“The policy and program differences are still quite deep,” said Peter Ricketts, Britain’s ambassador to France between 2012 and 2016. But he added that Sunak “is not used to making fun of Johnson and denigrate international leaders”.
“He’s a much more respectful and serious politician, and I think he and Macron will probably get along pretty well,” he said.
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That would be good news at the Élysée, where Macron has left no doubt in recent weeks that Europe must “get the UK back on its horse”, said Elvire Fabry, senior researcher at the Parisian Jacques Delors Institute.
Johnson and Truss seemed to have little in common with Macron. But the French president, 44, and Sunak, 42, share a number of similarities that range from their backgrounds in investment banking to their steep political rises and occasional appearances in hoodies. (They’re about the same height, too.)
“Are Macron and Sunak heading for a nice bromance?” headlined the British conservative magazine Spectator on Tuesday.
At least in some ways, “both seem like practical, less ideological politicians,” said Nicholas Dungan, a French political analyst and founder of the advisory group CogitoPraxis.
A Franco-British rapprochement would mark a major change in European politics, after years in which the two countries fought bitter diplomatic battles over refugees, submarine contracts and fishing rights. Tensions were so high that at one point last year France and Britain literally found themselves sending gunboats out to sea in a spat for shells. “We are ready for war,” the British tabloid Daily Mail said in full at the time.
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Months later, as Russia prepared for a real war, the two greatest military powers in Western Europe were still busy making fun of each other. When France discovered that the United States, Australia and Britain had secretly brokered a deal on submarine technology, thereby derailing a separate Franco-Australian deal, French officials scoffed at the Britain calling it “the fifth wheel on the wagon”. Unlike Biden, who all but apologized for the deal and sought to undo the damage, Johnson didn’t seem to feel the need to placate the French.
The situation was “worse than I can remember for 40 years of Franco-British relations”, recalled former Ambassador Ricketts.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a game-changer and gradually paved the way for a renewal of relations, because “there is much more that unites them than divides them”, said Georgina Wright, director of the Europe program at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.
The fierce differences had already eased somewhat in Johnson’s final weeks in office, and relations improved further when Truss attended a Macron-backed summit for “European political community” earlier this month.
Sunak’s rise to the post of prime minister now offers the possibility of a clean break. It could, for example, give impetus to a deal to stop more asylum seekers crossing the Channel to Britain, which has long been a point of contention. But it also comes as Franco-German relations – traditionally the driving force behind much of European politics – are increasingly strained, which could pave the way for limited ad hoc alliances between Macron and Sunak.
“They will probably be well aligned on defense issues, especially vis-a-vis Ukraine,” Dungan said.
Britain and France are also facing difficult economic situations and rising energy bills.
Sunak pledged to “fix our economy”. As one of Britain’s wealthiest people, his policies will be scrutinized for any signs that he favors wealthy people over those who need it most. This is a criticism that Macron knows. His political opponents long ago called him “the president of the rich”.
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“Sunak will obviously face something that Macron has faced: that he has been criticized for not being rooted enough in people’s everyday lives and issues,” Fabry said.
Macron, who regularly enrages voters on the left and far-right for appearing aloof, faced violent protests in his first term after proposed increases in fuel taxes sparked wider concerns about social inequalities in France. To avoid a repeat of these protests, Macron has spent far more money capping energy prices and limiting inflation than many other European governments have allocated this year.
Sunak’s economic policy, by contrast, is expected to include painful public spending cuts that in some ways are the opposite of Macron’s current approach.
“I doubt Sunak is in the mood to look to France for lessons,” Ricketts said. “But I think it would be good for him if he did.”
Even though Sunak has pledged to pursue a pragmatic style of leadership, some in Paris and other European capitals fear that his politics will remain influenced by factions of the British Conservative Party that have backed Truss’ policies.
In the past, Sunak was among those selling voters the prospect of a post-Brexit ‘global Britain’ and as finance minister moved to introduce low-tax areas , “free ports”, despite concerns about money laundering.
“Sunak has no choice but to try to make Brexit a success,” Dungan said.
One of the most burning issues remains the status of Northern Ireland, which effectively remained in the European Union’s single market when Britain withdrew from the 28-member bloc.
Under Johnson and Truss, Britain sought to change the protocol that governed much of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status. Although initially tense, EU-UK talks seemed to yield more promising results towards the end of Truss’ short tenure.
Now Brussels is watching for signs of how Sunak will handle the issue. He had previously said he supported scrapping the Brexit deal, which would inevitably escalate tensions between the EU and the UK and could spark a trade war.
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The real improvement in relations, Ricketts said, “all depends, in my mind, on the Government withdrawing this Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which gives them the power to tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol North”.
If, however, the bill passes under Sunak “it immediately casts a large shadow over the extent to which Franco-British relations can improve”, he said.
Mujtaba Rahman, chief executive of Europe-focused Eurasia Group, said he was “cautiously optimistic”.
‘Economic confidence will be key to the UK’s recovery,’ he said, ‘which ultimately means working constructively with European allies.”