The Entente Cordiale, signed in 1904, was supposed to end centuries of British-French antagonism, and to an extent it did. Despite periodic scrambles for influence in the Middle East, a particularly nasty spat about the Iraq war, and some mild unhappiness in Britain that the chief European Union negotiator for Brexit is a Frenchman, relations have remained on a reasonably even keel.
In two areas, however, the age-old rivalry still flares: the rugby field and international diplomacy. And of the two – while less physically demanding and certainly less muddy – the diplomatic rivalry is probably the more intense. In both countries, diplomats hold themselves and their service in high regard. But they also keep a wary eye out for their comparative standing in the world.
Six years ago, this scrutiny was formalised on the British side when an outside group - the External Panel on Diplomatic Excellence – was set up to judge the performance of UK diplomacy. It came out with a report a year later that placed it - oh dear! - second to the French. In 2015, the UK managed to top a new league table of “soft power”, only to fall back to second last year, just a fraction below… the French.
You can argue forever about what is being judged and how diplomatic effectiveness and/or soft power are defined. One of the strengths of French diplomacy was considered by the British to be the way it pushed its national interest and used diplomacy also to pursue economic objectives. Coincidentally or not, trade promotion has risen up London’s diplomatic priorities as the UK prepares for Brexit.
What cannot be disputed, however, is that the UK has long regarded France as its chief diplomatic rival around the world and second place is, above all, a challenge to catch up and overtake the French. A year on from those standings, however, it is hard to believe that it would be anything like that close today. Since the election of President, Emmanuel Macron, France has made a bold return to the diplomatic arena, while the UK has struggled to find a clear voice abroad as internal wrangling continues over Brexit.
President Macron’s earliest move, barely two weeks into his presidency, was to invite Russia’s President for talks at Versailles. It was widely seen as a gamble that could damage Macron as an international operator almost before he had begun. France was party to EU sanctions against Russia; Macron’s election campaign was believed to have been the target of Russian hacking, and Moscow was perceived to have supported Macron’s chief rival, Marine Le Pen. To invite Vladimir Putin so early in his presidency seemed, to put it mildly, a very big risk.
After an uneasy start, though, Macron deftly avoided the pitfalls. On the one hand, the splendour of the venue and the formality of the occasion exuded respect for the Russian leader and produced glorious pictures to be beamed back home. On the other, Macron did not mince his words, leavening hopes of cooperation over Syria and Ukraine with outspoken criticism, including of some Russian media. Putin, for his part, denied any election meddling, while expressing Russia’s hopes for improved economic ties. He also remarked, with approval, that Macron had Russian-speakers in his entourage. The French President, it seemed, had known how to take advice.
Next up, in a still more audacious step, was none other than the US President, Donald Trump, who agreed to make the trek back to Europe, only a week after attending the Nato summit in Brussels. His reward was to stand beside President Macron at the military parade for Bastille Day. Again, the invitation could hardly have been better judged. The 14th of July is France’s pre-eminent public holiday and the parade, along the Champs Elysees, offers all the theatre even this notably theatrical US President could expect.
As with Putin’s invitation to Versailles - where there was an exhibition marking 300 years since Peter the Great visited France - there was a historical pretext also for Trump’s 24-hour trip to Paris. This year’s Bastille Day parade commemorated in part the centenary of the US entry into the First World War and US troops marched alongside the French. Whatever else – in terms of talks, and dinner (at the Eiffel Tour, no less) barely mattered; the new French President now had two major international leaders in his diplomatic debt.
The contrast with the fortunes of British diplomacy over the past year could hardly be more stark. Although one of the first international calls made by Theresa May, when she unexpectedly became Prime Minister, was to Vladimir Putin, the prospect of a Russian presidential visit to London seems remote in the present climate. Even a foreign ministerial visit to Moscow – which would be the first for … years – was twice postponed earlier this year and may finally take place in December. A trade gathering this month in London will take place without formal British political representation and amid a volley of hostile rhetoric about Russia from Theresa May.
As for Donald Trump, the climate for diplomacy is not much better. May made what was seen by many as an unseemly dash to the White House to be the first foreign leader to meet him after his inauguration. But the offer of a State visit ran into trouble after warnings of mass protests in the UK and opposition from MPs to a Trump address to Parliament. A scaled back, non-State visit is now on the cards, but Macron’s agility in the diplomatic arena has left Britain standing.
The gap has only been underlined in the past month. Where UK politics seems paralysed by division over what to do about the endgame in Syria, the prospect of change in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh is a big customer for UK arms) and the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Yemen, President Macron took a side trip from inaugurating the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi to make a two-hour visit to Saudi Arabia in an apparent attempt to find out what was going on. He also welcomed the beleaguered Lebanese prime minister, Hariri, to Paris in a very public expression of support.
And, as if the Foreign Office needed any more bad news, it came in the form of a leaked document from the Irish Foreign Ministry, cataloguing the UK’s serial misreading of its EU partners in the negotiations over the terms of Brexit. The central theme was that UK diplomacy seemed to have lost its touch for seeing the world as others see it.
All this is just a snapshot in time, of course, just one diplomatic year in the broad sweep of history. And President Macron’s luck could run out. His first diplomatic setback might well be the German Chancellor’s failure to form her coalition government of choice, which could complicate his ambitions for a re-energised EU. The UK and EU just might conclude a swift and amicable divorce. Donald Trump could make a triumphant visit to the UK. London could start to mend fences with Moscow. These are unpredictable times. As of now, though, French diplomacy is riding high and the UK looks preoccupied and isolated – at the very time, given Brexit, it needs friends the most.