It is in the nature of an autocrat, when faced with unpopularity to engage in creating demons. Then, as hero of his people, he can show strength, resolve and, strapping in the armour of national chauvinism, can go out to battle. Win or lose he has shown that he is the father, the warrior, the defender of the people and their rights and interests. History is littered with examples, fiction likewise.
Right now France, in the figure of Emmanuel Macron, is stepping up to this traditional political trope. The foriegn enemy, naturally, is the UK, or more particularly, England. This comes in the light of the slightly comedic carry on last year when he launched French naval vessels to harass the Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
More importantly it comes after the launch of the AUKUS program alliance between the US, Australia and the UK about the sharing of nuclear submarine technology with Australia, in the process cancelling a multi-billion dollar commission with French shipyards.
Domestically Macron is under pressure in the upcoming French Presidential election with a new opponent gaining rapid ground.
Éric Zemmour, the Parisian son of Jewish Berber migrants, is from Algeria. The author and journalist takes a radical approach to French nationality, and though not yet a candidate (to be so in France requires 500 mayors to back you) he is dominating the political space with a brand of French nationalist, and anti Islamic rhetoric that fascinates, titillates and in many cases scares French opinion. In a major article in the Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan, a London based American journalist, encompasses this panic. Her thesis is that he is a Trump-like figure, but perhaps even worse… “French journalists look doomed to repeat the mistakes of their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.“
In the light of this electoral threat, Macron has declared diplomatic war with the UK, based on his reading of an aspect of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) signed between the UK and the EU, post Brexit. This centres on the right of French trawlers to fish in British waters. The UK authorities have bent over backwards to allow such access, agreeing to the vast majority of requests (all that is required is some flimsy proof that a boat has fished there in the last 5 years) but that is not enough for this latter day Sun King.
On Thursday this got so bad as to impound a UK registered trawler, and his Prime Minister writing to Ursula van der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, calling for support in their campaign against the UK., What was telling about this letter is what underpinned the call for support. It wasn’t so much about the rules, but instead about punishing the UK for its temerity for going alone and leaving the European bloc.
“It is essential to clearly show that the European Public Opinion that honouring the commitments entered into is non-negotiable and that there is more damage to leaving the union than remaining in it”.
The UK must be damaged. That is the key. The great existential fear amongst Eurocrats is that an independent UK not merely survives, but thrives. For if the UK succeeds – and we are doing so – then what glue can hold a socially fissiparous and economically moribund pan national block together. Nothing so eats away at the glue of self interest, than realising that it no longer works as sold. In this letter, Macron’s Prime Minister is appealing to this existential fear. The problem for France is that the rest of the continent is beginning to get fed up with Macron’s nationalist hissy fits. Be it over vaccine policy, when he crashed the EU’s vaccine roll out by claiming to be a scientist or over his earlier fisheries behaviour, or even over his attempt to punish the US over the Aukus deal.
In the midst of this Biden’s great pile of grovelling, insincere, flattery appears to non French listeners, like egg yoke on the French President’s tie. “The United States has no older, no more loyal, no more decent ally than France. They’ve been with us from the beginning — and we will always be there for them.”
France is thrashing around, desperate for allies and Macron’s performance recently cannot be helping. It might however have the impact he really craves, that of convincing the French public that he does in fact have France’s interests at heart.