OPINION: Blaming the French for Britain’s Brexit mess just won’t wash

With the threat of a no-deal Brexit looming large British tabloids and some politicians have decided to step up the French bashing. But now is not the time to be making up stories about the French, writes veteran France correspondent John Lichfield, there's just too much at stake.

OPINION: Blaming the French for Britain's Brexit mess just won't wash
Photo: AFP

For British tabloid journalists, bashing France is like bashing minor members of the royal family. It always makes a cheap headline. Facts can be stretched or invented. There is rarely any come back.

The Sun, a habitual offender but not a solitary case, has been at it again. Harry Cole, the newspaper’s Westminster Correspondent, wrote last weekend that the British Government had a “secret plan” to hire ten cross-channel ferries to “screw over the French” in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The £75m plan, he wrote, “comes amid threats from France to trigger chaos at ports if talks collapse”. The ten ferries – ten, mind you, about half those operating on the route – would be diverted to Zeebrugge and Hook of Holland. UK officials would select which trucks were allowed to sail to Britain.

The story is not based on truth.

There are no “threats from France to trigger chaos at ports if (Brexit) talks collapse”. Au contraire, France has written a draft law to permit emergency measures to keep cross-Channel trade flowing as freely as EU rules permit.

This is more than the British government has done to prepare for No Deal. Consider the bumbling, evasive answers on future migration, resident’s rights and border controls given by the Home Office minister, Caroline Nokes (pictured below), and senior officials to a House of Commons Committee on Tuesday. 

Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts de France region which includes Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne, tweeted earlier this month: “No! Closing the tunnel and port at Calais to the British in the event of no agreement on Brexit is not being considered. Who can believe in such things? We must do everything we can to keep the traffic flowing.”

He gave the same message to the British Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, when he visited Calais last week.

The assurances were greeted by two hard-line Brexiteer MPs, John Redwood and Bernard Jenkin, as proof that there was no reason to worry about a No-Deal Brexit. Talk of a French blockade, they said, was being pushed by Remainers as part of a new “Project Fear”.

No it’s not. It’s being pushed by The Sun and by the Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab.

He has claimed, without evidence, that French officials plan to “go slow” to worsen the problems which would inevitably be caused if Britain crashes out of the EU on 29 March.

There is no go-slow plan. French officials would, however, be obliged to obey EU regulations on animal health or food safety or industrial products when trading with a third (ie non-EU) country. This in itself could gum up the works at Calais.

In so far as there is any truth in The Sun’s story, it is a wilful misinterpretation of one of several plans floating around Whitehall to ensure that vital supplies of food and medicine reach Britain in the event of No Deal.

It is inconceivable that Dutch and Belgian ports would be able to take the huge flow of traffic across – and under – the Straits of Dover. In any case, they would be subject to the same EU rules on exports to a “third country” which would impede traffic through Calais.

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The Sun turns this speculative story on de facto, ferry nationalisation into an anti-French tirade. A source in the “the Inter-Ministerial Group for Borders Planning” tells the newspaper: “We could make a profit and screw over the French. Tell me what the downside is?”

If this quote is accurate – and surely The Sun would not have invented it – it is more disturbing than the rest of the story. It suggests, as some of Raab’s comments suggest, that hard-line Brexiteers in the British government are not preparing for a No Deal Brexit. They are preparing to blame the French for the problems that No Deal will cause.

Blaming France is a common stand-by for British governments as well as British tabloids. In 2003 Tony Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw helped stoke support for the Iraq war by lying about President Jacques Chirac’s motives for opposing the conflict.

This time around, however, Cross-Channel hostilities could have disastrous implications for the 150,000 or so British citizens living in France. The French draft law on “no deal”  makes it clear that Paris will be generous with resident Brits so long as Britain is generous – as promised – with French and other EU citizens in Britain.

Minister Nokes’ bumbling performance on Tuesday on this and other issues suggests that the British government has not yet decided how to keep its word on EU residents – or whether to keep it at all.

Imagine if that issue becomes entangled next spring with allegations that France is trying to “blockade” and “starve” post-Brexit Britain.

It is time for everyone, even The Sun, to grow up. French-bashing is no longer a game.

John Lichfield is a former France correspondent and foreign editor for the Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield





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France may cut Channel islands ferry service after post-Brexit collapse in visitor numbers

Visits to the Channel islands from France have halved since Brexit, and French local authorities say they may be forced to cut the regular ferry service, asking for the passport requirement to be waived for French visitors.

France may cut Channel islands ferry service after post-Brexit collapse in visitor numbers

Travel to and from the Channel islands – which are British crown dependancies – has reduced significantly since Brexit, when passports became a requirement for those travelling in and out of the islands and their ports.

Now the president of the local authorities in the Manche département of France has asked that passport requirements be lifted, with hopes of increasing travel to and from the islands.

Jean Morin told Ouest France that there has been a “considerable reduction in the number of passengers on routes between the Channel ports and the islands” and as a result the ferry service between France and the islands was seriously in deficit.

“On these lines, we will never make money, but we cannot be in deficit”, explained the Morin. 

He added that if a solution is not found by the deadline of May 1st, 2023, then local authorities will stop funding the shipping company DNO, which runs the Manche Îles Express ferry service.

“If the passport requirement is not lifted by then, we will have no choice but not to renew the service contract for 2024-2025”, Morin told Ouest France.

Only around half of French people have a passport, since the ID card issued to all adults is sufficient to travel within the EU. 

READ MORE: Ask the Expert: How Brexit has changed the rules on pensions, investments and bank accounts for Brits in France

DNO re-launched operations in April and since then, the company, and by extension the département – who plays a large role in funding it via a public service delegation – has been losing significant funds.

According to Franceinfo, the number of passengers has been cut in half since passport requirements were introduced. Franceinfo estimates that for one ticket for one passenger costing €30, the département spends €200.

According to Morin, the ideal solution would be to require a simple ID for tourists seeking to take just day-long or weekend-long stays on the islands – which reportedly represents at least 90 percent of the boats’ usual passengers.

“The Jersey government is working hard on the issue and is waiting for an agreement from London and the European Union. There is the possibility that things could move quickly”, Morin told Franceinfo on Tuesday.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, boats going to and from the French mainland carried at least 110,000 people per year. In 2022, only 40,000 passengers made the journey, Olivier Normand, the sales manager of Manche Îles Express, told Actu France.

Normand had expected the decline, however. He told Actu France that the company had taken a survey, which found that almost half (between 40 and 50 percent) of their clientele did not have a passport.