JONATHAN MILLER: Why Macron may be forced to eat his patronising words about Brexit

Here in France, the media have been gleefully reporting on last week’s fourth anniversary of Britain leaving the EU.

The country’s second-most read daily newspaper, Le Figaro, wrote of ‘the shipwreck of Brexit’. France’s business paper, Les Echos, smugly reported a poll it had uncovered which claimed that only 22 per cent of British people now believe that leaving the EU was a good thing, with just 12 per cent thinking that Brexit had had a positive effect on the economy. ‘A majority of Britons believe that it has had a harmful effect on the economy, their standard of living or the health system’, it declared.

This spiteful schadenfreude, surely, can only be borne out of jealousy.

For much of the past week, France’s 7,000-mile motorway network has been paralysed – blockaded by farmers who have two principal beefs.

First, with Brussels and all the petty bureaucracy and huge costs emanating from its proposed Net Zero regulations. Second, they bitterly resent the fact that the EU insists on an open trading market within the bloc while the European Commission is on the brink of signing a trade deal with South American countries that would open the floodgates to even more imports at prices they fear would savagely undercut French produce.

French President Emmanuel Macron is threatening to veto a European Commission trade deal with South American countries

For much of the past week, France's 7,000-mile motorway network has been paralysed – blockaded by farmers who have two principal beefs.

For much of the past week, France’s 7,000-mile motorway network has been paralysed – blockaded by farmers who have two principal beefs.

French farmers enjoy enormous public support, but are not entirely sympathetic characters. The big cereal farmers benefit from colossal tax privileges while the European Common Agricultural Policy, long contentious but never reformable, shovels them €10 billion (£8.5 billion) a year.

Last week, French TV news bulletins were filled with pictures of despairing farmers attacking and burning trucks filled with tomatoes and wine arriving from Spain.

No wonder a beleaguered French President Emmanuel Macron is threatening to veto the South American trade deal, in what would be a humiliation for European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen, for whom the pact had represented a crowning achievement.

The fact is that the EU, France’s greatest creation, faces an existential crisis, riven by schism and corruption and now facing its most important trade deal scuppered by the French themselves.

What a delicious irony it is that this was all happening in the week that Britain marked four years after leaving the EU.

Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch heralded the date by saying: ‘Since the referendum in 2016, the UK has grown faster than Germany, Italy, and Japan and at a similar rate to France. Our services exports are at a record-high of £472 billion and the International Monetary Fund predicts that between 2024 and 2028 the UK will see the third-fastest growth in the G7 – stronger than France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

‘The Government has cut burdensome red tape for business. We’ve built dozens of trading relationships with new friends and old allies. And we’ve taken back control of our laws, borders and tariffs.’

What a piquant irony, too, that the angry French farmers’ unlikely hero is someone in Brexit Britain. Jeremy Clarkson, whose heartfelt rage against the stupidity of regulations in the farming sector have been broadcast on the French version of Prime TV, last week sent French farmers a message of solidarity on X (formerly Twitter): ‘I’ll bet nobody’s ever said this before, but good luck from England.’

It would be an understatement to say that millions of French people are not happy.

They’re grappling with huge levels of immigration, a crumbling education system and electricity bills that have just gone up ten per cent. The outlook for the economy looks bleak for 2024, with unemployment set to rise this quarter from 7.4 per cent to 7.6 per cent.

Today, looking back, Macron’s comments last March, when he met Rishi Sunak, that both men needed to ‘fix the consequences of Brexit’, seem not only patronising but ill-informed – and a hostage to fortune, considering France’s current woes.

French farmers enjoy enormous public support, but are not entirely sympathetic characters

French farmers enjoy enormous public support, but are not entirely sympathetic characters 

Across the border, the EU’s other powerhouse, Germany, is on the brink of recession as manufacturing and property crises engulf the eurozone’s biggest economy. It is also gripped with self-doubt as traditional centrist parties are muscled aside by an energised, populist Right.

Increasingly rudderless under the ineffective and disrespected Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Germany is struggling to assimilate more than a million new immigrants and has an army that admits it would be incapable of defending itself against a rampant Russia.

In the Netherlands, there’s deep social unrest, leading to farmers and their allies to depose the EU-obsessed government. The Spanish are in perpetual political chaos. Italy cannot solve the problem of African migrants.

Sure, Britain is sometimes rickety, nobody loves the politicians and strikes have crippled the railway network. Indeed, not even the most ardent supporter of Brexit would argue that it’s all plain sailing.

But the question is: do Britons really regret no longer being part of Brussels’ sclerotic superstate and are EU countries really better off inside the union?

With France’s farmers enjoying almost unanimous support from the public – even though their lives are being disrupted by the protests – Macron seems set to concede defeat, having made it clear that he intends to give the farmers everything they want.

Contrast the problems across the Channel with the British economy, which is slowly in recovery mode.

Inflation has fallen from ten per cent a year ago to four per cent. Output from British car factories, boosted by unprecedented levels of investment, has reached its top rate since before the Covid pandemic, while commercial vehicle output is at its highest level since 2010.

As the Mail’s City Editor Alex Brummer wrote last week, contrary to many predictions both pre- and post-Brexit, the City of London is booming.

The housing market is reviving, with prices in January having climbed against all expectations and mortgage approvals at their highest level in six months. Consumer confidence is at its strongest in two years and optimism about the coming 12 months is building.

A crate of apples sits next to a poster reading 'let us produce' on Thursday at a farmers' highway blockade

A crate of apples sits next to a poster reading ‘let us produce’ on Thursday at a farmers’ highway blockade

How different it is in France, where Macron is preparing to showcase his fractured nation to the world as it hosts this summer’s Olympic Games. Just two months ago, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said the city’s transport system would not be ready in time and that ‘solutions for homelessness would also be a problem’.

Sadly, too, the Paris Olympics are expected to be staged under conditions of de facto martial law, so great is the fear of terrorism and disorder.

So while the media and political class in France push ceaselessly the idea that, with Brexit, the British have committed social, economic and political suicide, many people in France’s heartlands are starting to ask whether they might be better off if they walked away from the failing Euro project.

It is an important and germane question that many in the political elite of the EU’s troubled member countries would do well to address.

lJonathan Miller is author of France, A Nation On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown.