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My very undiplomatic comments about Boris Johnson

French ambassador Sylvie Bermann listens to Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, speak during a reception in July 2016 - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Former French ambassador to the UK Sylvie Bermann made recent headlines with her very undiplomatic comments about Boris Johnson. She talks to TIM WALKER about how the country changed in her time here, and what she sees for its future.

Almost a month after the EU referendum, the newly-appointed foreign secretary Boris Johnson bounded into the opulent residence of the French ambassador Sylvie Bermann for the Bastille Day celebrations. He got up to make a typically ebullient, jokey speech, but a number of guests – British, not French – began to boo him.

“I was embarrassed as he was my guest and so I made a point of accompanying him to his car when he left shortly afterwards,” Bermann recalls. “He was saying they were only a few Remainers and I wasn’t to worry as everything was going to be alright. I told him things were actually going to get very difficult for the UK and he needed to understand that. He just laughed.” Bermann isn’t sure to this day whether Johnson simply couldn’t face reality or he had convinced himself Brexit was going to be easy.

After retiring from the diplomatic service – her final posting had been to Moscow – the 67-year-old Bermann has written a book called Goodbye Britannia in which she spells out her dismay that a country that had so much going for it in the EU should have been so easily persuaded into giving it all up.

A graduate of the Paris-Sorbonne University, the language she uses is decidedly undiplomatic. Johnson she describes as “an inveterate liar”. Her verdict on Brexit itself probably sounds best in her native tongue: “une comédie acide, absurde, nombriliste et masochiste.”

I ask her how she sees it panning out now for the UK and she says in the short term the damage to the economy will be masked by the coronavirus. She adds that Johnson is fortunate, too, to have the G7 world leaders’ summit and the COP 26 climate change conference both coming up on his turf which will create an illusion that the UK is still a force on the international stage.

“After that, I am not so sure. Supporters of Brexit had pinned their hopes on a new relationship with America, but president Biden’s over-riding concern is his relationship with China. The EU, as the first trade block, will be important in helping to develop that. It seems to me the big continents will shape the new world order and how the UK will make its presence felt as an independent group of countries is not at all clear.”

When Bermann began her three-year posting to the UK in the summer of 2014, this turn of events would have seemed all but inconceivable. “The country had a booming, dynamic economy and a spirit of optimism that made it the envy of the world. All our ministers came to London to try to work out what the secret was and our magazines were forever doing special issues about this amazing place.

“The country seemed, too, at least on the face of it, at ease with itself, and David Cameron could make speeches to his party conferences about issues such as gay marriage and be applauded. Our businesses that had access to him found him to be a reasonable and progressive prime minister. Some parts of the country had been hit hard by austerity, but there seemed to be real attempts to improve that with the Northern Powerhouse and new transport links.”

It had been Bermann’s job to keep Paris informed about the impending EU referendum and she took soundings among Leavers and Remainers and the consensus was that Cameron would win comfortably. “I was never a fan of referendums as they’re always unpredictable. We’d had one in France in 2005 about whether the country should ratify the proposed constitution of the EU and it was messy. Cameron was, however, confident. We asked if we could help in any way and he was adamant he could handle it on his own.

“I suppose looking back there were warning signs. At a dinner I had for opinion formers I asked everyone how they’d vote and they all said Remain and then one woman said she’d vote to leave and started going on about how the EU was corrupt and she got very angry. Even on the night of the referendum around 10pm, when George Osborne dropped by, it looked as if the UK would be staying in the EU. I stayed up till the morning to hear the result and of course I was shocked. It’s fair to say the entire diplomatic community in London was shocked.”

So what went wrong? “Johnson must take a lot of the responsibility personally because he’d previously been, at least in public, a supporter of the EU and when he changed his mind that influenced a great many people. 

“You also have Rupert Murdoch, which we do not in France. I think his power in the UK and in the US has had a big impact on respectively the Conservative Party and the Republicans. It’s made them more intransigent. I always considered it ironic that his papers bang on about foreigners when he is himself, at least in the UK, a foreigner.

“The Daily Mail was of course awful during the referendum campaign and afterwards with its ‘Enemies of the People’ headline and the talk of the ‘will of the people’, which is something that is indefinable. The Daily Telegraph had once been sensible, but it went wildly to the right. Even the BBC, with their policy of false equivalence – putting up people arguing on a factual basis against others who weren’t – were part of the problem.”

She considers unresolved issues of English identity were also at play and the problem Dean Acheson identified as a country that had “lost an empire, and failed to find a role”.

Still, even after the vote, there were moments when she felt things could still have ended reasonably well. The hung parliament that resulted in the general election called by Theresa May in 2017 seemed to her to be an indication of a country thinking things through more carefully. “All of Brexit’s most high profile advocates had said there was no question of leaving the single market and it seemed to me that was a moment to have a consultation of some kind with the public – not a second referendum – to see how they wanted the policy to be implemented.

“Mrs May was too scared to do that. I’d had quite a few dealings with her as home secretary and had liked her, but she’d backed Remain in the referendum and I think that meant she felt she had to over-do it as a Brexiter. The chance was lost.”

On a bus with French friends, Bermann said they felt uneasy speaking in their native language. The embassy had become aware of hostility towards French citizens. She had heard of similar concerns expressed by friends at the Swedish embassy. People she knew had started to leave.

When it came for her to leave herself for her next posting in Moscow, she had a final dinner and took the advice of Sarah Sands, the former Today programme editor, about who to invite. Half the guests were pro-EU and half against. It was not a happy affair. “They all quarrelled and I was struck by the anger. No one seemed to have got what they wanted.”

I wondered if in Moscow she’d seen anything to substantiate the stories of Russian interference in the referendum and subsequently. “The officials I talked to there were as stunned by the result as anyone which didn’t suggest any grand plan. The problem we face now in the West is more fundamental and that is politicians not playing by any accepted rules. Lying used to be unforgivable in politics, but now it can be done with impunity. The internet, too, has made things worse with all the fake news. We find ourselves asking all the time the question Pontius Pilate asked: ‘what is truth?'”

I ask her about the future and she says the pessimists have at least not been taken by surprise by what’s been happening lately. So much about the agreement between the EU and the UK – not least in relation to financial services – remains unresolved and a great many businesses and European citizens have already left because they want certainty. 

She doesn’t see the UK rejoining the EU in the foreseeable future. “The only party in England that went into the last election with that as a policy were the Lib Dems and it didn’t work out well for them. Sir Keir Starmer is reluctant to even use the word ‘Brexit’ because he is aware of how many of his own supporters back the policy, so it’s difficult. “A month after the UK left, there were a lot of people in Europe who were saying the door was still open if they wanted to return, but no one is saying that now. It became too acrimonious. Some wonder if the UK did vote to return, would they stay?

“It makes me very sad as I love the UK and it has played such an important part in shaping the EU and making it what it is today, but I suppose we have to accept things as they are.”

True patriots

On the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2014, President Hollande of France announced that all British soldiers involved were eligible for the Legion d’Honneur.

More than 5,000 were handed out which involved Sylvie Bermann travelling the length and breadth of the country. “I heard a lot about patriotism during my time in the UK, but these individuals were true patriots. It was an honour to meet them. Often, they said to me they were fighting not just for Britain, but for Europe.”

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