Britain’s new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is a liar with his back against the wall, his French counterpart has said.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, who met Johnson when the two men were both mayors, was asked on French radio if he was surprised by Johnson’s appointment. “I don’t know if it surprised me,” he said. “It’s a sign of the British political crisis that has come out of the referendum vote.” He said France needed a partner it could negotiate with who was “clear, credible and who could be trusted”.
The Europe 1 radio interviewer told Ayrault: “I’ve got the impression you’re scared of being faced with the fanciful Boris Johnson,” to which the French foreign minister replied: “No, I’ve got no worries at all about Boris Johnson. But you know very well what his style and method are. During the campaign, you know he told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall. He is up against it to defend his country and also so that the relationship with Europe is clear.”
Ayrault said Britain’s exit from the European Union must now happen in the best conditions possible “and not to the detriment of the European project”. He added: “We cannot let this ambiguous, blurred situation drag on …”
His reaction reflected a negative response to Johnson’s appointment from across Europe. In Germany, Simone Peter, the co-leader of the Green party, likened it to “trusting the cat to keep the cream”. Johnson was “properly, properly hated”, said Anne Gellinek, the Brussels correspondent of public broadcaster ZDF.
Martin Schulz, the European parliament chief, said Theresa May’s new cabinet was based on solving internal splits in the Conservatives rather than promoting the national interest, continuing a “dangerously vicious cycle” that will hurt Britain and Europe.
In Paris, Johnson has long been seen as an outrageous “French-basher” and bizarre English eccentric, once summed up by Le Monde as “a Monty Python-style politician who appears to avoid taking things seriously”.
His appointment as foreign secretary was met with a degree of appalled surprise from French media and commentators, many of whom had been shocked by what was seen as the intellectual dishonesty of some of Johnson’s comments during the referendum campaign, namely when he likened the EU to a project by Adolf Hitler.
Johnson speaks fluent French with an accent, which he calls his own “barbarian form of French” learnt when he was a Brussels correspondent. He has often been to France to promote his books on Churchill or London, which have been translated into French and sold well. He easily holds court on French radio in French, and as London mayor conducted meetings with Paris politicians in French.
But he is best known for what has been seen as his relentless “French bashing” and endless quest for hammy punchlines at the expense of France.
France bristled when, at the Conservative party conference in 2012, he said he welcomed “talented French people” who wanted to flee François Hollande’s tax rises, adding that France had been “captured by sans culottes” running a tyranny of the like not seen since the French revolution.
“Not since 1789 has there been such a tyranny and terror in France,” he thundered, later acknowledging that the French “are very sensitive about their revolution”.
France’s equivalent of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme introduced him three years ago as a man who “never missed an opportunity to have a go at France and the French”.
During the EU referendum campaign, he quipped that France would easily do a favourable trade deal with the UK after Brexit because “we export french knickers to France”.
He added: “We must be pretty irritating for some of these french knicker manufacturers when they stroll down the Champs Élysées to see British french knickers on sale in their shops. But are they going to put tariffs, after we leave the EU, on our french knickers, when we buy so much of their cheese and champagne? Of course they’re not.”
Le Monde warned after his appointment: “His talent for theatrics is well known, but it remains to be seen how much talent he has in international diplomacy.”
Jean Quatremer, Brussels correspondent for the French daily Libération, referred to Johnson’s reputation as a liar by tweeting that his appointment “shows what Britain’s word is worth”.
— Jean Quatremer (@quatremer) July 14, 2016
One Socialist in Paris tweeted that with Johnson’s appointment the joke was not over.
Boris Johnson, Ministre des Affaires Étrangères. Cette blague ne s'arrête donc jamais ?
— Michel Gelly (@michelgelly) July 13, 2016
Pascal Boniface, the director of Paris’s Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said he saw the appointment as an internal move to keep a balance on the Eurosceptic side of the cabinet.
But he said that, viewed from abroad and given Johnson’s “very feeble” reputation, the appointment could be seen at an international level “as a provocation”. Boniface said it all depended on whether Johnson stayed true to his deliberately provocative tone or whether he changed: “If he stays himself there will be a problem between the UK and other countries. People can accept that the UK leaves the EU but they can’t accept gratuitous insults levelled against other countries.”