French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested it is a “problem” if Britain cannot call itself a friend of France, amid an unexpected diplomatic row sparked by comments made by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss at a hustings.
The French premier said that he believed the UK was a “friend” despite what the Foreign Secretary might suggest, after Ms Truss told Tory members at a leadership hustings in Norwich on Thursday that she was undecided as to whether the French leader was “friend or foe”.
Mr Macron, asked his views on the comments, responded after a long pause: “Listen, it’s never good to lose your bearings too much in life. If one asks the question – which is how I will answer you – whoever is considered for the leadership in Great Britain, I won’t ponder it for a single second.
“The United Kingdom is a friend of France, and you know we live in a complicated world, there are more and more liberals, authoritarian democracies, so there is a sense of imbalance,” he told FranceInfo.
“If the French and British are not capable of saying whether we are friends or enemies – the term is not neutral – we are going to have a problem.
“So yes of course the British people, the nation which is the United Kingdom, is a friend, strong and allied, whoever its leaders are and sometimes in spite of the leaders and the small mistakes they can make in their speeches.”
A number of issues have undermined relations between the UK and France in recent months, including boat crossings in the Channel and travel chaos around Dover, which Ms Truss blamed on a lack of staffing by the French authorities.
The comments came after Ms Truss and Rishi Sunak were asked a series of quickfire questions at the Norwich hustings.
TalkTV’s Julia Hartley-Brewer, the event host, asked Ms Truss: “President Macron, friend or foe?”
“The jury’s out,” she responded to loud applause.
“But if I become prime minister, I would judge him on deeds, not words.”
The former chancellor Mr Sunak had quickly answered “friend” when asked the same question.
Boris Johnson appeared to try to diminish any doubts about the strength of the UK-French relationship, telling reporters in Surrey that Mr Macron is “un tres bon buddy de notre pays”.
The Prime Minister said: “I think I’ve always had very good relations with Emmanuel Macron. Emmanuel Macron est un tres bon buddy de notre pays.”
He added: “I think the relations between the UK and France are of huge importance. They have been very good for a long time, ever since the Napoleonic era basically, and I think we should celebrate that.
“As for Emmanuel, I’ve had very good relations with him and I can tell you something. He’s a great, great fan of our country.”
The Chancellor was among those to defend Ms Truss on Friday, suggesting the anger over the comments was overblown.
“It was clearly said as a light-hearted comment with a touch of humour,” Mr Zahawi told broadcasters.
“Stating the obvious, France is one of our closest strategic allies in defence and security, of course, in our effort to face down Putin in his illegal invasion of a free and democratic country in Ukraine,” the Chancellor added.
“We like people to judge us on our actions, on our deeds, not words. And I think it is right that we also hold our allies to that very high standard.”
The comments immediately prompted criticism on Thursday and into Friday as well as accusations that the Foreign Secretary was simply “playing to the gallery” of the Tory grassroots.
They also appeared to puzzle other Western allies, with the German Ambassador to the UK reminding Ms Truss of the value of good relations with France.
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) August 25, 2022
Miguel Berger, appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said: “I would say that the relationship with France is of crucial importance for the United Kingdom, so my recommendation would be really to look for a relationship that is as close as possible.”
Pressed on whether Ms Truss’s comments were wise, he said: “The relationship with France should be as close as possible.
“I think there needs to be an effort to reach a good understanding and cooperation with our French neighbours.”
Labour warned that Ms Truss’s comment, which could be seen to risk straining tensions with France, showed a “terrible and worrying lack of judgment”.
Former Conservative minister Gavin Barwell also questioned the remark, tweeting: “You would have thought the Foreign Secretary was aware we are in a military alliance with France.”
— Chloe Smith (@NorwichChloe) August 25, 2022
Elsewhere in the hustings, Ms Truss conceded that if it were a choice between relying on France or China for nuclear expertise, she would pick France.
Taking questions in front of an audience of Tory members, she said: “I’m very clear that we need to boost our nuclear industry including Sizewell, including the small modular reactors that are produced in Derbyshire.
“Frankly, I would rather that we do have more homegrown nuclear expertise, and regrettably we lost that because we failed to do these things 20 years ago, or 30 years ago.
“If it’s a choice between relying on France and relying on China, I would take France.”
It comes after Ms Truss distanced the UK from the prospect of a project of being part of a wider European political community following a meeting between Boris Johnson and the French President in June.
The Elysee Palace insisted that the Prime Minister had expressed interest in the idea, which would see non-EU states such as the UK involved.
Ms Truss denied the UK had ever been on board with such a proposal, saying afterwards: “That is not true.
In July, she also said delays to the journeys of holidaymakers near Dover were the fault of French authorities and had been “entirely avoidable”.