Last month, President Emmanuel Macron visited London to mark the 80th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s famous ‘Appel’ to the French to resist.
Alongside the Prince of Wales, and next to de Gaulle’s former wartime headquarters at Carlton Gardens, the President presented London with the Legion d’Honneur in gratitude for its role as ‘the cradle of Free France’. ‘The United Kingdom’, he noted, ‘gave Free France its first weapon – a BBC microphone’.
It was a moving day: the Red Arrows and their French counterparts, the Patrouille de France, flew over London in the evening just as they had done over Paris earlier in the day, leaving a trail of red, white and blue over the skyline of the capital.
But this was not just a day about our shared history – important though that is. It was about our shared present and future too.
80 years on, the cooperation between the UK and France – especially in the defence and security field – is as close and as relevant as ever. The world has changed, and our countries have changed with it.
But some constants remain.
The fact that we are geographical neighbours; that we share values, as democracies and free societies which believe in the rule of law; that we share a similar outlook on the world, and believe in standing up for our interests, at home and abroad.
Barely a week goes by when I and my Defence colleagues do not have the honour of attending, somewhere in France, a ceremony to mark our shared sacrifices, in two World Wars, in the cause of freedom.
And today, as then, one basic truth lies at the heart of our defence and security relationship: that when either of our countries are in need, we heed the call.
We have seen that in recent years, as both our countries have suffered at the hands of terrorism. Whether it was a Wembley crowd singing the Marseillaise following the Bataclan attacks in 2015, or a newly-elected President Macron making the journey from the Elysée to the British Embassy on foot after the Manchester attack in 2017 – support and solidarity travelled across the Channel, alongside ever closer operational cooperation between our law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Together our teams work around the clock to identify plots and defeat them.
Along our shared border, police, border and law enforcement officials work day and night to combat illegal immigration and the threat posed by the organised crime gangs who profit from human misery. And we see that cooperation in the juxtaposed controls in operation not just at Dover and Calais, but at St Pancras and the Gare du Nord, and in the security infrastructure at Coquelles, funded in large part by the UK. As the border has become more secure, the traffickers have adapted their methods. Today, the challenge is the growing number of attempts at hazardous Channel crossings in small boats – an issue which we are working intensively with the French authorities to tackle.
But it is perhaps in defence that our cooperation has made the greatest progress in the last decade.
The defence relationship between the UK and France has been close for decades. We both have significant Armed Forces, used to working together and deployable across the globe. We are the two European nations that possess independent nuclear deterrents. And we are countries that do not shy away from deploying hard power beyond our national boundaries, when strictly necessary, to protect our national interests.
The Lancaster House accords, which mark their tenth anniversary this year, were designed to take our already very close defence relationship to the next level – and that is what they have done.
They envisaged the creation of a 10,000 strong Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) by 2020 – and this force, which has been ten years in the making, is on the cusp of receiving the formal certification of its full operating capability. It is now capable of conducting a full range of tasks up to and including high-intensity warfare, as well as humanitarian or peace enforcement missions.
Last year, the UK and France conducted a major CJEF maritime exercise off the coast of Scotland; and in 2018 I observed British and French naval and commando units conducting an amphibious exercise off the coast off Brittany, an important capability for the new Combined Force.
Operationally, Lancaster House has reinforced the culture of working together that already existed between our Armed Forces. French forces have deployed alongside UK forces twice in the last few years as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia, protecting the Alliance’s Eastern flank, and will do again next year. And the UK has recently announced the extension of its support for the French Operation Barkhane, where three RAF Chinook helicopters are providing vital heavy lift capability to French forces in Mali as they pursue their counterterrorism mission.
Now, as Lancaster House approaches its tenth anniversary, our task is not to rest on our laurels but to find new ways to strengthen that cooperation – and make sure that it addresses the latest threats our countries face, including in the cyber and space domains.
That defence cooperation is underpinned by the ways we work together on foreign policy across the world – as Permanent Members of the Security Council, in the G7, in NATO, or in groupings like the E3 with Germany.
On the big strategic issues facing our countries, time and again you will find the UK and France acting together – from preventing Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, working to bring stability to Libya, combating extremism in the Sahel, or standing up for the high degree of autonomy and freedoms of Hong Kong.
British and French leaders, ministers and diplomats are in continual dialogue on these issues.
In recent months, of course, both our countries, like the rest of the world, have had to face up to the coronavirus pandemic, which has tragically cost so many lives on both sides of the Channel.
As we look to the future, and to the next UK–France Summit in the next 12 months, how we build back better for the future will inevitably be a big part of our agenda.
The UK and France are already at the forefront of efforts to lead a green recovery – whether in our domestic policies, as we saw with the Chancellor’s summer statement only last week and the £3 billion of green initiatives he announced, or in our determination to drive change internationally – with the UK and Italy’s Presidency of COP26 next year, building on France’s legacy of the 2015 Paris accords.
Our countries continue to work together as a force for good in the world – whether it is championing media freedom and human rights, or in the search for a vaccine being pioneered by Oxford University or the work of the famous Institut Pasteur (which, as it happens, is currently headed by a Brit).
So as I look to the future of the Franco-British relationship, I am excited and optimistic. We have so much to do together – leading on the environment, collaborating together in science and medicine, campaigning together on rights and freedoms, partnering together in diplomacy and operating together even more closely in defending our countries and protecting our people.
When I attend the 14 July commemorations on Tuesday in Paris’ Place de la Concorde, I will have my eye on the horizon.
Not just to admire the RAF Typhoon (piloted by a French exchange officer) and the French Rafale (with an RAF officer at the controls) taking part in the fly-past, a potent symbol of our close cooperation. But also because I will be thinking of the future, and saying: Vive la France. Vive l’Amitié Franco-britannique. Vive l’avenir!
Edward Llewellyn (Lord Llewellyn of Steep) has served as British Ambassador to France since November 2016. Before that, he served as the Downing Street Chief of Staff, from 2010 to 2016.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.