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1 November 2021

The Franco-British chill runs deeper than a letter

Were relations between France and the UK not already so frosty, an ambiguously worded sentence would not have sparked such a row.

By Ido Vock

Is “damages” an accurate translation of the French word “dommages”? 

That is the key question in a row which erupted this weekend between France and the UK. Politico used that translation to report on a leaked letter from French Prime Minister Jean Castex to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. According to Politico, France was calling for the UK to be “punished” for leaving the EU in the context of a dispute between both countries over fishing rights.

The UK government has responded with fury, in part due to how the contents of the letter were framed by Politico. France has tried to row back, claiming that the substance was lost in translation, while some academics and observers have weighed in to argue that Politico’s version is misleading and inaccurate. 

Who is right? The sentence in question is certainly trickily worded, its multiple subclauses enough to confuse even the most seasoned reader of French bureaucratic prose – and then there is the question of how to interpret the word dommages. Although the term can be used to mean material damages, in the context of the letter it was used in a sense closer to “negative consequences”, wrote Alex Taylor, a journalist.

This was a technical letter mostly concerned with – as the French see it – ensuring that the UK sticks to the commitments it agreed to uphold in the Brexit agreement. Accordingly, some have suggested that the interpretation that Castex was calling for the UK to be “punished” would appear to be over-reading.  

But the truth is such a row erupting over something so trivial as an ambiguous translation is a symptom of a much deeper problem. On both sides of the Channel, relations between the UK and France are viewed as the worst they have been for decades. On any number of issues – from migration to Brexit to the Aukus treaty – the two countries have been at loggerheads, each hurling accusations of greed and betrayal at the other.

On practical issues, trust is at rock bottom, undermined by the ongoing challenges over migration to the UK from Calais and France’s loss of the “contract of the century” to London and Washington when the Aukus pact was signed in September. 

But there is a more fundamental divide: the two leaders have opposing political projects. French President Emmanuel Macron is committed to deeper European integration, while Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, led the Brexit campaign and has a political stake in ensuring that Britain’s exit from the EU can be presented as a success. 

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Were relations between France and the UK not already so frosty, an ambiguously worded sentence would not have sparked a row of such proportions.