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‘There is a kind of hatred of Europeans from Boris Johnson and his government’

Former French ambassador to London Sylvie Bermann on Brexit’s aftershocks and the battles still to come with Macron and the EU

Then foreign secretary Boris Johnson talks with France's then ambassador to Britain, Sylvie Bermann, at a reception in 2016 (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Among Sylvie Bermann’s greatest achievements is encouraging an uptake in reading French-language books among a certain sort of Brit. Last year, Bermann, French ambassador to the UK from 2014 to 2017, published, in French, Goodbye Britannia, her personal account of Brexit from the frontline. And the Brexit-supporting press, who rarely find the space to review French non-fiction, were outraged.

Accusing her of “superficial clichés”, the Spectator fumed she “does not even consider the possibility that intelligent Brits might be repelled by the way the EU works”. The Daily Mail called it “a scathing attack on Boris Johnson and Brexiteers”, but didn’t mean it as a compliment. Robert Tombs in The Times described it as “like wading through 150 pages of The New European” and probably didn’t mean that as a compliment either.

In truth, it’s a zippy insider’s take on the Brexit wars, probably more useful to a French reader than a British one (at one stage she explains what a full English breakfast is) and in many places in need of an edit – there are a number of factual errors which a French reader might not spot but are glaring to the British eye. It is also, I say to Bermann as we sit in a French cafe in Kensington (incongruously, her tea and me cappuccino) to discuss its newly-published English translation, Au Revoir Britannia, an angry book.

“It’s not…” She stops. “Is it an angry book? I don’t know. But it’s something I regret, in a certain way, because I thought [London was] a fantastic city, a thriving city. All our ministers came to find recipes for success and everything was working well.

“The role we had together [the UK and France] – we had a close cooperation there and I think it’s still needed, but for the time being it’s not possible. And I also have the feeling there is a kind of hatred for the Europeans – not from the people, but from the government, from Boris Johnson and so on. I think it’s a pity. There’s so much to do in the world – the world is going to be even more complicated in the future… and I think we would have been stronger with the British, the Germans and the French because we would have been more influential. It’s not really angry, but it was so strange, I remember, at that time.

“And in particular the xenophobia. It was very, very strong, because we were criticised all the time. They were speaking of the Fourth Reich and the French were surrendering to the Fourth Reich and something like this.”

As for the criticism from Brexiteers, she is suitably sanguine. “When people say I don’t like the UK, it’s not true,” the 68-year-old insists. “On the contrary – it’s because I liked it that I didn’t like Brexit.”

As you’d expect, a prominent figure throughout the book is Boris Johnson, who Bermann meets initially as mayor of London and immediately likes. “Because he was funny, charming and very amicable at that time,” she says. “And also he was an intellectual. I really liked him. He was not anti-immigration. And he liked to speak French.”

That changed when he elected to back Brexit, cynically, in her view. “The fact that he’s a liar is everywhere – it’s something I’m describing, it’s not an accusation. It’s not a diplomatic secret.”

I ask of the man who likes to do the Del Boy comedy routine in public (“Donnez-moi un break”) how good his French actually is.

“Well,” she says before a long pause. “He speaks French. Probably his brother Jo speaks better French than him.” The diplomat’s still there.

Another central theme of the book is shock at the Brexit result. Nobody – not Bermann, nor her staff, nor anyone she meets, including Brexiteers, anticipating Britain voting to leave.

One criticism Tombs’ review makes which even the firmest Remainer might agree after reading it is that Bermann “seems to have been most comfortable not just in the metropolitan bubble but in a bubble within the bubble” and it’s fair to say the book includes a lot of breakfast think-tank meetings, while “London” and “the UK” are virtual synonyms (although this may be ambassador-speak).

“I went out of London as much as I could, because I had a lot of things to do in London,” says Bermann. But, she adds honestly, “when you go out of London you’re meeting with officials in big cities who are Remainers and most often people were Remainers. And rarely I met some people who said ‘no’ and some Brexiteers. But I can’t rely on my travel – I wasn’t meeting every day – but I was meeting with all the MPs and they’re supposed to go back to their constituencies every weekend, so they should have known.

“And what’s interesting [is] it’s not only the Remainers but the Brexiteers. They would always say ‘no, we know we don’t want to stay for such-and-such reasons, but we know we’re going to stay’. So that’s the reason why it was difficult to see it coming. Why not the MPs? Why not the pollsters? Because they were all sure. Those I met should have realised and they haven’t made the right campaign.”

Other aspects of the book may raise one or two eyebrows. Bermann says it was “a common refrain” from Brexiteers that a Remain vote would have seen the UK forced to give up the Queen and the Royal Family, which I confess I don’t remember among all the other lies. “Well, I’ve been told that that was a factor,” she says. “You know there were a lot of lies, and in the Embassy and in the Consulate we had organised a lot of meetings with people, French people, working in factories, and they said that.”

Another, on which we can agree more wholeheartedly, is that Jeremy Corbyn was, in his heart, a Brexiteer, although it may open Bermann up to attack from the left as well as right. “Oh yes, absolutely,” she says. “It’s complicated – he’s this kind of leftist who thinks the EU is this plot of the right or whatever, and yes, he never said that he was in favour of Remain and most of Labour thought he was against it. And it was bad luck, in a way. With maybe another Labour leader it could have been different. But history is like this.”

What then, of the present? France-UK relations appear to be at the lowest ebb in recent history and it is abundantly clear Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson hold each other in contempt. Does she think there is any prospect for an improvement as long as Johnson clings to office?

“For Emmanuel Macron, he’s a real pro-European, that’s obvious,” she says. “It was part of his campaign. And also, something he doesn’t accept is when you don’t abide by your own signature. And it’s the case of the Northern Ireland protocol. In other circumstances they could have got along rather well, because, of course, they are very different – our president is more serious and he could be amused by him. But it’s serious now, and the relationship is not good at all. And I’m not sure it will improve.

“It’s rather clear that Boris Johnson is talking about Global Britain but he doesn’t want to have relations with the Europeans. So I think it will be very difficult. I think it will be necessary at some point, but probably not now.”

Bermann also has a unique vantage point on Russia. After leaving London she was ambassador to Moscow from 2017 to 2020, where she could monitor Vladimir Putin’s regime up close. In July 2021 she was appointed by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as a mediator and coordinator of the political branch of the trilateral contact group in charge of the implementation of the Minsk agreement on Donbas. So how much of a surprise, I ask, was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

“It was surprising because, in fact, this decision was not in the interest of Russia,” she says. “And we can see it now. The consequences are too high. I met Vladimir Putin with Emmanuel Macron and at that time he was not in the spirit of someone who was going to wage a war.

“He has a problem with Ukraine. He’s obsessed by the fact that he considers Ukraine an aberration and shouldn’t exist. And it’s going back to 1991, because it was a real part of the Soviet Union and it was a part of Russia. He was very emotional when he talked about Ukraine. But to the point that he would invade Ukraine? No. And even the Ukrainians – because I was in charge of the Minsk Process, the political part, the reintegration of Donbas – until February we were even considering having an extra meeting to discuss it. And none of the Ukrainians believed it.

“I think it’s also the result of the Covid, of his isolation, because he was afraid of Covid, he didn’t go out. He was isolated, talked only with those who had similar opinions and then he decided to go to this war.”

Is he insane? “No, he’s not insane. No. Well, this is an obsession, so it’s a kind of… but he’s not insane. He got very bad information. Because it was only from the FSB [the successor to the KGB] – he doesn’t use the internet – and so he thought that the Ukrainian army was very weak, and also there are some pro-Russians in Ukraine and he thought that the Russian army would be welcome. And I think it was based on those wrong information, in fact.”

I wonder how Putin manages to extricate himself from the mess he’s created. We’re speaking a few days after Henry Kissinger suggested that Ukraine should cede territory to Russia to end the war by returning to the “status quo ante” – basically accepting the Russian occupation of Crimea and agreeing to de facto annexation of two provinces.

“I think the more the war lasts the more difficult it will be – because there will be a lot of death and, like in Afghanistan, [it was the fact that] the soldiers’ mothers were against the war that decided the government to leave Afghanistan. So the war may be more unpopular than it is now, because people have no information now,” says Bermann.

“Probably what Kissinger says is true but it’s too early to say. But I think if [Putin] wants to save face he probably has to win something on the ground and return a part of Ukraine. But it’s not a moral position. That’s not my position. If you ask me what I think realistically, it’s probably around that.”

Does she think the dream of the ‘90s, of a liberal, democratic Russia at the heart of the established international order is now dead?

“Well, for probably a decade, yes, I think so,” she says. “It’s going to be difficult to negotiate with Putin, because it’s difficult to trust him. First Russia has recognised the borders with Ukraine and didn’t respect it and second, he lied. So it’s going to be difficult to negotiate with him, but I think it will be necessary because if you close him behind a curtain people will support him. So I think new negotiations will be necessary. It’s difficult to trust him now. Nevertheless I think a stable Russia would serve more the security of Europe than a fiasco or a poor Russia or angry Russia.”

Bermann had to retire from the French foreign ministry in 2020 due to its mandatory retirement age, but it’s clear she would still love to be in a front-row seat somewhere.

“I would have continued longer, of course, I love the job and to be involved in everything, to talk to people, to negotiate – I really loved it. I enjoy freedom now, that’s true, but I would have continued also. But it is like this, we don’t have the choice of the date. But to say what you really think…”

And then she smiles.

Au Revoir Britannia by Sylvie Bermann is published by Luath Press, £12.99

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