French fishermen or British supermarkets,” a leader column concluded in French news magazine Le Point last month.

Le Monde made a similar argument a few days later: “It is as if Boris Johnson needs to maintain a permanent conflict with the EU in order to flatter his electorate and make people forget the negative consequences of Brexit on the economy.”

As countless leaders have done before him, Johnson is bashing his nearest foreign neighbours because things are less than rosy at home

It is a widely held view in French newspapers that, as countless leaders have done before him, Johnson is bashing his nearest foreign neighbours because things are less than rosy at home. It is as much of an ideological frustration as a factual one; it is true that the prime minister has a lot on his domestic plate at the moment, just as it is true that Brexit is still seen as a betrayal by some in Paris.

“While the political strategy of the British Prime Minister aims to justify the divorce with the European Union and to underline the alleged benefits for his country, the French president, fundamentally pro-European, has continued to castigate the ‘lie’ that founded Brexit and of which Boris Johnson was the main architect,” Le Monde wrote in September.

“Trapped by the isolation that the British overwhelmingly voted for in 2016, but made worse by his chaotic and short-sighted policies, the Prime Minister is looking for outlets. France is on the front line to create a diversion.”

Scapegoat

It feels worth noting that the tone here wasn’t angry, not quite; instead, the French press and political elite are seemingly more frustrated than they are furious. They are tired of being scapegoated, of course, but they are also baffled by the continued electoral success of Boris Johnson.

This was made especially obvious in L’Express when it covered the Conservative Party conference last month. On the second day of the gathering, the magazine published quotes from Patrick Martin-Genier, a French academic, who deemed Johnson “weakened” and predicted that the conference would be “difficult for him”.

That isn’t what happened, of course. Johnson received a hero’s welcome from his party, his internal opponents remained silent and, once again, he won the day. Of his leader’s speech, L’Express then wrote:

“Boris Johnson, the members of his government and the Brexiteer camp claim that these problems [fuel shortages, empty supermarket shelves] are caused by the post-pandemic return of the economy, and happening all over Europe.

“Saying the opposite would be not only unpatriotic but also bad for morale. And so, on television channels and the radio, politicians and Conservative commentators repeat the same mantras. [...] Still, these gross inexactitudes, repeated day after day, are rarely questioned in Britain.

“Boris Johnson has made autosuggestion the rule and slogan of his government and so far, the majority of Britons are choosing to believe him. ‘Repeat after me: the future is bright.’ Until when?”

At this stage, a suggestion for Britain to take any advice from France would probably be unwelcome but really, it isn’t an unreasonable question. Until when?

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