Britain’s relations with France have plunged into the deep freeze as the two sides exchanged barbs over the migrant crisis following Wednesday’s tragic death of 27 people in the English Channel.
Emmanuel Macron reacted with fury to Boris Johnson’s publication of a letter making a series of demands on France, accusing him of not being “serious” about finding solutions and dramatically cancelling an invitation for home secretary Priti Patel to come to Paris on Sunday for talks.
Downing Street said the prime minister had no regrets about posting the letter on Twitter and insisted he was taking the issue “extremely seriously” and wants to “work closely with the French and international partners on what is a shared issue”.
Behind the scenes in London, Mr Macron’s outburst was being seen as an indication that France was not treating the issue with sufficient seriousness.
“It boils down to the question of are they really going to let people keep drowning because of a tweet?” said one Whitehall source. “That’s sad.”
But Elysee Palace spokesman Gabriel Attal said France had “had enough of double-talk” from the Johnson administration.
He blasted Mr Johnson’s letter as “lacking in substance and inappropriate in form” and said it “did not correspond” with the contents of a phone conversation the PM had with the president on Wednesday following the disaster.
My letter to President Macron. pic.twitter.com/vXH0jpxzPo
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) November 25, 2021
A five-point plan set out by Mr Johnson included joint UK-French patrols at embarkation beaches, which have already been rejected by Paris. And it demanded a new “bilateral returns agreement”, certain to provoke the Elysee, under which France would be expected to accept back any migrants deemed illegal by the UK.
Mr Attal said the returns plan was “obviously not what is needed to solve this problem”.
He said that France is offering to allow UK immigration officers to process asylum claims on French soil in order to remove the motivation for migrants to attempt the perilous crossing of one of the world’s busiest sea routes in flimsy inflatable dinghies.
But a Whitehall source dismissed this offer as something which would create a new “pull factor” for displaced people to head for northern France, with the danger that any whose applications are rejected would then risk the sea crossing.
Mr Macron made no secret of his anger over Mr Johnson’s letter when he appeared at a press conference alongside Italian prime minister Mario Draghi in Rome.
“I’m surprised when things are not done seriously,” he said. “We don’t communicate between leaders via tweets or published letters, we are not whistleblowers. Come on!
“Leaders communicate in a serious way to deal with serious questions between serious people. On Sunday our interior minister will meet with his EU counterparts and the European Commission.
“We will see, when it comes to the UK, how we can act effectively if they decide to be serious.”
Downing Street later said it hoped the French would “reconsider”, but there was little expectation inside the Home Office that Macron would withdraw such a public snub.
However, talks went ahead at official level in Paris and it is expected that UK officials will join French interior minister Gerald Darmanin and his EU counterparts in Sunday’s meeting.
Ms Patel is expected to speak with ministers in Germany, Belgium and Netherlands over the coming days, as it became clear that many of those embarking from French beaches are not based in France, but have been brought from neighbouring countries by people-smugglers immediately before taking to the sea.
France complains that the UK is yet to deliver in full the £54m which Mr Johnson promised as a contribution towards the €120m (£102m) cost of an operation which Paris regards as effectively protecting the British border.
French presidential hopeful Michel Barnier suggested it might be time to tear up the agreement signed in Le Touquet in 2003 under which border controls take place on the French side of the Channel.
“It’s time to rescind the Touquet agreement and let people who wish to claim asylum in the UK go there and do so,” said the former Brexit negotiator. “We are dealing with a prime minister who is provoking us.”
After Mr Johnson accused the French of not doing enough to prevent Wednesday’s tragedy, Mr Attal said that the prime minister’s letter did not “respect” the efforts made by police who have arrested 1,500 people-traffickers and broken up 44 smuggling networks, or coastguards who have rescued 8,000 people from the Channel, since the start of this year.
A Downing Street spokesperson insisted that Mr Johnson had a “positive” relationship with Mr Macron, and said that the letter was written in “a spirit of partnership and cooperation”.
“We want to work closely with the French and international partners on what is a shared issue,” said the spokesperson. “We are close partners and friends and you see the areas that we collaborate in, namely militarily with the operation that is ongoing in Mali.”
The No 10 spokesperson denied that the UK’s references to its military mission alongside France in west Africa – repeated publicly by ministers this morning – amounted to a veiled threat to withdraw cooperation if Paris does not comply with demands on migration.
“I’m merely pointing to areas where we work extremely closely and have existing cooperation and long-term shared interests,” he said.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the withdrawal of Ms Patel’s invitation was “a humiliation for a prime minister and home secretary who have completely lost control of the situation in the Channel“.
Mr Thomas-Symonds said: “At the very moment when the prime minister needed to be a statesman, what we have seen is a grave error of judgement. This continued blame game is not getting us anywhere.“
But diplomats said that Mr Macron was not without blame for the spat.
The UK’s former ambassador to Paris, Lord Ricketts, said: “French anger is understandable. But in my view they were wrong to cancel the invitation to Patel. The priority must be finding practical solutions to stop this murderous trafficking in human lives.
“I agree that the proposal that France should agree to take back everyone that the UK deems illegal was provocative. But having Ms Patel to the multilateral meeting would have enabled all to have told her so, and then got down to business on practical ways of tackling the crisis.”
Ex-ambassador to the EU and US and former national security adviser Sir Kim Darroch, said that the cancellation of Ms Patel’s invitation was “a bad step”.
“I don’t think it was a brilliant move to put that letter on Twitter because it was a piece of domestic political theatre showing that No 10 were involved in trying to do something but it put the French government in an awkward position,” said Sir Kim. “It put them on the spot, it challenged them over politically very sensitive issues.
“One could argue it’s a bit of an over-reaction in Paris, but it was never going to help. And we’ve got to find a way through this. It doesn’t need an apology, it just needs to find a way of calming things and get into a position where we can work together on a way forward, and it’s got to happen.”
UN High Commission for Refugees spokesperson William Saltmarsh urged France and Britain to work together.
“Cooperation between the two countries, but also between the UK and Europe is extremely important,” he said. “It is important that there is a concerted efforts to try to crush the smugglers’ rings.”