Emmanuel Macron has suggested France and Britain may be heading for “serious problems” after Liz Truss told the penultimate Conservative leadership hustings that “the jury is still out” on whether the French president was “friend or foe”.
Asked for his response to the remarks, Macron, on an official visit to Algeria, said it was “not good to lose your bearings too much.” If he was asked the same question, he said: “I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. France is a friend of the British people.”
If France and Britain “cannot say whether they are friends or enemies – and that is not a neutral term – then we are headed for serious problems,” the French president said.
Truss told the hustings in Norfolk on Thursday that as prime minister, she would judge Macron by “deeds not words”. But Macron said the UK remained “a friendly nation” and strong ally “regardless of its leaders, and sometimes in spite of its leaders and whatever little mistakes they may make in a speech from a soapbox.”
Speaking later, Boris Johnson said he had always enjoyed “very good relations” with Macron who was “a great fan of our country” and “un très bon buddy de notre pays”.
The outgoing prime minister added that relations between the UK had been “of huge importance … They have been very since for a long time, ever since the Napoleonic era basically, and I think we should celebrate that”.
Former senior diplomats and a former French minister condemned Truss’s remarks, saying it was irresponsible of someone likely to be Britain’s next prime minister to disparage a key ally and the comment would further harm cross-Channel relations.
Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to Paris, said Truss’s comments were ill-judged. “We are at the stage of the Tory leadership contest where the contestants need to start seeing themselves, and behaving, as future leaders of the country,” he said.
“France is our closest defence and security ally. We have a 50-year-old commitment to test our nuclear warheads in France. As Britain’s foreign minister, as its probable future prime minister, to insult the president of France, make a joke, indulge in silly point-scoring for cheap laughs, is just plain irresponsible.”
Nathalie Loiseau, a former French Europe minister who now chairs the European parliament’s EU-UK partnership assembly, said the comments were neither conducive to good relations between neighbours nor befitting of a future head of government.
“From a future leader, one expects leadership,” Loiseau said. “And from a future stateswoman, one expects statesmanship. Her remarks fell into neither category.”
She said the comments would do nothing to improve Anglo-French relations, already hit by Brexit and bilateral disagreements, but added: “For years now, France has applied in its dealings with the UK a motto that we owe to you: Keep calm and carry on.”
Tensions that built up over five years of ill-tempered negotiations over the UK’s exit from the EU have been exacerbated by a series of cross-Channel rows including over migrant crossings in small boats, fishing licences and the Northern Ireland protocol.
Analysts say Paris no longer trusts London to keep its word, while London believes Paris is interested only in punishing it for Brexit. Hopes relations might improve after the departure of Boris Johnson do not look likely to be fulfilled any time soon.
“I hope Liz Truss was joking,” Loiseau tweeted. “Although it’s a very bad joke. The only one who will enjoy hearing this sort of comment among friends, neighbours and allies is Vladimir Putin. I suggest not to offer him such a pleasant moment.”
Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to London, said it was important to realise that Truss’s words “were the words of a candidate”. Election candidates “tend to say what they think their electorates want to hear”, she said.
But she said it seemed unlikely that Truss, who is widely expected to be declared the new Conservative leader on 5 September and become the UK’s third female prime minister the next day, would preside over a thaw in Anglo-French relations.
“We of course, to use her phrase, will judge her by her deeds and not her words,” Bermann said. “But there are fundamental disagreements between Britain and France that are not going to disappear. And given what we know about her positions, I think it’s probable things will get worse.”