As David Cameron touched down in Amiens a couple of weeks ago for the 34th Franco-British summit, I noticed that his plane had the dates 1916-2016 printed on its tail. My first reaction was how fitting this was, given Mr Cameron and François Hollande’s visit that morning to the cemetery at Pozières to pay their respects to the soldiers who died in the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago.
While I later learned that the dates actually marked a Royal Air Force centenary, it is worth remembering how important the Somme anniversary is for our countries, which both suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. Mr Cameron will be returning to France this summer with members of the royal family for the official centenary memorial event on 1 July. Taking place at the Thiepval Memorial, it will no doubt be a solemn occasion and also a poignant reminder of Franco-British comradeship.
On a related topic, I went recently to see the brilliant new play The Patriotic Traitor at the Park Theatre, which is about the complicated relationship between Charles de Gaulle and Philippe Pétain during the Second World War. Although I missed the unexpected finale that Laurence Fox delivered a few nights later in response to a heckler, the play was an entertaining portrayal of what is one of the most sombre and, thanks to the Free France movement in London, proudest times in our shared history.
The Calais question
The summit came at a time when Franco-British co-operation has never been more important. To combat the refugee crisis, dismantle people-smuggling rings, protect our countries against the threat of terrorism and secure the future of our energy supplies, France and the UK must work together. And our leaders made significant progress in these areas, with a combined joint expeditionary force becoming fully operational this year, and renewed co-operation in the fight against radicalisation and jihadist propaganda online.
Our leaders also announced that an additional £17m of British expenditure will go towards helping the situation in Calais, which was one of the big topics discussed. Today, fewer migrants are living in squalid, inhumane conditions in the so-called Jungle, thanks to the decision by the French authorities to dismantle a section of the camp. They have either been housed in temporary shelters that are heated and have hot water, electricity and decent sanitary facilities, or been relocated to other parts of the country where they are then encouraged to apply for asylum in France.
Eighty per cent of the 2,600 migrants who have been relocated to other reception and guidance centres since last October have already claimed asylum in France.
Yet the reality is that many migrants still want to reach Britain, and unfortunately they are being encouraged to keep trying by a small number of agitators who want to see the end of borders between France and the UK. A few weeks ago I was barracked at an event at Shoreditch House in London by anarchists letting off smoke bombs in protest about the clearing of part of the Calais migrant camp. These groups have their own agenda and they are encouraging vulnerable people to risk their lives by trying to get across the Channel. Last summer we saw some of the tragic consequences of these desperate actions. In fact, they will not reach Britain: today it is harder than ever as a result of joint investments by France and the UK to strengthen the border.
Alarm smells ring
Despite their best efforts, the anarchists at Shoreditch House didn’t manage to derail the event, which was the launch of Créative France, a campaign to promote French innovation and creativity. Some of France’s newest and most exciting start-ups were at the launch showcasing their innovations: from a Nespresso-like machine by Romy Paris that makes fresh face cream, to the Sensorwake alarm clock, which uses smell rather than sound to wake people up.
Gastronomy is another area where French creativity shines brightly. Our food is renowned for its elegance and quality and we know that our cuisine is what attracts millions of tourists to France every year. One of the things that makes French food so special is its regional variety: every region has its favourite dish that uses local produce and expertise passed down through generations.
We were treated to regional specialities (smoked duck mousse from Alsace, boudin blanc from Burgundy, crispy crab from Réunion) a couple of weeks ago at my residence. It was the launch of Goût de France/Good France, a celebration of French gastronomy taking place in 1,500 restaurants worldwide next week, on 21 March. Twenty-five restaurants around the UK will be taking part and serving a special menu on that day to showcase the excellence, innovation and diversity of French cuisine. They range from big names like Alain Ducasse and Raymond Blanc to local bistros and cookery schools. There’s even a restaurant in Brixton Prison, the Clink, taking part, with inmates preparing and serving all the food.
Women of the world
I celebrated International Women’s Day at a reception at the Foreign Office hosted by Baroness Anelay. As France’s first woman ambassador to the UK, I found it interesting to hear female diplomats of different generations talking about women in diplomacy. In recent years the French government has made a concerted effort to promote more women into top diplomatic posts: France now has 48 female ambassadors (out of a total of 202), compared to just 22 in 2010. There is still a long way to go before we achieve equality in this respect but we are making progress and it is encouraging to feel the momentum for change is there.
Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to the UK
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue