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After years of mutual incomprehension, public rows and even a brief naval stand-off in the Channel, UK-French relations appear to be finally improving under new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron met for the first time as leaders on the sidelines of the UN’s COP27 climate summit in Egypt on Monday, where they embraced and vowed to work together.

“Friends,” wrote Sunak over a tweeted picture of the two statesmen in an obvious reference to his short-lived predecessor Liz Truss, who said in August she was yet undecided on whether the French leader was a “friend or foe”.

“I think there has been a fundamental shift in the tone between ourselves and the French,” British Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride told Sky News on Tuesday. Macron and Sunak have much in common at a superficial level, being of similar height and age, as well as sharing a love for slick communications and a sharply tailored navy-blue suit.

But the similarities run deeper: their fathers were medics, both are privately educated, and each of them had a career in banking before entering politics — Macron at Rothschild, Sunak at Goldman Sachs. Most importantly, Sunak is seen as a “serious, reflective person” in Paris unlike his one-time boss Boris Johnson who stepped down as PM in September, former British ambassador to Paris Peter Ricketts told AFP.

“The style is important because Boris Johnson’s style clearly grated on the French: the mockery, the playing of the UK-French relationship as a political football for domestic effect, the fact they could never trust what he said,” Ricketts added.

Relations between Paris and London went through one of their most turbulent periods in decades during Johnson’s premiership due to tensions over Brexit and deep personal differences between the leaders.

A senior former French ambassador once claimed ties had “never been as bad since Waterloo”. Low points included Johnson sending a navy ship to the Channel during a dispute over fishing rights in 2021 and telling Macron in a mix of French and English that he should “prenez un grip” (get a grip) after a row about selling submarines to Australia.

In London, Macron’s repeated denunciations of Britain’s departure from the European Union — the flagship policy of Johnson’s government — were seen as inflammatory and hostile.

“It is sad to see a major country with which we could do huge numbers of things being led by a clown,” Macron lamented about Johnson while talking to his advisors last year, the Canard Enchaine newspaper reported. The first test of what Macron and Sunak might achieve together will come in the form of a new deal to prevent migrants crossing the Channel from France to Britain. “Discussions are advancing well,” a spokesperson for the French interior ministry told AFP on Tuesday amid reports in Britain that the two sides are close to an agreement.

Britain is reportedly ready to pay another 80 million pounds (91 million euros) to France to fund extra policing on French beaches, while British border agents would gain access to French control centres. After meeting Macron, Sunak said that he had “renewed confidence and optimism” that Britain and its European partners could “grip this challenge of illegal migration.”

The two leaders are also closely aligned on Ukraine.

But far bigger tests for UK-French and the wider UK-EU relations await, most notably over Britain’s desire to re-negotiate the terms of its departure from the 27-country European Union.—AFP


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