| 6 mins read
The British tabloid press has long indulged in the activity of French or German bashing as part of its growing hostility towards the EU. The Brexit vote opened a new wave of tensions in this awkward relationship.
Boris Johnson's election as leader of the Conservative Party revived the animosity between Britain and France through the tabloid style of EU bashing in which Johnson, as a former journalist, indulged. In recent years, a number of Conservative MPs embarked on an escalation of tabloid-like anti-French to mimic the dramaturgy of Johnson, while those who tried to provide a more positive discourse were left crying in the wilderness.
For example, in September 2021, Boris Johnson declared: ‘I just think it's time for some of our dearest friends around the world to prenez un grip about this and donnez-moi un break’. Shortly afterwards, The Sun blamed France for ‘swiping’ AstraZeneca vaccines from Britain and portrayed President Macron as Napoleon.
Boris Johnson's anti-French dramaturgy
Whilst France is not devoid of prejudice against ‘les rosbifs’ or ‘la Perfide Albion’, it is the broadcasting of the feeling in the national press which is specific to the British public debate. Politicians adopting the same rhetoric adds fuel to the fire and has been strengthened by the Brexit referendum and Boris Johnson’s predilection to resort to ‘distracting dramaturgy’.
Despite the xenophobic overtones of this strategy, Conservative MPs have applied it in the House of Commons. ‘Franglais’ is used to suggest that French people are unable to understand any other language – despite many French politicians being fluent in English. Richard Drax deployed, for example, this tabloid-style mixing of languages: ‘My wife, who speaks fluent French, texted me a short time ago, so if he is listening, I say, “Monsieur Barnier, laissez nos poissons!”’
Napoleon Bonaparte has always exerted some fascination on British statesmen and the caricature of President Macron as Napoleon Bonaparte has been a common practice among Conservative Brexiters. The French President crystallises the repulsion that Brexiters feel towards the EU. Andrew Bridgen argued that Britain’s interests were “best served by standing up to the threats of little Napoleons clinging on to power”. Michel Barnier, the key EU negotiator, was not spared this kind of attack, being mocked by Boris Johnson at the 2021 Conservative Party conference. Casting him as another protagonist of ‘Napoleonised’ politics helped suggest the Conservatives’ recovered sovereignty and success in ‘taking back control’.
Debasing the French
The Daily Telegraph once describing how the breakthrough of the Channel Tunnel enabled British people to smell ‘the first whiffs of garlic’. Such references were made again in Parliament by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who claimed France was a safe country for asylum seekers ‘except for those who do not like garlic, who may need to escape’. Rees-Mogg has form in caricaturing the French as ‘difficult’ or as bloodthirsty revolutionaries. Clichés deployed by other MPs include its ‘sclerotic, socialist economy’, or the idea that they are accomplices of migrants illegally crossing the Channel.
More subtly, the comparison with European countries, including France, is a strategy to highlight the dominance of Britain in the fields of law, politics and international relations. Delegitimising its rivals serves to (re)legitimise Britain's fightback. Many Conservative MPs, especially ardent Brexiters, favoured this chauvinistic approach to underline the UK's exceptional contribution. Edward Leigh makes derisory reference to French and German cultural legacies in order to emphasise the specific role of Britain in pioneering world democracy. Robert Jenrick followed the same line, claiming that ‘that the glories of France are as nothing compared with the glories of our own country’.
Renewing the ‘entente cordiale’
Some Conservative MPs have been more keen to maintain a relationship that would serve interests on both sides of the Channel. Many acknowledge the need to facilitate travel between both countries for ordinary citizens, especially core Conservative voters. The resurgence of a timely ‘entente cordiale’ was justified by the need to reassure British citizens, but not necessarily as a willingness to send positive signals to France. Felicity Buchan was focused on her constituents, which included a ‘large and vibrant French community’. Tom Tugendhat was keen to stress his French roots and a genuine willingness to repair a broken relationship. Yet desire for an improved relationship is largely based not on sentiment, but on interests. In the context of the migrant crisis, former Home Secretary, Priti Patel was keen to reassure her colleagues about the good shape of the UK-France relationship, reflecting a more strategic attempt to renew diplomacy.
French bashing has been effective in galvanising populist instincts. But, with the fear of British isolation post Brexit, diplomatic realism requires a sense of friendship between the old rivals. If Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron seem to have much in common, at least in terms of their sociodemographic profiles, there is still a long way to go to repair a relationship damaged by the tensions over Brexit. The reality principle takes over when the broken relationship jeopardises British interests. Conservative narratives about France may seem to operate as an important catalyst for chauvinism and nationalism, but it is not carved in stone.