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Britain, France look to reset frayed ties under Sunak



Publicado: 09/11/2022

Paris (AFP) -

After years of public rows and even a brief naval stand-off in the Channel, Britain and France are looking to reset their relations under new UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron met for the first time as leaders on the sidelines of the UN's COP27 climate summit in Egypt on Monday.

'Friends,' wrote Sunak over a tweeted picture of the two statesmen in an obvious reference to his short-lived predecessor Liz Truss, who said in August she was undecided on whether the French leader was a 'friend or foe'.

On Wednesday, Macron followed up by announcing that the countries would hold a defence summit at the start of next year, ending years of minimal bilateral meetings.

'Our partnership with the United Kingdom must also be raised to another level,' the 43-year-old said during speech in the southern French naval base in Toulon.

The objective was to 'renew the ambitions of our two countries as friends and allies,' he explained.

- Style difference -

Macron and Sunak, 42, have much in common at a superficial level, being of similar height and age, as well as sharing a love for slick communications and sharply tailored navy-blue suits.

But the similarities run deeper: their fathers were medics, both are privately educated, and each of them had a career in banking before entering politics -- Macron at Rothschild, Sunak at Goldman Sachs.

Political differences remain, with Sunak a conservative Eurosceptic free-marketeer, while Macron is fervently pro-EU and a believer in strong state intervention.

But most importantly, Sunak is seen as a 'serious, reflective person' in Paris -- unlike his one-time boss Boris Johnson who stepped down as premier in September, former British ambassador to Paris Peter Ricketts told AFP.

'The style is important because Boris Johnson's style clearly grated on the French: the mockery, the playing of the UK-French relationship as a political football for domestic effect, the fact they could never trust what he said,' Ricketts added.

'I think there has been a fundamental shift in the tone between ourselves and the French,' British Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride told Sky News on Tuesday.

- 'Led by a clown' -

Relations between London and Paris went through one of their most turbulent periods in decades during Johnson's premiership due to tensions over Brexit and personal animosity.

A senior former French ambassador once claimed ties had 'never been as bad since Waterloo'.

Low points included Johnson sending a navy ship to the Channel during a dispute over fishing rights and telling Macron in a mix of French and English that he should 'prenez un grip' (get a grip) after a row about submarines.

In London, Macron's repeated denunciations of Britain's departure from the European Union -- the flagship policy of Johnson's government -- were seen as inflammatory and hostile.

'It is sad to see a major country with which we could do huge numbers of things being led by a clown,' Macron lamented about Johnson while talking to his advisors last year, the Canard Enchaine newspaper reported.

Macron's eagerness to hold a defence summit reflects this desire to work together, while London is keen for a new deal to prevent migrants crossing the Channel in small boats.

Sunak's government is reportedly ready to pay another 80 million pounds (91 million euros) to fund extra policing on French beaches, while British border agents would gain access to French control centres in return.

'Discussions are advancing well,' a spokesperson for the French interior ministry told AFP on Tuesday.

- Reset -

But bigger tests for French-UK and the wider EU-UK relations lie ahead, most notably over Britain's desire to re-negotiate the terms of its departure from the 27-country European Union.

Under Johnson and then Truss, London threatened to unilaterally tear up a key part of that deal governing trade between the British mainland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

'Any real reset with the French becomes almost impossible' if Britain made such a move, warned Ricketts.

'On substance, there are major gaps between Macron and Sunak who is a very different politician with a different economic agenda,' added the former national security advisor to British premier Tony Blair.

'I think Macron will judge Sunak on actions and if they look positive and constructive then I think the French will respond, having been serially disappointed by recent British prime ministers,' he told AFP.

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