In some respects, the most embarrassing thing about Liz Truss's declaration that the 'jury is still out' on whether President Macron is friend or foe, is not that such an asinine remark (and clunking cliché) should come from an aspiring Prime Minister, but that it should have come from a serving Foreign Secretary: an office where convention expects opinions to be measured, not blurted.
France's appraisal of Britain's latest Prime Minister was abruptly curtailed, like everything else, by the news from Balmoral (the French are always fascinated by, though not envious of, the intricate workings of constitutional monarchy). But, earlier in the week, commentators here had begun to tot up the problems awaiting the Queen's 15th Premier ('a long winter ahead for Britain' – France24 News) and to chew over the likelihood of her making any sort of fist of them.
Truss's equivocation over Macron provided an unfortunate pointer, to say the least. Remembering that she was a blithe Remainer not so long ago, hopes had been tentatively rising of a slightly more level-headed and credible dialogue with Europe than was possible under her predecessor. That said, actual expectations were never all that high. They have now sunk lower.
Indeed, even Boris Johnson himself, no slouch in his day at barging recklessly around the Foreign Office china shop, felt moved to inject the genial, if prosaic, assurance that Macron was un très bon buddy
of Britain. Tories with more mature vocabularies were less jocular. Gavin Barwell said the Foreign Secretary appeared not to know that Britain and France belonged to the same military alliance, while David Gauke accused Truss of letting 'the prejudices of the gallery' go to her head.
Macron's own response was prompt, and coolly patronising. He didn't quite tell Truss that she was now at the grown-ups' table and it was time to calm down, dear. But he came close. 'It is not good to lose your bearings too much,' he said, adding a nice aside about the 'little mistakes [politicians] may make in a speech from a soapbox'. Unmissably, his tribute two days later described the late Queen as 'a friend of France'.
Not a good start, then. Nor were French observers conspicuously impressed by the few dispensations Prime Minister Truss had time to make before politics went into purdah. The liberal newspaper Le Monde
sharply contrasted the ethnic diversity of her Cabinet with its political homogeneity, noting that it was a cabinet de fidèles
(Cabinet of loyalists), encore plus à droite
(even more right-wing) than Johnson's, and short of experience gouvernmentale
in the most senior posts. She had dispossessed a lot of poids lourds
(political heavyweights) like Sunak, Raab, Gove and Johnson himself, who would now sit smouldering on the backbenches awaiting her first blunder.
In particular, there was unease in France about the appointment of Chris Heaton-Harris to Northern Ireland and Jacob Rees-Mogg to a portfolio that includes energy and climate change. These are issues of powerful common concern across the EU, and putting two rabid, if elegantly hyphenated, Brexiteers in charge does not inspire continental confidence. On both issues, they and the Truss administration will be put to test very soon.
Parented by Truss as Foreign Secretary and listed by her among her proudest achievements, the Bill to retreat from the UK's 2020 Brexit treaty commitments on the Northern Ireland protocol is headed imminently and inevitably for turbulent times in the Lords and the international courts. For now, it is important to note three truths.
First, if Truss continues to feel the need – which drove her leadership campaign – to appease her party's extreme hardliners, then she will leave herself very little wriggle room to negotiate. Second, there is no sign anywhere of the EU's resolve to hold Britain to its word on Ireland weakening: indeed, the issue is seen as a litmus test of whether the toxic reputation the UK took on under Johnson for reneging on its international agreements can be dispelled. And third, the Biden White House sounds ever more resolute that the UK-US trade deal that is Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch's signature mission is going nowhere while the Good Friday Agreement is in jeopardy.
Post-Brexit Northern Ireland also shades awkwardly into what is France and Europe's biggest preoccupation of the moment: energy security. The momentum for an EU-wide approach to the gas price crisis is accelerating, powered by Macron and Germany's Olaf Scholz. Friday's Brussels summit of EU energy ministers made significant progress towards a common approach, of which the centrepiece would be common purchasing on behalf of the 27 to drive down prices and stop Russia playing European countries off against each other. This would be coupled with a common regime of driving down energy use, capping corporate revenues, fiscally incentivising shifts to non-gas energy sources, and using windfall taxes to ease social and economic pressures.
There is still some way to go. The Greens, a significant voice in Paris, Berlin and Brussels, see contradictions between downward pressure on consumer fuel bills and getting people to use less energy. Nor do they like incentives that merely replace gas with other fossil fuels. But there is a growing faith across the 27 in the efficacy of common purchasing and burden-sharing, drawing on Covid precedents. Put simply, unity is strength, which is why Macron has taken the lead in inviting Britain to join a continent-wide alliance, and invited Truss to a proposed all-Europe summit. A Britain buccaneering outside the 27 would, it is recognised, severely undermine the unity.
Once again, the unknown factor is the extent to which Truss will be the prisoner of her party's die-hards. The Brexiteer instinct is always for the UK to do its own thing, and damn the rest. But isolation in this context may be neither so simple nor so advantageous as the Panglossians like to imagine. For one thing, there is an all-Ireland electricity market, and Northern Ireland has an interconnector to Britain. What happens if EU/UK wholesale energy prices suddenly diverge?
More to the point, a UK that undermined a common European front would be seen to be playing straight into Vladimir Putin's hands. Annabelle Lever, politics professor at the SciencesPo in Paris, suggested in a television interview last week that a resolute common approach could have the same effect as did the common EU policy on Covid (or Brexit, for that matter) in drawing the 27 closer together. The one thing the present crisis has shown, she said, is that energy security needs friendly neighbours. Unfriendly neighbours will not be forgiven.
These are far from the only points of friction ahead, or continuing, between the Truss administration and France. There are the wretched refugees in the Channel; the post-Brexit border bureaucracy disrupting holiday travel (which the UK inventively blames on France); and the ominous noises from new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, about the European Convention on Human Rights, viewed across the 46 member states of the Council of Europe as the baseline for a civilised society.
All of these are matters on which, like it or not, Downing Street is going to have to do business with the Élysée Palace. Liz Truss is going to need her mental jury to return the right verdict, and soon.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster