Three questions arise from the warning of Emmanuel Macron, France’s economy minister, about the potential consequences of Brexit for UK immigration policy. Mr Macron suggested that, if Britain left the EU, France would regard a UK-French arrangement on keeping the thousands of migrants in Calais as no longer in force. His implied message was: “Watch out, you Brits! We’ll let all those undesirables head your way.”
The first question is whether any French government would think it advisable to end the bilateral agreement that allows Britain to carry out border checks on the French side. For if the controls were abolished, many more migrants might make their way to France’s Channel coast in the hope of crossing to the UK. By spreading disorder in the Calais region, the abolition of controls would be against France’s interests just as much as against Britain’s.
The second question is for whom Mr Macron speaks. He is a likeable but rather marginal figure in France’s government. He is not even a member of the ruling Socialist party. He represents a spirit of liberalising economic reform for which most French Socialists have no appetite. Only three days ago, Socialist stalwarts and their trade union allies sabotaged Mr Macron’s latest effort to shake up the rigid French labour market by permitting more overtime work.
In short, Mr Macron looks like a man drifting away from the centre of power rather than towards it. Even if President François Hollande were to be re-elected next year — and that is an extremely big if — it is unclear that he would want Mr Macron at his side in a second term. Nor would Mr Macron necessarily want to continue in government, fighting the good fight for economic reform. He might prefer the more congenial world of investment banking from which he emerged.
This leads on to the third, most important question. With France’s 2017 presidential and legislative elections looming, how would politicians in Paris react to Brexit? There is surely considerable truth to Mr Macron’s hint that France would adopt a tougher, more unsympathetic attitude towards Britain than pro-Brexit campaigners profess to believe.
At present the political atmosphere in France is poisonous. This is down to last year’s terrorist attacks, the rise of the far-right National Front, a long period of economic stagnation and disillusion with mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties. More broadly, it reflects profound doubts about the effectiveness of France’s quasi-monarchical presidential system of government to change anything for the better.
Brexit would contribute to France’s febrile condition by boosting precisely those political forces that are feeding off the present national malaise. The French political establishment knows this and, for the sake of saving its own skin, would be in no mood to be nice to the Brits if the UK voted to leave the EU in June.
It would not be Agincourt all over again. But it would be an end to the entente of the past 40 years.
Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published