I could not have chosen more eventful times in which to be the French ambassador to the UK. When I first arrived, back in 2014, the Scots were about to vote in their referendum. Almost two years later the Scots voted in another referendum, this time along with the rest of the UK.
First, the news of the Brexit vote came as a shock, and the shock soon turned into sadness. In a way, it felt like the end of an era. But such was the decision of the British people, whose voices deserve not only to be heard, but to be respected. We have
all understood that “Brexit means Brexit”, and challenging negotiations lie ahead. In this very peculiar, post-referendum period, labelled by some as a “phoney war”, nothing will be the same again in the UK’s relationship with the European Union.
Much has changed, and yet I am happy to say that Franco-British co-operation remains steadfast.
Friends in dark times
It saddens me deeply to think that this is the third time in just under two years that I have written for this magazine about a terrorist attack on French soil. Our countries have always stood by each other in the face of hatred and in times of darkness. This was demonstrated yet again, tragically, in July when a lorry ploughed into a crowd watching fireworks and celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, killing 86 people, including children. Earlier that evening, I had celebrated our national day with French and British friends at the French Residence in London.
It was at our reception that Boris Johnson made his first speech as Foreign Secretary, having been appointed to the British government only the day before by the also newly appointed Prime Minister, Theresa May. Speaking in impeccable French and sparking mixed reactions among our British guests, he insisted that the UK’s decision to leave the EU by no means equated to the UK separating itself from the rest of Europe. As he said those words, no one could have even begun to imagine the horror that would occur on the other side of the Channel later that night.
London is a mere two-hour train ride away from Paris, and I often host French ministers during their visits. The French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who has been leading international efforts to protect the people of Syria, has travelled to London five times in the past four months.
Ministers also come to talk business. Paris and London are both home to booming tech industries, with hundreds of start-ups choosing our capitals to turn their business ideas into reality. France has a lot to offer start-ups, ranging from a scheme to encourage entrepreneurs to invest in new businesses to our €20m public investment bank. When the French government recently announced the creation of a one-stop shop, the opportunity to file forms in English and measures to facilitate setting up businesses, it prompted speculation in the British media that France was rolling out the red carpet to UK companies.
If by rolling out the red carpet they mean that France is pro-business, then yes – France is undoubtedly an attractive country in which to do business, and we always adapt to circumstances. In the fair competition existing between Britain and France, we think both countries have their respective strengths. The “Tired of the fog? Try the frogs!” campaign recently highlighted this, learning from British humour and creative advertising.
The dismantling of the makeshift migrant settlement in Calais has been an issue requiring constant Franco-British co-operation, especially recently. France’s commitment to dismantling the camp was driven by a humanitarian imperative – the population could no longer be left to live in the cold and the mud. My government has made every effort to tackle this matter with humanity (towards the migrants, who need protection) and firmness (against people-traffickers).
Before the dismantling began, we had to be able to accommodate the migrants under humane and dignified conditions: 450 new reception and guidance centres were set up, and the 5,000 people who were in Calais have been given shelter. Altogether, in one year, France has provided shelter to 10,866 people moved from Calais. Throughout, France and the UK have treated unaccompanied minors as the highest priority.
My work is not confined to London and I have been on visits throughout the UK, including to the Channel Islands. The French are always complaining that the French language has been invaded by English, but I was recently fascinated to hear the Norman influence in Jèrriais and Guernésiais, indigenous dialects of Jersey and Guernsey.
It was very moving to gaze out from the seafront terrace of Victor Hugo’s Guernsey home, knowing that he had written some of his greatest masterpieces there.
1066 and all that
Last month, I attended the 950th-anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Hastings, a landmark of our shared history. This year, the event carried more weight than usual, and it served as a powerful reminder of how intertwined our histories have been and always will be. The battle shaped how France and the UK are today, as did the Normandy landings 878 years later.
France owes its freedom to the British men and women who risked their lives for its liberation, and decorating British D-Day veterans is still one of the most moving and rewarding tasks bestowed upon me. Today, we continue to stand side by side in defence matters, as well as on many other fronts. Amid all the uncertainty, I am certain of one thing: this is not about to change.
Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to the UK
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind