Franco-British relations have been marked by tensions since Brexit, whether it concerns fishing rights or submarine contracts. Will new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak improve relations with Britain’s neighbor and ally across the Channel – and notably French President Emmanuel Macron? We take a look at some of the key similarities and differences between the two leaders.
Relations between France and the UK have been strained, with animosity between French President Emmanuel Macron and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson running so deep that Macron reportedly called Johnson a clown last November.
In August, then-foreign secretary – and prime minister candidate – Liz Truss looked likely to continue on the same footing. When asked if France was friend or foe, Truss bluntly replied that “the jury was still out”.
She quickly came under fire from the opposition and even from her own party, especially since diplomacy was part of her portfolio as foreign minister.
“It was a silly, flippant joke,” says Andrew Smith, director of liberal arts at Queen Mary University of London. “But under his rule, there was a sense that stupid, flippant things could suddenly become policy.”
With Truss’s departure, new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has raised hopes of a reset in UK-France relations, largely due to some of the perceived similarities between him and his French counterpart.
Newspapers in the UK have even hailed the possibility of a “beautiful bromance” blossoming between Sunak and Macron. But what do the two leaders have in common?
Context: “speaking the same type of language”
The two leaders are the sons of medical professionals and were educated in prestigious schools before making their fortunes as bankers. After moving into politics, both worked as finance ministers before quickly rising to senior management.
Young, wealthy and successful, Macron (44) and Sunak (42) are equally adept at managing their personal brands, whether in impeccably tailored suits or working hard in hoodies – as captured by their professional photographers.
“They both look alike: urban, neat, well-presented,” says Paul Smith, associate professor of French politics at the University of Nottingham. “You could imagine that they speak the same kind of language.”
“Superficially, there is certainly a possibility for a positive working relationship,” adds Andrew Smith.
Economy: “realism and pragmatism”
Economically, there are many things the two former bankers could agree on. Both are supporters of the free market and the reduction of public spending. As Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister), Sunak was quick to advocate for austerity measures in the wake of vast government spending during the pandemic. As Prime Minister, he is expected to make cuts to reduce the national debt.
“We’re likely to see tax increases, even very modest tax increases or forgone tax cuts, alongside cuts in public spending,” says Andrew Smith.
“It’s largely the measures that Macron has been advocating for some time.”
In a country with strong unions, there are greater limits to the extent to which Macron can pursue such an agenda in France. Still, a shared approach of “realism and pragmatism in the face of systemic challenges is certainly common ground between Macron and Sunak”, says Andrew Smith.
Basically, Sunak is seen internationally as someone who “understands international markets and that economies are interdependent,” says Paul Smith. After weeks of economic turmoil in the UK during Truss’s tenure as Prime Minister, “that’s the important thing underpinning the potentially good relationship” between the pair.
Ukraine: “Current challenges”
After Sunak was chosen as prime minister, Macron was quick to tweet a congratulatory message in which he pledged to work together “to meet the challenges of the moment, including the war in Ukraine.”
Congratulation to @RishiSunak, who became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Together we will continue to work to meet the challenges of the moment, including the war in Ukraine and its many consequences for Europe and the world.
—Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) October 25, 2022
Yet evidence of a divergent approach is already emerging. Macron recently announced an increase in military spending in Ukraine and seeks to increase overall military spending in the context of the war when there are already “suspicions that Sunak is in favor of reducing the defense budget”, explains Paul Smith.
Europe: “a good working relationship”?
On Europe too, the two leaders diverge. Macron is a supporter of France playing a leading role in a united Europe, while Sunak is pro-Brexit. Yet differing ideologies might not lead to direct confrontation; Ongoing Brexit negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol will likely be left to EU and UK negotiators rather than the Prime Minister and President.
Instead, Sunak will likely be invited to the next meeting of the European Political Community, a gathering of 44 European countries founded by Macron that Truss also attended in October. Accepting could be a way to build relationships with European countries outside the EU boundaries.
In this context, Sunak could aim to “seek progressive points of alignment to create a good working relationship, rather than seeking to solve the broader problem of Brexit”, explains Andrew Smith.
Migration: “Talking about a difficult game”
But a sticking point could arise over attitudes towards migration across the Channel, long a political football. Here, the relationship between French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and British Interior Minister Suella Braverman will be crucial.
Both appeal to the hard right and both “talk about a tough game on immigration,” says Paul Smith. Neither is averse to controversy.
“It can mean that there is a convergence of views, but one can also imagine a very difficult situation in the Channel,” he says. “It depends on how well Sunak suppresses Braverman – or not. Macron gives a lot of license to Darmanin.
Political will: time for “adult politics”?
Macron has largely overcome tensions with Truss during his short tenure and appears keen to maintain a stable relationship with the UK.
“He will probably seek to cool the difficult relationship that there has been for the past few years,” says Paul Smith. “In France, there seems to be more desire for adult politics.”
>> France is a friend, says UK’s Truss, in bid to turn the page on bilateral tensions
In fact, the French president has other international relations to privilege, first and foremost the relationship with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, with whom differences are beginning to appear. Maintaining relations with the EU is likely to come first for the French president. “Macron will be the first to say that he would like good relations with Great Britain, but it is the relations within Europe that give life to French exchanges”, explains Paul Smith.
Sunak also has other priorities, but his relationship with Europe and France could be key to his ability to govern his party. Recent months have seen the Conservative Party he now leads torn apart by infighting. Even with Sunak as a unifying leader, “there is always a risk of major and explosive disagreements in government,” says Tim J. Oliver, senior lecturer in British politics and public policy at the University of Manchester.
Attitudes towards Europe, the catalyst for the Brexit referendum, have been at the heart of internal debates for decades. “It goes all the way back to Churchill,” says Oliver.
As such, Sunak needs to strike the right tone – fruitful international relations are important for stability, but wholehearted embrace of European neighbors would be frowned upon. The relationship with France is particularly delicate. For some British politicians and media, the country is a symbolic scapegoat. “There’s a saying in British politics: when you’re desperate, blame the French,” says Paul Smith.
At the same time, “there is a very angry and agitated right-wing media that will abandon Sunak in due course,” says Paul Smith. When that happens, Sunak could be pressured – like his predecessors – to secure an easy victory by making fun of Macron. Alternatively, a full-fledged ‘bromance’ with the French president could be seen as a default, especially if the UK then agrees to French demands. He “could be accused of being weak or submissive”, says Andrew Smith.
That leaves Sunak in a precarious position, but it seems likely he’ll take a less strident approach than his immediate predecessors. Asked the same question as Truss – Is France friend or foe? – in August, Sunak simply said France was a “friend,” a response that did not make headlines.