Why Britain and France Hate Each Other

The two countries are more similar than is often acknowledged.

An illustrated collage of the British and French flags
The Atlantic

Watching the fallout from the great Anglo-American heist of France’s submarine contract with Australia, you could be forgiven for concluding that London and Paris are polar opposites in every way: whether in their leaders’ personalities, grand strategies, economic models, or social mores. The irony is that the row over the new Australia-U.K.-U.S. defense pact, or AUKUS, reveals how fundamentally similar they really are.

For Paris, the submarine episode is proof of London’s “permanent opportunism” and preference for junior status in a partnership with the United States over any meaningful association with Europe. It is as if nothing has changed since Winston Churchill exploded in frustration at Charles de Gaulle on the eve of D-Day to say that if Britain were ever forced to choose between Europe and the open seas, it would always choose the latter. In the French view, Boris Johnson’s pursuit of a “Global Britain” outside the European Union is merely the latest expression of this deep and undignified national instinct. And for Britain, in turn, Paris’s reaction to AUKUS just exposes France’s latent anti-American chauvinism, its fixation on long-lost grandeur, and its cynical strategy to use the EU as a vehicle for its doomed goal of returning to global relevance. This British view was summarized by Johnson in Washington this week when he said, in a way seemingly designed to further wind up Emmanuel Macron’s government, “Donnez-moi un break.”

Yet you have to pause for only a moment to see that, far from being diametrically opposed, France and Britain are more similar than perhaps any other two countries on Earth. Not only in terms of population, wealth, imperial past, global reach, and democratic tradition, but the deeper stuff too: the sense of exceptionalism, fear of decline, instinct for national independence, desire for respect, and angst over the growing power of others, whether that be the United States, Germany, or China. London and Paris may have chosen different strategies—and there is nothing to say that both are equally meritorious—but the parallels between these two nations are obvious.

Instead of seeing this, however, each country seems to act as a kind of distorting mirror for the other, blocking a reasonable view of its neighbor with an image of itself that looks far more like a collection of its own hopes and fears than anything else.

While France does not seem anywhere near as concerned about Britain as Britain seems about France, the ferocity of the criticism fired across the channel from Paris last week was nevertheless revealing, if only for its striking lack of self-reflection. French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune said that, rather than being an example of “Global Britain,” London’s participation in AUKUS signaled “a return to the American fold and a form of accepted vassalization.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said Britain was just a “fifth wheel” in an American project.

Until Johnson’s mocking response, the British government had been less public in its rebuttal. Officially, London had sought to calm the situation, but privately, it was dismissive of the French complaints, arguing that Paris had spent years reassuring itself that Brexit would be a disaster, and had therefore failed to practice even basic diplomacy to understand how London might seek to protect its influence and standing. One senior British official close to Johnson, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to describe government deliberations, told me that French diplomats spent so long listening to people in London who agreed with their view—that Brexit would see Britain sidelined in the world—that they failed to recognize what the U.K. would do to remain a central part of the Western alliance. “If all your ambassadors do is read the pages of the FT, don’t be surprised if the ‘fifth wheel’ is actually still attached to the car,” the official said.

The reality is that both sides have a point.

France’s diplomatic effort in London—whether to influence the government, or to better understand its internal strategy—in the years since Britain voted to leave the EU has indeed been lamentable. The country’s ambassador in Britain during the Brexit crisis, Sylvie Bermann, subscribed to “good old-fashioned Anglophobia,” which dripped out of her subsequent book on the crisis, according to the University of Cambridge French-history professor Robert Tombs. Those close to Johnson argue that little has changed with the current French envoy, Catherine Colonna, who has remarkably scant access to those inside the British government, having chosen a strategy of outspoken Twitter criticism rather than quiet diplomacy.

From France’s perspective, the AUKUS announcement represents not just the loss of a “contract of the century” to build submarines, but a major threat to Paris’s aspirations to be an independent power in the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, it was elbowed out of the way by an administration in Washington that was supposed to be instinctively hostile to Brexit Britain and more favorable to Europe. For Britain, AUKUS, in contrast, offers a concrete step to deepen its ties in the region, opening the way to closer relations with Japan, India, and others, and helps smooth the path to membership in the giant Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. It is legitimate to argue that France should have seen this coming.

The French criticism nevertheless stings in Britain because it is clearly partially true. Of course Britain has accepted the position of junior partner to the U.S. at the cost of reduced influence in Europe. Few close to Johnson have any illusions about this. Although Britain will never call itself a “middle power” in public, its recent review of foreign and economic policy was based very much on this assumption. Brexit, in simple terms, was a choice to leave a club in which Britain was one of the three most important members (though often a third wheel because of the Franco-German alliance driving the European project), in favor of being a mid-ranking power in a world where some are far more powerful.

But is France really so different? Of all the mid-ranking countries in the world, it is perhaps the only one—beside Britain—that is able to reasonably claim to be “full-spectrum power,” possessing an effective nuclear-armed military, a far-reaching diplomatic network, a competent intelligence service, and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Regarding critiques about accepting a “junior status” in a partnership, however, it seems a bit rich for France to be giving lectures to Britain, given that the past 10 years has seen the emergence of Germany as the dominant EU power. Germany now leads the bloc through its economic might, which means it is in some ways able to forge an even more independent diplomatic path than France. “One can imagine a future where Britain is the junior partner of the U.S., France the junior partner of Germany, and Russia the junior partner of China,” Michel Duclos, a former French diplomat, told me.

Whether they are meant to or not, French criticisms of Britain reveal as much about France’s insecurities as Britain’s criticisms of France do about its own, illustrating the wider challenge faced by many smaller countries in the 21st century—being unable to rise to true global leadership in a world likely to be dominated for decades to come by the U.S. and China, but unable to reconcile to subservience.

Britain and France don’t just reveal each other’s insecurities; they illustrate the challenges that much of the world will confront as countries strive to carve out a place where they are sufficiently sovereign to address the concerns of their voters, while remaining prosperous in an economic landscape that demands global rules and global governance.

There are, of course, real differences between Britain and France. Although it is too simplistic to claim that the former is individualist and Anglo-Saxon, and that the latter is collective and continental—the U.K. has, for example, an entirely socialized health-care system dominating its daily life—the French state is significantly larger than Britain’s, and has greater protections for workers but almost twice the unemployment rate.

France is the inheritor of a great history, distinct from (though deeply intertwined with) that of its neighbor across the channel. For France, this history is revolutionary, all-conquering, exceptional, yet nevertheless prostrate—particularly when it comes to the shame of collaboration during World War II. Britain’s collective memory is also distinct but is more often defined against the French. Also a former empire, the country sees itself as standing for reform over revolt, free-born liberties over abstract rights, and the glory of holding out against Nazism. How both countries see themselves and their place in history continues to shape their instincts to this day.

In the acclaimed television series The Bureau, which follows the twists and turns of life inside France’s foreign-intelligence service, a particularly French worldview is revealed. Throughout the show, French spies exhibit a disdain for and an obsession with the CIA, which is portrayed as a borderline enemy. Perhaps the most telling scene comes early in the series, when a French agent offers to secretly work for the CIA. His American recruiter asks him whether he understands what he is doing, betraying his country. “You’re defecting to the West,” he says.

To the British, such a scene is utterly confounding. It is simply not possible to defect to the Americans or “the West.” From a practical point of view, the U.S. and the U.K. are on the same side, bound up in their “special relationship,” the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now AUKUS. Yet the question of defecting is also one of imagination. Most people in Britain instinctively understand “the West” as encompassing the U.S., Canada, and most of Western Europe—certainly including Britain and France. Paris, however, sees a degree of separation. Although it is part of the West, it is not in the inner core, the English-speaking club.

In many ways, both Britain’s and France’s worldviews were shaped by how the two countries emerged from the Second World War—one relying more and more on the Anglo-American “special relationship,” the other seeking to protect its national independence, and exceptionalism. The difference is that whereas Britain emerged from the war heroic but broke, France had the legacy of collaboration to contend with.

Julian Jackson writes in his biography of Charles de Gaulle, A Certain Idea of France, that the French leader’s great achievement was to create “the necessary myth” that France had united in resistance against the Nazi occupation under his leadership and liberated itself. For France to recover its dignity by telling itself this story was imperative. In peace, Gaullism became the drive to restore grandeur: withdrawing from NATO’s military command, building its own nuclear deterrent, and trying to develop an alternative European sphere of influence to American and Russian power. There is an obvious continuity in its foreign policy, outlook, and strategy. Today, Macron’s stated goal is to build more European “strategic autonomy” for the EU to be able to act independently of the U.S.; he has accused NATO of being “brain dead” and wants Europe to set out policies toward Russia and China distinct from those of America.

Britain’s continuity of approach is similarly clear—partnering with the U.S., ostensibly to better project power. For Johnson, the emergence of an English-speaking alliance is a vindication of Brexit, Global Britain, and British exceptionalism more generally. He told me recently that he thinks the U.K. has always been “a bit different, very different” from other European powers, which made its membership in the EU unstable. In our conversation, he recounted a “very high-powered” dinner he attended in Paris several years ago, after one of his books was translated into French. “We were talking about British membership of the EU, and I was amazed: One of these guys said, ‘You should leave.’”

In Johnson’s telling, his conversational partner was a “massive Anglophile,” but nevertheless believed the U.K. did not fit within the EU. “I was very struck by that,” the prime minister told me. “Sometimes you need others looking at you to understand what is going on in your country.”

There is a joke with more than an element of truth that says Britain didn’t leave the EU to make Britain great again. It left the EU to be more French.

Among those close to Johnson, there is an admiration for what they would describe as France’s unapologetic defense of national interest and ruthless pursuit of comparative advantage—for French intransigence. Painting Johnson as Britain’s first Gaullist prime minister would be a stretch, but there is certainly some crossover: nationalist, economically interventionist, focused on national sovereignty and national exceptionalism.

Johnson is not the first British leader to admire the tenets of Gaullism. When asked if he regarded de Gaulle as a great man, Churchill replied, “He is selfish, he is arrogant, he believes he is the center of the world … You are quite right. He is a great man.”

Gaullist appreciation is not new for the current British prime minister, either. In a 2003 anthology of his columns, Johnson writes in glowing terms about what he sees as France’s successful pursuit of its national interest through the EU. “The European Community, alas,” he argues, “is ruled by France.” In particular, he is full of praise for French civil servants and their “chess-like genius for thinking ahead, and dressing up French national interest as the European dream.”

In Johnson’s mind, Britain had been outmaneuvered by the French inside the EU. “There is no British counter-network,” he writes in the same article. “With their shy grins and corrugated-soled shoes, [British officials] are no match for the intellectual brutality” of their French counterparts. It does not take much of a leap of imagination to see that Johnson would like Britain to take a leaf out of the French playbook. This is the essential point of his joke in Washington that France needed to “get a grip” over its continued criticism of AUKUS. In effect, Johnson believes France would have done the same.

One senior official at 10 Downing Street agreed with this assessment, at least backhandedly. In Johnson’s view, this official said, Britain now had a chance to define its role in the world independent of the EU, “and to be more creative and more confident around who we choose to back and how we choose to do it.” He then added: “And if that feels more French, then so be it.” Another British official said that although the comparison was not exact, parallels could certainly be found between Britain’s strategy and France’s, particularly in both countries’ sense of exceptionalism. As Duclos, the former French diplomat, put it, the problem between Britain and France at the moment could be read as “a clash of Gaullism.”

The two countries may have adopted different strategies to sustain their power, relevance, and independence, but both amount to an attempt to remain great. For Paris, the vision is of a Global France empowered through the EU; for London, it is of a Global Britain outside the EU. Both are reasonable; both have obvious limitations rooted in their relationship with the rest of the continent. France has lost its European leadership role to Germany, while Britain has given up trying to lead in Europe altogether and has yet to settle on what kind of relationship it does want with its closest neighbors.

When you step back, it is hard to avoid concluding that there are as many similarities between Britain and France as there are differences. The mirror they provide for each other has long projected back an image they wish to see, obscuring the reality of the challenge they both face.