It's hard to know quite what Boris Johnson hoped to achieve by last week's diplomatic ricochet around Brussels, Berlin and Paris, except – obviously – to tee up others to share the blame for the coming catastrophe. If he went seriously expecting EU leaders to jettison the Irish backstop, then he must be even more dismally ill-briefed as prime minister than he was as foreign secretary.
His visit aroused little excitement in the French media. Of the major dailies, only Le Monde
judged the Johnson/Macron summit worth the front page, and then only as one of the president's chores in a week dominated by hosting the G7. In contrast with the shrieking UK splashes ('Brexit victory salute!' – the Daily Express
), most French papers ran brisk stories on inside pages about how nothing had changed. Britain's post-imperial fantasies have become yesterday's news.
Still, Johnson's junket did leave one legacy that may prove indelible. It was that Reuters picture of his meeting with President Macron in a salon of the Élysée Palace. Macron is perched attentively on the edge of a blue sofa, leaning forward as if to make a friendly but serious point, and looking, comme d'habitude, like a catalogue model for slim-fit tailoring. Johnson is lolling in an armchair looking, as usual, like an ill-stuffed paillasse, and directing some quip out of shot, perhaps to the photographer… while resting his right foot on one of Macron's occasional tables.
At first glance, the picture seems rather a charming affirmation of familiar stereotypes: the prim, immaculately turned out Frenchman and the blasé Englishman, undeterred by Johnny Foreigner's humourless ways from exuding that brand of casual Etonian insouciance which, as practised by David Cameron, landed us all in this unspeakable midden in the first place.
Subsequent spin insists that it was all a deliberate joke. If so, it was an ill-advised one. The more I looked at it, the more the image seemed to me to encapsulate multiple levels of the disconnection that has made relations between London and the capital cities nearest to it (including Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast) so dysfunctional. In particular, it caught the very essence of all that is different between the French and English ways of doing things.
The first point to make is that, to French eyes, Johnson's posture is not amusingly self-confident, but merely uncouth. You do not hoick your shoe up on the edge of a table in someone else's home, be it a presidential palace or a room above a tripe shop. Not even as a joke. It joins holiday rowdies, bottled sauce and lavatory humour on the list of regrettable British vulgarities. It wasn't so much a breach of protocol (the conversation seems to have been amicable, if unproductive), as of common manners. The French do tend to regard themselves as supreme arbiters of etiquette, having invented the word. Johnson's gaucherie (another good French word) falls short of the mark.
Besides which, Macron is not a head of government like Johnson, but a head of state. The French may take variable views of their presidents, but they respect the office of the presidency because it is the ultimate expression of the Fifth Republic, and they expect others to respect it too. For Johnson to sprawl over the Élysée furnishings, as though he were hooking up in the JCR with a Bullingdon Club crony for a night of broken glass, was disrespectful. It invited the same reaction in France that Britain displays when foreign dignitaries come the mucker at Buckingham Palace.
Behind the two leaders stood three flags: a French Tricolour, a Union Flag and the golden stars of the EU. It is possible that this was arranged as a courtesy to Johnson, who seems to like flags. But the inclusion of the EU standard made an obvious point about where Macron's loyalties lie, a point that won't have been missed by Johnson and his colleagues. What's interesting about this is that, to French viewers, it would hardly amount to a point at all.
There are tricolours everywhere in France. All public buildings, every last outpost of the sprawling state and local bureaucracy, fly them. Almost without exception, the EU flag flies beside the national colours. It betokens the conviction, held as self-evident in a country that has suffered too many centuries of continental ground war, that participation in a peaceful, purposeful Europe is 100% compatible with patriotic loyalty to the nation of France. Not just compatible: integral.
This doesn't mean dutiful applause for every last word from the Berlaymont. The French, who take a closer interest than most Brits in the affairs of the EU, are every bit as capable of exasperation with the Brussels grandees. Everyone, from Macron down, has ideas for reforming the EU machine. But that is not the same as dismissing the core idea of belonging to a Europe united in peace, and fit to stand strong among the trading giants of the 21st century. Macron's vision of progressively closer integration is not to every taste. 'Ah oui, the last of the great Europeans,' snorts my barber, who is not a fan. But at least it is a vision, and Macron was rewarded in the presidential election for having one. It contrasts with Britain's cartoon view of bossy, boozy Brussels: a prejudice culled from years of pernicious headlines, some supplied by the present prime minister.
Whether the Reuters picture caught an off-guard moment or a misjudged jape, the impression it leaves is of awkwardness. It conveys disconnection, not mutuality, between the two leaders. It is a motif for two countries that do and see things very differently. France's passion for endlessly invoking great philosophical abstractions – whole hours of television are given over to argument between exotically coiffed intellectuals – can give its public affairs a windy appearance. But, in truth, there is a world of difference between that and the sort of gusty vagueness in which Johnson specialises. Hand-flapping bluster about 'do or die', 'blistering timetables' and 'a lot of oomph' would not cut it in French political debate.
What the intellectual blether that surrounds French politics does is to break big issues down into 100 angels-on-a-pin arguments, all contested seriously. That's very different from the recent tendency in British politics, exemplified by the referendum device, to cram massive complexities into a binary choice of slogans, then call on the public to pick one. One of the lessons of 2016, surely, ought to be that if you ask people stupid questions you must expect a stupid answer.
Ultimately, for sure, the Reuters image is only a snapshot. It will do no damage to cross-Channel relations that wasn't done long ago. Maybe it really was just a joke. But it leaves behind the inference that nearly half a century of European partnership has given British political leaders no greater understanding of, nor interest in, the ways of their neighbour nations than they had back in 1973. And that can only be desperately sad.