Bonhomie but no Brexit breakthrough as Johnson and Macron meet
French President Emmanuel Macron stood proudly on the top step leading to the imposing Elysee Palace as he watched Boris Johnson’s car pull into the courtyard.
The pair shook hands for the first time since Mr Johnson became Prime Minister last month, a warm greeting given the frosty relationship over Brexit.
They have their starkly different back stories – Mr Macron an overnight success in his march to become president in 2017, with Mr Johnson taking a much more winding and scenic route to power – but both men are prepared to speak their minds.
Under the blazing Paris sun, they gave their respective statements to the awaiting media in one corner of the gravelled courtyard, flanked by the Republican Guard behind them.
As Mr Macron spoke in French, the Conservative Party leader nodded along – there was no need for a translation earpiece this time for the fluent speaker, unlike during his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday.
During the exchange in Berlin – conversations Mr Johnson said he was “powerfully encouraged” by – Mrs Merkel showed a willingness to work for a solution to the UK’s trouble with the Irish backstop, the joint attempt with the EU to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland after Brexit.
Mr Johnson had beamed at Mrs Merkel’s openness but here, in the August heat of France’s capital, he took to scribbling notes with his black Bic Biro a number of times as he prepared to rebut his counterpart.
They were both prepared to give as good as they got.
Mr Macron told Mr Johnson the backstop was “indispensable” in the face of the Irish geographical and political situation, while the former London mayor reiterated the UK would never reinstall a hard border in Northern Ireland, effectively pinning the blame on Brussels should such a state of friction ever arise again.
There was no staring involved but this was a face-off in every other way – albeit one involving much PR-taught smiling.
The PM did not, as some in the media had suspected, give great swathes of his answers in French, preferring to stick to English for all but a phrase.
A reminder perhaps from Mr Johnson that, while a Francophile he may be, it is the UK he is batting for in these talks.
One of Mr Macron’s final comments during the press conference was that, in the time allotted before the October 31 deadline, it was unlikely the Withdrawal Agreement would look “very different to what we have”.
But the UK leader must surely think he can budge that assessment in his favour, otherwise he would not have travelled to Paris for lunch and followed it with a private stroll in the garden with his French counterpart.
He certainly showed his motivation to build a friendship, having been the one initiating the small talk during their after-dinner coffee that the media were invited to briefly observe.
During his speech, the PM reminded his colleague across the Channel that Britain and France have been frequent collaborators – the French build London buses, while French trains run on rail tracks made in steel forges in Scunthorpe, he told Mr Macron.
Their first meeting made clear their differences – blonde v brunette, the baggy suited v the well-tailored, the pale v the tanned, the last-dash handwritten speech v the pre-typed statement.
But Mr Johnson is pressing for only a single similarity – an agreed solution to rid any Brexit agreement of the Irish backstop in its current guise.
As the press pack left the mirrored room where the pair were having coffee, Mr Macron said “tres bien” by way of a farewell to journalists.
Mr Johnson will be hoping that same expression will apply when it comes to the end of his talks with EU leaders and their mood over a Brexit deal.