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We are in the elegant ballroom of a grand 19th-century villa standing on the smartest street in London. Sylvie Bermann, France’s ambassador to the Court of St James’s, is moving slowly between three seated rows of second-world-war veterans. White-haired, one or two stooped and none under the age of 90, these old soldiers were among the brave who stormed the beaches of Normandy in June 1944. Now they are gathered at the ambassador’s residence, each to receive the Légion d’Honneur, the highest award bestowed by the French Republic.
The ceremony is deeply moving — at once a reminder of individual heroism and that the Europe of peace and security we take for granted was built on the bloody sacrifice of an earlier generation. Joined for the occasion by proud daughters, sons and grandchildren, these heroes testify also to the deep friendship of two nations often called the best of enemies. As they stand erect for the French and British anthems, it seems more than eccentric that the British could soon vote to sunder ties with its partners across the Channel. The lesson of history is that, however much it might like to, Britain cannot escape the consequences of events on its own continent.
For Bermann such ceremonies have become an agreeable duty of office. François Hollande, the French president, has decreed that all the remaining survivors of the landings should be so honoured. Time is running away, so Bermann has travelled as far as Jersey and Aberdeen to pin medals to the jackets of those unable to travel to London. What better way to underscore that, whatever the burdens of occasional enmity, these two nations’ fortunes are deeply intertwined.
Bermann is among France’s most experienced diplomats. She arrived in London from the ambassador’s role in Beijing, but her career has also taken her to senior jobs in New York, Brussels and Moscow. She is in her element in London — absorbed by the politics and diplomacy and a significant figure on the capital’s social and cultural scene. Artists and authors as much as ministers and mandarins are recipients of highly prized invitations to the residence. And, yes, the cuisine is exquisite and the wines unbeatable.
The house was built for entertaining. Standing on Kensington Palace Gardens, its glorious garden peering across towards the nearby royal residence, she describes it as “an English house with a French touch”. The interconnecting reception rooms — a grand salon, small and large dining rooms as well as the ballroom — open on to the beautiful garden at the rear. The interior is light and roomy, the furniture elegantly French. Among the treasures are two vast tapestries from the acclaimed Gobelins factory in Paris and two paintings by Hubert Robert, the 18th-century artist who specialised in landscapes and ruins. The paintings are at present on loan to the Louvre.
Pressed to name her favourite room, Bermann opts for the small, wood-panelled dining room. The blond wood, she says, is “very French”. And for a second choice? “There is a room I haven’t mentioned but I love it. It’s the library. There is a secret door to the ballroom. It’s all about books and, of course, I love books. It’s beautiful.”
Kensington Palace Gardens, home to ambassadors and a clutch of billionaires, was laid out during the 19th century. The individual mansions borrow from the English Palladian and the Italianate styles fashionable in Victorian England. Occupied originally by rich merchants and wealthy industrialists they served as small country houses on the edge of the city. The almost rural calm of the avenue — awash in Corinthian pilasters and grandly gated at both ends — has survived the crowded sprawl of the rest of the capital. Lakshmi Mittal and Roman Abramovich, along with the Indian and Russian ambassadors, are among those who value the privacy.
Yet even here disputes can arise between neighbours. The house next to the French residence has lain empty and neglected for years. Its owner, the billionaire former estate agent Jon Hunt, wants to build an “iceberg” basement extension, apparently to house a collection of vintage cars. The ambassador and other neighbours are fighting the plans in the courts, which has included invoking the Vienna convention safeguarding the rights of accredited diplomats. A multistorey underground car park scarcely seems strong enough reason to destroy the tranquillity.
Victor Hugo once defined the terms of the Franco-British relationship. Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, he observed, “represents the complete, absolute, dazzling, incontrovertible, definitive and supreme triumph of mediocrity over genius”. The English claim their victories on the battlefield; the French never doubt their innate superiority.
The ambassador has a more subtle take on things. The period since her appointment in 2014 could not have been more interesting. “I arrived just a few weeks before the referendum in Scotland. Afterwards there was the general election, and now the EU referendum.” It makes life busy but also “fascinating”. She admits the emotional intensity of the relationship and acknowledges that she occasionally encounters “a bit of French-bashing and in France of course you talk also about perfidious Albion”. But “it’s because we are so close”.
That closeness showed itself when the French football team travelled to Wembley Stadium soon after the November terrorist attacks in Paris. The home supporters joined the visiting fans in an emotional rendition of “La Marseillaise”. And David Cameron was the first foreign leader to pay his respects at the Bataclan theatre in Paris after the terrorist massacre. “When we are in difficulty we’re real allies,” says Bermann.
So, whatever one might read in the Eurosceptic press, France wants Britain to vote to remain in the EU on June 23. Sure, there have been differences over the decades. “Sometimes the French consider that the evolution of the EU is too Anglo-Saxon, too liberal, whereas the British think it’s too socialist . . . the truth, I think, is in the middle”.
As two big European nations sharing a global outlook, Britain and France have an interest in close collaboration. “I’ve worked in New York, in the French mission to the UN. We sit together at the UN Security Council and the French and the British draft more than 70 per cent of all security council resolutions.”
Relations between Hollande and Cameron, once cool, have now warmed. As to the charge of the “leave” campaign that nations are being submerged in a superstate, Bermann is dismissive. “Every country’s sovereign. That’s the case for France and the case for the UK. Every country retains its identity and sovereignty.” The EU has been moving away from supranationalism. “I think it is much more differentiated now, it’s much more flexible.” Governments take the big decisions — “not only because it is wanted by the UK; it’s the same in Germany and probably in France”.
As we speak the opinion polls offer no clear indication of the outcome on June 23, but Bermann says: “We hope that the British will contribute to the shaping of Europe, or a reformed Europe. It’s imperfect, it’s a work in progress, but it is very important.” Was not that precisely what those veterans had understood when braving the Normandy beaches all those years ago?
Philip Stephens is the FT’s chief political commentator
Bermann does not hesitate. For her, the residence’s prized possession is the portrait of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord hanging in the entrance hall. The storied 19th-century diplomat, whose later career included a spell as ambassador in London, is a role model “for every diplomat and minister of foreign affairs”. She intends to find a more prominent place for the portrait. After all, though Bermann does not mention this, it was Talleyrand who rescued France’s position at the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, only to see the restored emperor throw away the concessions the following year at Waterloo.
Photographs by Rick Pushinsky