Sylvie Bermann's Diary

The French ambassador on football with Macron, nurturing new talent, and why Brexit is like cricket.

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The United Kingdom is facing difficult times, and these last four months have been particularly tough. Since I last wrote, five tragedies have tested the country and its citizens. Terrorist attacks on Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, in addition to the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, have dominated headlines and claimed the lives of far too many.

Shakespeare once wrote that he “who alone suffers, suffers most”. France stands with the United Kingdom, as it always has, and grieves for the loss of some of its own citizens as well. Three of the eight killed in the London Bridge attacks were French citizens, which underlines how globalised this city is, and how important it is to our nation. These hardships have brought our countries closer together and strengthened our co-operation, solidarity and resolve.

Choosing hope

When last I wrote this Diary, France was preparing for a historic presidential election. Before, during, and after these votes, our diplomatic and consular services worked tirelessly across the United Kingdom to oversee this crucial democratic process. Across Great Britain, more than 95 per cent of our compatriots voted for Emmanuel Macron. By electing Macron, the French people overhauled the country’s political landscape. They chose hope, openness, reform, and the European Union.

Prime Minister Theresa May was among the first to travel to Paris to meet our newly elected president. While the visit was hastened by tragic circumstances – the London Bridge attacks – the exchange served to highlight the enduring importance and strength of Franco-British ties. Following productive talks and the announcement of a joint programme to tackle online extremism, I accompanied M. Macron and Mrs May to a France-England football match at the Stade de France. The stadium and players remembered the victims of recent attacks in the UK, and it was deeply moving to witness this solemn homage, which echoed the one organised at Wembley Stadium for the Bataclan attacks in November 2015.

Future leaders

The election of our new president has sparked a truly remarkable and renewed interest in France, and arguably changed perceptions of its economic attractiveness. Station F, the world’s largest start-up campus, was recently inaugurated in Paris. It has been welcomed as a symbol of our country’s ambition to become the start-up capital of Europe, and attract talented individuals from every corner of the world to innovate, exchange and invest in France.

We want our country to play a key part in fostering tomorrow’s leaders, always bearing in mind the importance of our relationship with the UK. To this end, we have been working with the Franco-British Council on one of our flagship initiatives, the Young Leaders programme. I was pleased to greet and welcome the first cohort with my friend Lord Llewellyn, and those selected have met to exchange ideas and debate topics of common interest, including law and politics. They also attended a memorable reception at Guildhall at the invitation of the City of London, and were asked to attend this year’s Queen’s Speech. I was honoured to see Her Majesty speak, and couldn’t help but wonder if her blue dress and matching hat with yellow specks was indeed a veiled reference to the EU flag, as so many have claimed.

We will begin recruiting our next cohort of Young Leaders at the end of this year, and look forward to welcoming them. Bringing this programme to fruition has been one of the highlights of my ambassadorship, and I am proud of our work to develop the next wave of French and British leaders.

Grace and resolve

While an entire generation of leaders is coming to life, a leader for an entire generation has left us. On 30 June, the world woke up to learn Simone Veil had passed away. She was an extraordinary woman who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and served as French minister of health, president of the European parliament, and on our Constitutional Council. She is perhaps most remembered for her brave and determined fight to legalise abortion in France, for which she faced tremendous opposition with grace and resolve.

Playing the game

I have been asked, on numerous occasions, what France’s position was following the first round of Brexit talks and my take on their implications for bilateral relations. To this, I always respond in a similar way: these negotiations have ramifications for the entire EU27 bloc, not just France. They are being led by the EU in a co-ordinated manner to protect the interests of the union in the short, medium and long term. President Macron recently said that while the “EU door” remained open to the UK, it would be difficult to backtrack once the Brexit process had begun.

As I reflect on the Brexit talks, I can’t help but think back on a particular May afternoon when I was invited to attend the England v South Africa cricket match at Lord’s. There I was introduced to the game’s rules and traditions. I smiled because it was difficult to avoid drawing parallels between the rules of cricket and perceptions of Brexit. Both can be a slow, precise and technical game, and it can be quite difficult for the uninitiated to understand what is happening. After days of play and exchanges, the match can end in a draw – with each side claiming they’ve won. One could argue this would be the best outcome for the Brexit game.

Strength in numbers

In the coming days, we will be holding our annual Bastille Day celebrations. I look forward to what will be my third 14 juillet in the UK, and connecting with friends and colleagues I so cherish. If these past months have illustrated anything, it is that in community, we find strength. 

Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to the United Kingdom

This article appears in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania