One French commentator called Brexit a “national psychodrama” – and, another put it as, “un big mess”. Many French people are addressing Britons with the sympathy they normally reserve for the bereaved. “So sorry,” they say, as a no-deal B-Day looms. “What will you do now?”
There is little gloating, much genuine concern, and massive incomprehension. The journalist, Pierre Haski, sums up Brexit bafflement: “Did electors really vote Brexit to allow the haughty aristocrat Jacob Rees-Mogg or the demagogue Boris Johnson to challenge Theresa May … or for Jeremy Corbyn to get into Downing Street without saying what he will do about Brexit?”
The Channel tunnel has been key to softening historically fraught Anglo-French relations; personal and cultural links have grown richer now that travelling between Paris and London is less traumatic than the average commute.
As for the infamous “love-hate” relationship, of late the loathing has been largely one way. Screaming British tabloid headlines accuse France of deliberately orchestrating no-deal mayhem, while in the real world the French government is doing precisely the opposite.
Thankfully, the abuse is shrugged off. If there is a response, it is frustration. “We’ve spent hundreds of hours on Brexit – and we do have other things to do,” one French civil servant says.
Some try to make sense of the Westminster spectacle. Jean-Marc Puissesseau, the president of the company that runs the Calais port – also working hard to avoid Brexit chaos – says there were signs of Brexit years ago. “You had special conditions. You continued to drive on the left, you kept the pound … perhaps Great Britain is so fundamentally insular and protective of its own future and freedom, this is its destiny. But it’s a pity.”
Hélène Orain, the director of Paris’s Museum of Immigration, hopes “the links between our countries will not stop, and we can continue to recount our common history”.
If there is any silver lining to the present impenetrable Brexit cloud, it may be a growing feeling, for many Britons in France, that behind all the historic name-calling, the French are really quite fond of us.