Opinion: 200 years after Napoleon’s defeat, the French and British are still exchanging blows

Editor’s note: David A.AndelmanCNN collaborator, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, author of “A red line in the sand: diplomacy, strategy and the history of the wars that could still happen” and blogs about Andelman unleashed. He was previously correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. See more reviews at CNN.


Although Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 are ancient history, France and the UK are apparently still fighting. In fact, Boris Johnson likely successor as the British Prime Minister and various French politicians have recently exchanged gunfire.

As Russia launches accelerated salvoes on neighboring Ukraine, even threatening Nuclear Armageddon, it seems the UK and France – both members of NATO – have still not been able to put things right.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is in the midst of a bitter intra-party battle against Rishi Sunak for the leadership of the ruling Conservative Party, was recently asked if French President Emmanuel Macron is “friend or foe?” His answer, offered to the applause of his clearly partisan audience, was simple and direct. “The jury is out.” Then she continued, in a hardly more conciliatory way: “But if I become Prime Minister, I will judge him by deeds and not by words.

These remarks came to Macron as he himself made a delicate repair visit to Algeria, the former French colony across the Mediterranean. The relationship between France and Algeria has been particularly delicate since Macron’s comments last year accusing the Algerian government of “exploiting the memory” of the colonial past and “rewriting history” on the basis of “hatred of France”. For his own efforts, Macron brought a delegation of 90 people – including his finance, interior, defense and foreign ministers.

So Macron didn’t seem to have much patience for the other swirling rhetorical storm that Truss seemed to conjure up. If the two countries “cannot say whether they are friends or foes – and that is not a neutral term – then we are heading for serious trouble”, The French President said. “The British people, the United Kingdom, are a friendly, strong and allied nation, whoever their leaders are, and sometimes despite their leaders or the little mistakes they may make in demagoguery”, he told reporters.

Of course, Johnson could hardly pass up a good opportunity to fit into the storm, with or without a teapot. In an apparent effort to ease tensions, he said Macron was “a big fan of our country”, or to be sure he was not misunderstood across the Channel, “a very good ‘buddy’ of our country”. Elaborating, he saw relations between the UK and France “of enormous importance… They have been very good for a long time, since the Napoleonic era essentially, and I think we should celebrate that”.

This is a particularly inauspicious time for such tension. build between two anchor nations of the NATO alliance – especially when they are on the same side of the biggest war in Europe since World War II. As both countries, along with the rest of the continent, the United States and a host of other democratic-leaning nations, grapple with Russia and its growing threats, perhaps the United Kingdom and France should find a way to get along – at least with a veneer of friendliness.

Dominic Cummings, former adviser to Johnson, nicknamed Truss, not without considerable evidence, “the human hand grenade”. The problem is that, in recent times, twining grenades have been thrown back and forth over a body of water which the British persist in calling “la Manche” and the French simply “La Manche” – literally translated as “The Sleeve “, or , if pressed, “The Channel”.

This week, French Members of the European Parliament sent a petition to the European Commission take legal action against Britain for “fouling” the English Channel and adjacent North Sea with sewage. It stemmed from pollution warnings that British authorities themselves had issued for dozens of beaches in England and Wales, as water companies began discharging sewage after a series of heavy rains.

“We cannot stand the environment, with the economic activities of our trawlers and the health of citizens being seriously threatened by the UK’s repeated negligence in the management of waste water”, fulminated Stephanie Yon-Courtin, one of the MPs who signed a letter calling for legal action. “The English Channel and the North Sea are not dumping grounds.” Steve Double, UK Water Minister, marked the french comments “useless and misinformed.”

The Times, in its initial report on the matter, did not blame in this Brexit case. (The UK’s exit deal could be invoked if it is found to be polluting those waters.) “British beaches were poorly rated before they even left the EU,” the newspaper’s correspondent admitted to Paris, Adam Sage.

There is, of course, a long history between these two countries which share such a strategic waterway – dating back to the time in 1066 when William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, crossed the Channeldefeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings and claimed the throne of England.

Since 1805, the two countries have more or less managed to keep things in balance – at least until the UK opted for Brexit, withdrawing from the European Union – which the French had helped to build and which Macron served as president alternately this year. What followed was a succession of setbacks. Things nearly broke four years ago when fishing trawlers from both countries claimed valuable scallop fishing waters.

Now the crucial question is whether things can be restored to pre-Brexit levels – and whether Truss even wants that to happen. It should, in the interest of the United Kingdom, of the Atlantic Alliance and certainly of Ukraine’s war against Russia. There is no time more vital than now for a truly united front.

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