Reviews | The UK and France, once again in the breach


WASHINGTON – When I received the invitation from the Ambassador of France for a black tie gala called “Amethyst”, I wondered what the name meant. Was it a promotional night for a French jewelry company or maybe a new fragrance?

I didn’t go to the Thursday party, because I’m studying for an MA at Columbia University and had to read “Henry V” – and watch Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hiddleston and Timothée Chalamet s ‘dress up to play king at the Battle of Agincourt. I didn’t know I could have done my homework at the party, as the Hundred Years War is still raging in the French and British embassies in Washington.

On the way to new adventures, dear friends!

It turned out that Amethyst was a French troll of the British: it is the name of a French nuclear submarine. A recent sub-deal – in which the Australians canceled plans to buy French diesel-powered submarines after secretly negotiating with the British and Americans to build nuclear-powered ones – torpedoed relations between the four country.

We little, we unhappy little …

Suffice it to say that British and Australian diplomats were nowhere to be found at the party, at the residence of Ambassador Philippe Étienne, where Joe Manchin was, naturally, busy holding court.

One of the party’s co-organizers, Steve Clemons, a reporter here, told me it was pure coincidence that the name of the purple gem chosen to make a statement about healing and unity – that the Washington’s red and blue should blend into more than one shade of purple – also turned out to evoke the dastardly rebuff.

Clemons said Tom Bossert, a homeland security adviser to Donald Trump, came to tease, “Steve, I might be the only one who knows Amethyst is named after a nuclear submarine.” (Leave it to the French to give an attractive name even to a submarine.)

Once the guests – who wandered into an absinthe room with flashing green lights, passed mimes and mounds of cheese and deli – learned the nautical significance of Amethyst in an article by Tara Palmeri in Politico’s Playbook, nor were they buying the excuse of chance.

But no one was surprised by the cold between the embassies of France and Great Britain. It takes very little for the two countries to start jostling each other.

The British sniff that the French are arrogant. And the French sniff that the British are… not French.

Shakespeare’s history plays are still very much alive for the British; Boris Johnson worked for years on a book about Shakespeare. In “Henry V” the French are portrayed as villains, weaklings and, in the case of the boy murders in the English camp, “cowardly rascals”.

Joan of Arc – who inspired the French to reclaim their country from the English after Henri V conquered it and then married a French princess – still burns in the French imagination.

Mutual contempt is ingrained in their language. To dash means to slip away crudely without saying anything, in the English way.

But things are particularly low now in terms of relations across the Channel. There was the submarine scandal and an unpleasant territorial fishing dispute with the French seizing a British trawler. And the Brexit divorce always hurts, making it harder for the two small nations that have historically projected power far beyond their size to show power, a Shakespearean favorite word of history pieces.

They look at each other and see the ghosts of the empire.

No country has been more disturbed by Britain’s exit from Europe than France. Much of the trade between the UK and France crosses the Channel. So, the French took it very personally.

The French want to show that the British exit from the European Union is a failure, scaring other countries that might consider leaving. The British want to show that it is a success. There is friction between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron. Johnson thinks Macron is a bit of a fool, and Macron thinks Johnson can be fun but he’s a big, big nag.

This misalliance was not helped when Johnson was here in September and said the French were arguing too much, noting “Give me a break” and telling them to “take a grip”. He also trolled the French by dining at the Australian Embassy with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Yet persistent tensions have their uses at the national level. Macron is trying to go right to fend off French Trump, TV commentator Eric Zemmour. And Johnson is also being prompted to shake things up, amid inflation and fuel and food shortages. As Henry IV advised his son, the best way to distract himself from domestic problems is to distract “mindless minds occupied with foreign quarrels”.

Meanwhile, the British and French embassies are in their own competition to woo top Biden officials. Some Britons recently rolled their eyes when they learned that the French had given Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s mother Judith Pisar a prestigious honor, though, given her time as a cultural figure in France, it certainly has merit. There were more double eyes at the Amethyst Gala.

What goes around comes around.