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It's been tense between France and the U.K. since Brexit. Or maybe since Waterloo


France and Britain haven't sounded much like allies lately. It seems there's been a series of disputes ever since Brexit. And observers say the country's two leaders simply don't understand each other. Some joke that the relationship hasn't been this bad since the Battle of Waterloo. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo by a British-led coalition on the Belgian plains. These days, it's the English Channel - or, as the French call it, la Manche - that's become the diplomatic battleground between the two erstwhile colonial superpowers. Whether it's fishing rights or migrant crossings, everything has taken on a new intensity since Brexit, when Britain pulled out of the European Union, says commentator Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, who appears in both French and British media. Take French President Emmanuel Macron, she says.

ANNE-ELISABETH MOUTET: And so he's taken Brexit almost personally in the idea that not only was it a mistake in his opinion, but the British must be made to realize how wrong they are. He also believes that Brexit must be made an example of - something that other nations should not attempt because it will be painful.

BEARDSLEY: Last month, at least 27 migrants drowned attempting to cross the channel from France to Britain. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote to Macron, asking France to take back any migrants who cross, and released the letter on Twitter. Outraged, Macron uninvited Britain's home minister to a Europe-wide ministerial meeting on the crisis.



BEARDSLEY: "I'm surprised by these unserious methods," said Macron. "Leaders don't communicate on these sorts of issues by tweet."

Moutet says the fight between Britain and France is fueled by personal animus between two leaders who are shaped by vastly different forces and cultures and don't understand one another.

MOUTET: Emmanuel Macron thinks that he's got the measure of Boris Johnson. And Boris Johnson, to his eyes, is failing. Emmanuel Macron sees in Boris Johnson somebody who should not have won the vast parliamentary majority that he did in 2019. Boris Johnson sees in Emmanuel Macron a technocrat, somebody who prefers process to sovereignty and essentially the caricature of the excitable Frenchman who does not want to understand that Britain has had 800 years of parliamentary democracy.

BEARDSLEY: Relations took another blow this fall when Britain joined the U.S. and Australia in a lucrative submarine deal that scuttled a French deal and humiliated Macron. Johnson pooh-poohed French pique in Frenglish, standing outside the U.S. Capitol.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I just think it's time for some of our dearest friends around the world to, you know, (speaking French) about all this and (speaking French).

YVES BERTONCINI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: European affairs specialist Yves Bertoncini says France has reconciled with Germany after two world wars, and Franco-German friendship is the core of the European Union. But France has had a thousand years of conflict with England.

BERTONCINI: The U.K. is the country who killed Joan of Arc, and it's also the country who defeated Napoleon and who took Napoleon to an island very far.

BEARDSLEY: But he says, deep down, Britain and France admire and respect each other, even though they're also jealous rivals and competitors. He says both Macron and Johnson exploit their frenemy to advance their own political fortunes.

BERTONCINI: In France, being anti-British is quite popular, and the same is true for England. French bashing - this is popular. So that creates this double situation which will fuel the tensions, I believe, at least until next spring.

BEARDSLEY: Bertoncini says new diplomatic and military initiatives between France and Britain were on the horizon before the Australian submarine crisis. He says geography can't be changed. And sooner or later, the channel neighbors will come together to solve their problems just as they always have. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.