Listen to this article
When the exit polls flashed on the big screens, the guests at the British Embassy in Paris let out at a collective double gasp at the Conservatives unexpected comeback in the general election and the SNP’s triumph North of the Border.
For the French, the implications are substantial. On the positive side of the ledger comes the welcome likelihood that London will not fall prey to political instability. Paris can assume it knows whom it will be dealing with at 10 Downing Street. The Conservative government’s wafer-thin majority will be widely seen by the French as a guarantee that europhobe MPs will be kept in line by Number 10. The implications of Britain having become a country with a fixed-term parliament — and so less prone to the fear of an early election — have not entirely sunk in.
The good news on stability has its own downside: an in-out referendum on EU membership has now moved from a mere possibility into the real world. Jokes about rolling out the French red carpet to foreign investors leaving the UK, and the widespread schadenfreude at the possibility of the difficult Brits exiting an EU which could then finally get things done: these were postures with no practical consequences.
Paris will now have to craft an operational policy, sooner rather than later given that there is an EU Council meeting next month. This will entail the crafting of a joint French-German approach. This won’t be easy, with Paris being less amenable than Berlin to accommodating London’s demands. The probability that the British referendum on EU membership will happen in proximity to France’s and Germany’s general elections will weigh on both countries’ negotiating postures. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande will not want to be seen as giving in too readily to a country whose legitimacy as a full EU player is widely questioned on both sides of the Rhine.
The election results will also feed French anxieties about Britain’s future as a strategic partner with foreign and defence ambitions similar to its own; although the French have been growing increasingly nervous at the erosion of Britain’s international stance since August 2013, when the House of Commons voted not to join Washington and Paris in an air strike against the Syrian regime after its use of chemical weapons.
Britain’s sharp defence spending cuts, along with the uncertainties opened by the Scottish referendum, didn’t help. The country is essentially absent from the European handling of the Russian crisis. Indeed, in recent weeks, expressions about France’s “strategic solitude” have been voiced in Paris behind closed doors.
One of the consequences of the SNP’s triumph may well be to suck the oxygen from London’s ability to restore its strategic position; not to mention the heavy demands of the European question on British political energy.
Conversely, France’s strategic community will be heartened by the probability that Britain will now be able and willing to take a firm decision on the modernisation of the nuclear deterrent. The French will be assuming that Scottish attempts to close the Trident submarine base will not be allowed to become a show-stopper.
A Britain that will continue, like France, to want to box above its weight in Europe, Nato and the world is in the French strategic and political interest. In and of themselves, the election results do not settle the issue.
The writer is special adviser at the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique