For France, the significance of Friday’s summit in Paris between President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was that it represented a return to normality after years of petty feuding, with the two leaders clearly showing they were serious about rebuilding the battered relationship.

While Mr Sunak signalled in the run-up to the Élysée Palace meeting that he expected to wrest support from Mr Macron for his controversial new plan to curb cross-Channel migration, this was seen as a minor detail in Paris, where the focus was on the symbolism of Europe’s biggest military powers enjoying a sensible and constructive working relationship.

Indeed, Mr Sunak’s hopes for a readmission and returns deal on asylum seekers were always seen a non-starter.

Since leaving the EU, the UK is no longer party to the bloc’s so-called Dublin rules that say migrants can be returned to the first EU country they entered.

As France is part of the EU free movement zone, it has no right to make bilateral decisions of that kind.

President of France, Emmanuel Macron (right), uses an umbrella to protect the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, after a joint press conference at Elysee Palace, Paris, as part of the first UK-France summit in five years. Picture date: Friday March 10, 2023. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS France. Photo credit should read: Kin Cheung/PA Wire
Mr Macron and Mr Sunak share an umbrella after a joint press conference of the first UK-France summit in five years (Photo: Kin Cheung/PA Wire)

Indeed, French officials have noted wryly that former prime minister Boris Johnson failed to negotiate a returns agreement with the EU as part of his 2019 Brexit deal.

French interior minister Gérald Darmanin this week made clear that any agreement with Britain would not be bilateral, but through the EU, and involve the rights of migrants and the legal path for immigration.

Mr Macron himself said the issue would be discussed within the new pan-European Political Community (EPC), the wider European club he initiated last year, which includes the UK.

As for the £500m three-year agreement on a new detention centre, it is in line with the four previous deals over the past three years in which the UK pays France to increase its Channel policing.

For the French, defence cooperation with Britain is much more important, especially in light of the war in Ukraine.

The AUKUS deal in 2021, in which the US and Britain torpedoed France’s position as the supplier of Australia’s next generation of submarines, still smarts with Paris officials, who see it as a betrayal by fellow Nato members – although it is barely mentioned in London.

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That deal will not be undone, but Mr Sunak and Mr Macron did discuss several joint initiatives, from training Ukrainian soldiers and ramping up weapons deliveries to Kyiv to developing new fighter jets together and improving UK-French military interoperability (although Mr Macron is also keen to build up the EU’s joint defence capabilities, so there may be instances where the UK is frozen out of military projects).

There was also a stronger emphasis by Paris on cultural and youth ties, with France’s Transport Minister Clement Beaune helping organise an exchange event for the so-called Young Leaders from Britain and France in the margins of the summit.

These links are still considered vital in France, especially since Brexit has ended the UK’s involvement in EU schemes like the Erasmus university exchange programme and the Horizon research programme.

Finally, French officials underlined, at least in private, that the main reason for the improving tone between Paris and London is the change in personnel: Boris Johnson and his short-lived successor as Prime Minister Liz Truss were loud standard-bearers of Brexit, while Mr Sunak barely mentions it.

“Brexit made everything much worse. No one wants to return to that psychodrama,” said one French official.

Still, there was widespread praise in the French press for the return to normality. The French daily Le Parisien described their relationship as “la bromance”.

Le Figaro, which ran an interview with Mr Sunak, said the page was turning finally on “the AUKUS betrayal” as well as the “disruptive” era of Boris Johnson.

Le Monde’s London correspondent Cécile Ducourtieux noted that after a “detestable” period, Franco-British relations can only improve.

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