Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to the UK, was bemused by the number of British headlines she generated when she described Boris Johnson as a liar in her recently published book, Goodbye Britannia. “It’s hardly a diplomatic secret,” she said coolly, speaking on Zoom from her apartment in Paris. It is also not the kind of thing a diplomat can say in public, but Bermann, 67, reached the French foreign ministry’s mandatory retirement age in 2020, and though she was reluctant to give up a job she loved, she is at last “free” to say whatever she likes.
Her book portrays Johnson – jovial, charming, megalomanic – as lending a veneer of acceptability to a campaign driven mostly by xenophobia, and describes Brexit as a triumph of emotion over reason in a country that struggles to accept its loss of empire and is psychologically stuck in the 1940s. Bermann wanted Goodbye Britannia to serve as a warning to France of the threat of populism. Brexit “was the first crisis of representative democracy and one of the biggest ones”, she told me.
Bermann believes politicians should avoid referendums, because they tend to function as vehicles for anti-elite anger. She sees parallels between the Brexit vote and France’s 2005 referendum on the EU constitution, which the government was shocked to lose. “People are always angry with something, and this is an occasion to show you’re angry, so whatever the question in the referendum the government is likely to lose it,” she said. “Referendums are not for democracies,” she insisted when I asked if denying a referendum on an important issue might not be seen as undemocratic. After all, she argued, the whole point of representative democracy is that your elected officials should represent your interests and have a better grasp of the issues at stake than the average voter. She was concerned by mistrust of expertise: “It’s the problem of populism, populists all think they know everything.” She has seen this at work during the pandemic, where there appeared to be “66 million doctors or nurses in France”, everyone believing themselves a medical expert. “It was not like that before the internet, of course.”
Bermann believes that Brexit has strengthened EU unity and weakened Britain’s global standing: it has damaged the UK’s relationship with its largest trading partner, and the country will struggle to assert its relevance on an international stage dominated by a new cold war between the US and China. “You have to be realistic,” Bermann writes in her book, the population size of Britain or France is equivalent to “just over half of the Chinese province of Guangdong”.
Before her appointment to London in 2014, Bermann had served as the ambassador to China – the first woman to do so, though she is reluctant to be drawn into a conversation about breaking glass ceilings. “It doesn’t make a difference. You represent your country. You have your credentials. Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s the same,” she said.
Bermann mostly grew up in Lyon, where her parents worked as lawyers, but moved to Paris as a student, where she read history at the Sorbonne, and later specialised in oriental languages. In 1976 she studied at Beijing Language and Culture University. It was a momentous year for Chinese politics, that of Mao Zedong’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution. Bermann was one of around 20 students from France permitted into the country under a strictly controlled exchange programme. Her post was monitored and she shared a room with a Chinese student, a Communist Party loyalist, who was required to report on Bermann’s activities to the local authorities – “but we weren’t allowed to do so many things, so there wasn’t much to report”. Despite these restrictions, Bermann was captivated by China’s culture and history, and determined to return to the country. Entering the diplomatic service was one of the few ways to do this.
Her first overseas posting was to Hong Kong in 1979. She remembers being taken on a trip to Shenzhen, the city that links Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland. It was little more than an impoverished village then, though her Chinese hosts assured her that one day Shenzhen would rival Hong Kong. When she returned more than three decades later as the French ambassador to China, Shenzhen was a bustling metropolis at the heart of China’s booming export industry.
“It was extraordinary and fascinating. So while we consider them a competitor, it’s also a huge success for them,” she said. Despite China’s extraordinary modernisation, Bermann says she has always been attracted by the country’s close links to its past, the sense of continuity with thousands of years of history. “If you consider Mao Zedong or Xi Jinping, they are emperors in fact, and they are considered a new dynasty,” she said.
Her final posting was to Moscow. Bermann has always loved trying to understand a new country, to learn its culture. She was struck by the influence of geography.
“When you’re a small country, when you’re an island, when you are the largest country in the world, when you’re overpopulated – or, on the contrary, when you don’t have enough population – it structures your mind, the way you see the world,” she said, and then she paused. “I really loved my job. I would have continued forever.”
This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people