I have been catching up on my new favourite TV show, The Crown. I find it a highly entertaining way of delving into this country’s not-so-distant past. So when I went to Lancaster House recently to listen to the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, images of the grand costumes and settings were fresh in my mind. These elements still play an important role in politics today and I must say, Theresa May looked quite elegant and determined in her signature tartan trouser suit against the backdrop of the gilded walls and ceilings. It was a power suit for a crucial political speech that left a number of questions open but gave indications of the course she plans to navigate.
I have since been asked on numerous occasions to comment or react to Theresa May’s statements. France’s position remains unchanged and united with the rest of the EU. As the French prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, put it, after his recent London meeting with Mrs May: “The negotiations will be long and may be difficult, but the issues aren’t ones we won’t be able to overcome together, by using our brainpower and penchant for diplomacy. To do this, of course, we will have to be methodical, frank and clear.”
Brexit will bring changes and challenges but we believe that the strength of the bilateral links between France and the UK will be an asset. We are not only allies and neighbours, but friends and partners. This is why at last year’s Franco-British summit our leaders announced a major initiative: a Young Leaders’ programme, aimed at uniting the best of our two countries – from the worlds of the arts, science, politics and beyond – to build not only the co-operation of today but mutual understanding and exchange in the decades to come.
Each year, a diverse group of 30-to-40-year-old emerging leaders from across British and French society (including government, business, media, the military, culture and civic society) will be identified in the two countries. Those selected will participate in two residential seminars over two consecutive years – alternately in France and the UK – and build a growing network of friendships. My British counterpart and I simultaneously launched the programme in London and in Paris, and today we call on the young leaders of tomorrow to help us write the next chapter in our friendship by applying, nominating someone, or merely spreading the word.
Taking the air
So, 2017 is now in full swing and thankfully I was able to begin the new year feeling focused and energised after a truly British holiday. My duties as ambassador are certainly not confined to London, and mostly for work, sometimes for pleasure, I travel to different parts of the country. Lately, my visits have been especially useful in giving me insights into the post-Brexit concerns being expressed so far across the country, in sectors from business to agriculture and universities.
Luckily, British literary heritage is something that cannot be affected by the UK leaving the EU. On this trip, I explored the stunning shores of Devon and Cornwall, which, me being a bookworm, evidently meant visiting Greenway, the former holiday home of Agatha Christie. I explored the mist-wreathed moors of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor, which entirely lived up to expectations: it was every bit as bleak and mysterious as I had imagined when I first devoured The Hound of the Baskervilles many years ago.
Finally, I made a pit stop in Daphne du Maurier’s homeland of Cornwall – she was a British playwright and novelist of French-Huguenot heritage. “I must get down to Fowey. Fowey would be my salvation,” wrote du Maurier, so that is where I went, and when I awoke to the sound of seagulls across from the whitewashed house with bright-blue shutters, it truly felt as if I was in a du Maurier novel.
Voting for change
The new year has brought about some significant changes in Europe and around the world. Now the people of France are getting ready for the most important and solemn celebration of democracy in our country: the French presidential election. French people abroad are lucky enough to be able to vote in their country of residence and the French embassy and consulates are hard at work organising the set-up to enable the roughly 100,000 French voters in Britain to choose their next president.
This huge logistical operation would not be possible without the commitment of the honorary consuls across the UK, and the dedication of those who will volunteer at the polling stations on both election days, in April and May.
As for who will win the election, in one of the most open races in France in decades, only time will tell. There is no denying that times are changing, for France, Europe and Western democracies as a whole. The vote will either confirm or disrupt this trend.
Sylvie Bermann is France’s ambassador to the UK
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again