Well, it wasn’t quite the ‘new Battle of Trafalgar’, as one over-excited combatant claimed, was it?
With French fishing boats ramming British ones, and crews screaming obscenities at each other that they could not understand, the escalating dispute over the fishing rights between Britain and France yesterday more closely resembled a pantomime.
And the anti-British ‘baddie’ leading that charge in a calculated display of support for his countrymen? Step forward French President Emmanuel Macron, who ordered two military patrol boats to Jersey on Thursday for a face-off against a pair of Royal Navy gunboats.
Mercifully, the latter sent the French fishermen scurrying back home yesterday afternoon, preventing an all-out war. But the damage has been done and judging by Macron’s past antics, it certainly won’t be the last incident.
Under huge pressure in France for his mishandling of the pandemic, this popinjay statesman has in recent months been using his hatred of Brexit as a diversionary tactic from his own failings to make headlines by antagonising the UK, either directly or indirectly via the EU.
And the anti-British ‘baddie’ leading that charge in a calculated display of support for his countrymen? Step forward French President Emmanuel Macron, who ordered two military patrol boats to Jersey on Thursday for a face-off against a pair of Royal Navy gunboats. Pictured: Macron looks at a bust of Napoleon in Malta in 2019
This week he deployed his maritime minister Annick Girardin – a fiery Left-winger dubbed ‘The Pirate of Hope’ for her radical views and devotion to the fishing industry and another well-known Brexit hater – to add fuel to the fire.
It was she who threatened to cut off electricity to Jersey, a highly menacing comment because the island’s power supplies largely come via undersea cables from France. As one UK political wag observed: ‘At least when the Germans invaded they kept the lights on.’
This follows Macron’s relentless undermining of the efficacy and safety of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab. Not only has he jeopardised the rollout across Europe, he has also made himself look foolish.
On the one hand, he claimed the jab was ‘quasi-ineffective’ in the over-65s. Then in a startling volte-face, the 43-year-old not only conceded that he would happily receive the AstraZeneca vaccine himself, but he also approved the jab for the whole adult population. It is now recommended only for the over-55s.
Macron has also resorted to low politics by exploiting the sensitive and turbulent situation in Northern Ireland over Brexit and the Irish Sea border to try to get Britain to kowtow to Brussels.
Mercifully, the Royal Navy gunboats sent the French fishermen scurrying back home yesterday afternoon, preventing an all-out war. Pictured: HMS Tamar is deployed as French fishing boats protest against fishing licences on May 6
In March, EU official Maros Sefcovic accused the UK of violating international law and undermining trust by unilaterally extending the grace period and so suspending checks on some goods transported into the province from Britain under the Brexit protocol.
The EU immediately began legal proceedings. Praising the move, French European affairs minister Clement Beaune said: ‘Respect our agreements, defend our interests: once again, the European Union will be without weakness.’
A one-time budding actor who met his wife Brigitte, 68, when she was his school drama teacher, Macron relishes these brinkmanship theatrics.
On Wednesday, to mark the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death, he paid glowing tribute to the infamous warmonger.
While he acknowledged Napoleon’s colonial crimes, and his reintroduction of slavery to France in 1802, the overall tone was one of immense praise.
‘We love Napoleon because his life gives us a taste of what is possible if we accept the invitation to take risks,’ Macron said.
He focused on the way his predecessor managed to unify his country through military adventures which not only expanded the French empire but also drew attention from chronic domestic problems.
It is no coincidence that Macron’s sabre rattling over fishing rights comes amid growing calls for his resignation.
It is no coincidence that Macron’s sabrerattling over fishing rights comes amid growing calls for his resignation. Pictured: French boats let off flares during the protest on Thursday
The pandemic has intensified enormous economic and social problems – and they are set to get worse as the country leaves its third lockdown.
Thousands took to the streets last Saturday, shouting ‘Macron out!’ while the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (Yellow Vests) – a mass protest group named after their trademark high-vis jackets who have caused widespread disruption since 2018 – have promised further chaos.
In next year’s election, Macron is expected to go head-to-head again with Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-Right National Rally, and there is no doubt he is trying to appeal to her voter base.
The superficially liberal Macron – an independent unattached to any of the traditional parties of government – indulging in a British-bashing expedition is bound to impress Rally supporters. They too largely adore Napoleon and the power and prestige he brought to France.
It is stretching it to compare Macron to a Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentine general and president who tried to seize the Falklands by force from Britain in 1982. But that invasion was a distraction tactic aimed at quelling growing dissent against his dictatorship. It failed and Macron’s latest strategy may conclude similarly.
Boris Johnson has seized the opportunity Macron handed him with perfectly timed PR – gunboat diplomacy to protect Jersey and British territorial waters. His reward may come with a historic byelection win in Hartlepool – a major port with a fishing heritage.
A phonecall to Macron in the Elysee Palace to say ‘Merci’ may be in order.
Nabila Ramdani is a French-Algerian journalist, broadcaster and academic specialising in Anglo-French issues