It’s greetings from the land of the long lunch hour and the rent-a-mob road blockade. Editor-in-Chief Michael Wilson takes time out from his vacances to contemplate les Francais et le Brexit
As I relax here on my sunlounger in Languedoc-Roussillon, just soaking in the 33 degree heat which the southern French regard as a nothing-very-special summer, the travails of the last few months seem peculiarly distant. Or is it just the vin rouge that’s dulling my grateful senses?
Having dodged the customs queues at Dover, and having avoided all but two of the farmers’ guerrilla road-blocks on the way down the A75 autoroute, I’ll confess that I found myself wondering just what sort of a reception we rosbifs were in for when we finally arrived. Would we find sympathy or surliness, or would life simply go on just as normal?
We knew already, of course, that President François Hollande was publicly spitting nails about la perfide Albion, and that he was trying not to crow too much about all the unpleasant things he was going to do to Britain’s financial institutions once we left the European Union – which we already had, according to him. If Theresa May thought her first diplomatic meeting with Angela Merkel had gone all right, she was immediately brought back down to earth in Paris by Hollande’s apparent reopening of the Hundred Years War. Indeed, it might not have been a complete coincidence that Paris chose that very same weekend to bring Dover to a halt by halving its customs officer strength during a pre-planned weekend of intense vehicle searches. (“Listen, English, we told you you should have joined Schengen.”)
So what was waiting for us down in Ia France profonde? Free drinks, hugs, congratulations and a big enough welcome to make us temporarily (ahem) forget to mention that actually we’d voted Remain, not Leave, and that this jovial pro-Brexit backslapping was all a bit embarrassing.
It didn’t take long for the cent to drop. Although French farming provinces get more subsidies out of Brussels than almost anybody else, the groundswell in favour of leaving the EU is immense. And so is the anti-immigration sentiment which nicely mirrors Nigel Farage’s own campaign in Britain.
La Grande Illusion
But this is pretty much by the by. What it tells us is that President Hollande, and Chancellor Merkel too, have no choice but to read Britain the Riot Act, and as loudly as possible. Because if they don’t, they know that the mobs in their own countries will get the wrong idea. It’s doubtful whether your average paysan is any wiser than a Nissan worker in Sunderland when it comes to understanding the convoluted logic of economics. Just show him something else he doesn’t like, such as migrants, and he’ll vote on that basis instead. Désastre.
So what’s my point? Firstly, that Theresa May will probably find that there are secret side entrances in Paris and Berlin where she’s still welcome, even though the main door is locked and bolted and the sign says not known at this address.
Secondly, though, that we should be in no doubt about the impact of any loss of our European banking passport. A full financial Brexit, if it happened, might take many years to become a practical reality, but Frankfurt and Paris have time on their side and everything to gain. Whereas we’d have to wrap up all the talking in two years. Our disadvantage.