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A new bromance? Sunak prompts hopes for improved France-U.K. ties.

New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives at Number 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. (Hannah Mckay/Reuters)
6 min

PARIS — Only two months ago, Franco-British relations appeared to have hit a new low when Liz Truss — at the time the front-runner to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister — said “the jury is out” on whether French President Emmanuel Macron was Britain’s friend or foe.

Eight weeks and one tumultuous British premiership later, some in Paris and London hope the question finally has been settled and that new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will help improve the antagonistic relationship between Britain and France, despite concerns that Brexit — and particularly the status of Northern Ireland — still could still prevent progress.

“The differences in policy and program are still quite deep,” said Peter Ricketts, Britain’s ambassador to France between 2012 and 2016. But he added that Sunak “doesn’t have [former prime minister Boris] Johnson’s habit of mocking and denigrating international leaders.”

“He’s a much more respectful, serious politician, and I think probably he and Macron will get on pretty well,” he said.

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It would be welcome news in the Élysée presidential palace, where Macron has left little doubt in recent weeks that Europe needs “to have the U.K. back on its horse,” said Elvire Fabry, a senior research fellow at the Parisian Jacques Delors Institute.

Johnson and Truss appeared to have little in common with Macron. But the French president, 44, and Sunak, 42, have a number of similarities that include their investment banking backgrounds, their steep political ascents and occasional appearances in hoodies. (They’re roughly the same height, too.)

“Are Macron and Sunak heading for a beautiful bromance?” Britain’s conservative Spectator magazine asked in a headline Tuesday.

At least in some ways, “both of them appear to be practical politicians and less ideological,” said Nicholas Dungan, an analyst of French politics and the founder of the CogitoPraxis advisory group.

A British-French rapprochement would mark a major shift in European politics, after years in which the two countries fought bitter diplomatic battles over refugees, submarine contracts and fishing rights. Tensions ran so high that at one point last year, France and Britain found themselves sending gunboats to sea in a spat over shellfish. “We’re ready for war,” Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid blared in all caps at the time.

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Months later, as Russia was preparing a real war, Western Europe’s two biggest military powers still were busy ridiculing each other. When France discovered that the United States, Australia and Britain had secretly negotiated a submarine technology deal, effectively scuttling a separate Franco-Australian agreement, French officials mocked Britain as a “fifth wheel on the carriage.” Unlike President Biden, who all but apologized for the deal and sought to repair the damage, Johnson appeared to feel no need to calm the French.

The situation was “worse than I can remember during 40 years of dealing with U.K.-French relations,” recalled former ambassador Ricketts.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the calculus and has gradually paved the way for a revival in relations, because “there is much more that unites than divides them,” said Georgina Wright, the director of the Paris-based Montaigne Institute’s Europe Program.

The fierce disputes had somewhat eased in the final weeks of Johnson’s term in office, and relations improved further when Truss attended a Macron-backed summit for the “European Political Community” this month.

Sunak’s rise to the premiership offers the chance for a clean break. It could, for example, provide momentum for a deal to prevent more asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel to Britain. The issue has long been a point of contention. But Sunak also becomes prime minister as Franco-German relations — traditionally the driving force behind much of European politics — are increasingly strained. That circumstance may open up room for limited ad hoc alliances between Macron and Sunak.

“They probably will be well-aligned on defense issues, particularly vis-a-vis Ukraine,” Dungan said.

Britain and France also are facing challenging economic situations and soaring energy bills.

Sunak has vowed to “fix our economy.” As one of Britain’s richest people, his policies will be scrutinized for any signs that he is favoring wealthy people over those most in need. That is criticism with which Macron is familiar. His political opponents long ago labeled him “president of the rich.”

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“Sunak will obviously face something that Macron has been facing: that he’s been criticized for not being rooted enough in people’s everyday lives and problems,” Fabry said.

Macron, who regularly enrages leftist and far-right voters by appearing aloof, faced violent protests in his first term after proposed increases in fuel taxes ignited broader concerns over social inequality in France. To prevent a repeat of those protests, Macron has spent far more money on capping energy prices and limiting inflation than many other European governments have allocated for such purposes this year.

Sunak’s economic policy, in contrast, is expected to include painful cuts in government spending that in some ways are the opposite of Macron’s current approach.

“Whether Sunak is in the mood to look to France for lessons, I doubt,” Ricketts said. “But I think it would be good for him if he did.”

Even though Sunak has vowed to pursue a pragmatic leadership style, some in Paris and other European capitals worry that his policies may remain influenced by the factions within Britain’s Conservative Party that backed Truss’s policies.

In the past, Sunak was among those who sold voters the prospect of a post-Brexit “Global Britain,” and as finance minister, he moved to introduce low-tax zones, “free ports,” despite concerns over money laundering.

“Sunak has no choice than to try to make a success of Brexit,” Dungan said.

One of the most heated issues remains the status of Northern Ireland, which effectively stayed in the European Union’s single market when Britain withdrew from the 28-member bloc.

Under Johnson and Truss, Britain sought changes to the protocol that governed much of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status. While initially tense, E.U.-British talks appeared to yield more promising results toward the end of Truss’s short tenure.

Now, Brussels is watching for signs as to how Sunak will navigate the issue. He previously said he supported overruling the Brexit deal, in a move that inevitably would heighten tensions between the E.U. and Britain and could prompt a trade war.

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True improvement in relations, Ricketts said, “is all contingent, in my mind, on the government stepping back from this Northern Ireland protocol bill, which gives them powers to rip up parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.”

If, however, the bill is passed under Sunak, “that immediately puts a big shadow over how far U.K.-French relations can improve,” he said.

Mujtaba Rahman, a Europe-focused managing director at the political risk consultancy the Eurasia Group, said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“Economic confidence is going to be key for the U.K.’s recovery,” he said, “which ultimately means working constructively with European allies.