Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron, with similar bios, will they start a bromance?

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PARIS — Just two months ago, Franco-British relations seemed to hit a new low when Liz Truss — at the time the favorite to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister — said “the jury is out” for whether French President Emmanuel Macron was Britain’s friend or foe.

Eight weeks and a tumultuous British government later, some in Paris and London hope the issue has finally been settled and that new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will help improve antagonistic relations between Britain and France, despite fears that Brexit – and in particular the status of Northern Ireland – could still impede progress.

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

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

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That would be good news at the Élysée, where Macron has left no doubt in recent weeks that Europe must “get the UK back on its horse”, said Elvire Fabry, senior researcher at the Parisian Jacques Delors Institute.

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

“Are Macron and Sunak heading for a nice bromance? Great Britain conservative spectator magazine asked in a headline on Tuesday.

At least in some ways, “both seem like practical, less ideological politicians,” said Nicholas Dungan, a French politics analyst and founder of the advisory group CogitoPraxis.

A Franco-British rapprochement would mark a major change in European politics, after years in which the two countries fought bitter diplomatic battles over refugees, submarine contracts and fishing rights. Tensions were so high that at one point last year France and Britain found themselves send gunboats to sea in a spat on seashells. “We are ready for war,” the British tabloid Daily Mail said in full at the time.

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Months later, as Russia prepared for a real war, the two greatest military powers in Western Europe were still busy making fun of each other. When France discovered that the United States, Australia and Great Britain had secretly negotiated a deal on submarine technology, effectively scuttling a separate Franco-Australian deal, French officials have derided Britain as a “fifth wheel on the cart.” Unlike President Biden, who all but apologized for the deal and sought to undo the damage, Johnson didn’t seem to feel the need to placate the French.

The situation was “worse than I can remember for 40 years of Franco-British relations”, recalled former Ambassador Ricketts.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a game-changer and gradually paved the way for a renewal of relations, because “there is much more that unites than divides”, said Georgina Wright, director of the Europe program. Institut Montaigne in Paris.

The fierce differences had eased somewhat in the final weeks of Johnson’s tenure, and relations improved further when Truss attended a Summit supported by Macron for the “European Political Community” this month.

Sunak’s ascension to prime minister offers the possibility of a clean break. This could, for example, give impetus to a deal to prevent more asylum seekers from crossing the 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. This circumstance may pave the way for limited ad hoc alliances between Macron and Sunak.

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

Britain and France are also facing difficult economic situations and rising energy bills.

Sunak vowed to “fix our economy.” As one of the richest people in Britain, his policies will be scrutinized for any signs that he favors the wealthy over the needy. It’s a criticism with which Macron is familiar. His political opponents long ago called him “the president of the rich”.

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

Macron, who routinely enrages left and far-right voters by appearing aloof, faced violent protests in his first term after proposed fuel tax hikes sparked wider concerns about inequality social in France. To avoid a repeat of these protests, Macron has spent far more money to cap energy prices and limit inflation than many other European governments have allocated for such purposes this year.

Sunak’s economic policy, on the other hand, should include public spending cuts which in some ways are the opposite of Macron’s current approach.

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

Even though Sunak has pledged to pursue a pragmatic style of leadership, some in Paris and other European capitals fear that his politics will remain influenced by factions of the British Conservative Party that have backed Truss’ policies.

In the past, Sunak was among those selling voters the prospect of a post-Brexit ‘global Britain’ and as finance minister moved to introduce low-tax areas , “free ports”, despite concerns about money laundering.

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

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

Under Johnson and Truss, Britain sought to change the protocol that governed much of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status. Although initially tense, talks between the EU and Britain seemed to yield more promising results towards the end of Truss’ short tenure.

Now Brussels is watching for signs of how Sunak will handle the issue. He had previously said he supported scrapping the Brexit deal, in a move that would inevitably heighten tensions between the EU and Britain and could incite a trade war.

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The real improvement in relations, Ricketts said, “all depends, in my mind, on the Government withdrawing this Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which gives them the power to tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol North”.

If, however, the bill passes under Sunak, “it immediately casts a large shadow over the extent to which Franco-British relations can improve,” he said.

Mujtaba Rahman, chief executive of Europe-focused political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said he was “cautiously optimistic”.

‘Economic confidence will be key to the UK’s recovery,’ he said, ‘which ultimately means working constructively with European allies.

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