'I confess to a twinge of envy for the French' – Lord Ricketts' Lords Diary
Newly re-elected French President Emmanuel Macron greets his supporters at the Champ de Mars, Paris, after securing a second term, 24 April 2022| Alamy
It’s the week after Easter, the House of Lords is in recess, and I am in Paris. As always, I have fallen under its spell. In the April sunshine, the scrubbed Haussmann facades and the fresh leaves of the chestnut trees are straight out of an Impressionist painting.
It is hard to imagine that the horrors of Mariupol are unfolding only two hours flying time away. The Ukraine crisis is very much on my mind as I arrive. Because of the trip, I have had to turn down an invitation to join a Today programme evening panel discussion, on where Nato should draw the line on Ukraine. When I hear a former general on the panel declaring that Nato and its leaders have not done nearly enough to prepare for the risk of war, I wish I had been there to debate that proposition with him. In my view, Nato’s response to the crisis has been impressive – more united and purposeful than at any time since the Cold War. The alliance’s forces in Eastern Europe have never been stronger, and Finland and Sweden are moving towards joining Nato. Strategically, Putin is already the loser from his barbaric war.
With the final lap in the presidential race imminent, even Ukraine has to share the headlines in the French media. My visit coincides with the Grand Débat, the only time the two remaining candidates come face to face. With my board meeting out of the way, I had planned to spend the evening watching this three-hour marathon in my hotel room, with a glass of wine at hand. No such luck – the BBC World Service Context TV programme ask me to come on and talk about the issues at stake. When the presenter, Christian Fraser, hears that I am in Paris, he signs me up to update viewers several times in the hour-long programme on how the debate is going.
This is not straightforward. I have to perch my iPad precariously on an upturned suitcase, positioned so I can also watch the TV. Then there’s the bandwidth issue. The hotel wi-fi seems good in the middle of the evening, but as people come back from dinner, it starts to get dodgy. Not quite the relaxing evening I had planned.
Macron offers the best prospect for improving UK-French relations
When Marine Le Pen faced Emmanuel Macron at the same point in the 2017 campaign, her combative approach backfired spectacularly. This time, her gameplan is different. She keeps her temper and lays out her plans with carefully rehearsed soundbites. But very soon she begins to struggle under the relentless precision of Macron’s interrogation. Well before the end, I am sure that she has not done nearly enough to overturn Macron’s lead in the polls.
The experience of watching and commenting on this debate at the same time gives me a new respect for the professionalism of journalists who can do an instant and balanced summary of an event like this without letting their own preferences intrude. I find this difficult because I am convinced that a Le Pen presidency would be a disaster: for France, since her economic plan doesn’t add up, but also for France’s allies, since she wants to leave Nato’s integrated military structure, lob a hand grenade into the EU, and make a reset of the UK-French relationship conditional on London distancing itself from Washington.
I leave Paris before polling day confident that Macron will win. When the results came in on Sunday night I was very relieved to find that (unlike many of my election predictions) this one proved to be right! I confess to a twinge of envy for the French. With the democracies facing a daunting array of crises from the Ukraine war to the darkening economic outlook, France will have a dynamic and proven leader with a five-year mandate, fizzing with ideas to reform the country and strengthen Europe. I am sure Macron also offers the best prospect for improving UK-French relations – provided that our government makes a corresponding effort to rebuild trust.
Lord Ricketts is a crossbench peer, chair of the EU Security and Justice sub-committee and a former ambassador to France
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