In Conversation with Sylvie Bermann, former French ambassador

Sylvie Bermann was France’s ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2014 to 2017, the first woman to hold the role.

"International Women's Day", Foreign and Commonwealth Office. CC BY 2.0
"International Women's Day", Foreign and Commonwealth Office. CC BY 2.0

Sylvie Bermann is a career diplomat who was France’s ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2014 to 2017, the first woman to hold the role. Earlier this year she published a book, Goodbye Britannia, in which she examines British identity and the reasons for Brexit.

When Sylvie Bermann was appointed French ambassador to the Court of St James in 2014, the first French woman to be so, numerous Brits warned her that the UK would be a tad “boring” compared to her previous posting in China.

“I did not expect then to witness a revolution or live through a historic moment,” the diplomat of 40 years writes
in her latest book, Goodbye Britannia, about Brexit.

Bermann, who now chairs the prestigious Institute of Advanced Studies in National Defence in Paris, pulls no punches in her book’s damning critique of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. She presents the UK’s exit from the EU as an irrational pursuit of an ideological goal, rooted in a mythologised sense of British superiority, in part underpinned by an enduring belief in the empire. and offers a crushing prognosis about the prospects of post- Brexit Britain.

Beginning her ambassadorship in the last weeks of one referendum campaign (Scotland’s indyref), Bermann’s time as France’s top representative in the UK spanned three tumultuous years of British politics, including two elections and the build-up and aftermath of Brexit.

She had long loved Britain since her first visit there as a teenager on a school trip. And when she returned as ambassador, after a sparkling career which took her from China to Russia and back again via various directorates at the UN and the EU’s political and security committee, she fell in love with its capital.

When Bermann arrived in London, she tells me, she found a vibrant cultural and arts scene, a new and exciting architecture, and a thriving commercial hub that told of a city “totally at peace with its modernity”. “London,” she explains, “was the perfect incarnation of happy globalisation,” unlike France, “which had never been so liberal.”

Reading Goodbye Britannia, it does come across as rather a Londoner’s view of Britain – the best of the country is the best of the metropole.

Fully aware of her seat in the heart of London at France’s embassy in Knightsbridge, Bermann admits that she never got to meet the people proper.

Though the pro-Brexit voices she found were few and far between, with the mayors and other “responsables” that she met across the country largely in favour of remain, she was struck by the ideological arguments that she did hear. They boiled down to: “S what if we are poorer, at least we’ll be free.”

Bermann’s striking description of Brexit as “unleashing demons, legitimising xenophobia and racism”, twinned with a rejection of an elite, in Goodbye Britannia hammers home a categorical take on the motivation for the movement.

“It was always about identity,” she said. There were no “rational” grounds for it otherwise.

Amid a flurry of British cultural references in Goodbye Britannia, Bermann singles out Our Island Story for its explanation of British exceptionalism. Having not come across it herself, Bermann tells me, it was her British friends who told her to read it.

“You will understand everything,” they said – the sense of British exceptionalism and superiority and all the accompanying mythology.

The “we liberated you” jibes of the post-war years, the accusation of European cowardice and Germany’s use of the EU (sometimes known as, Bermann observes, the “fourth Reich”) to do what it had failed to do in two world wars.

And it was this mythology of Britain’s 20th century that allowed the UK to say tatty- bye to the EU.

The “clearly xenophobic” Nigel Farage and the populists, she asserts, were fearful of “the migration of peoples of colour” and linking the EU to the migration debate, while “it had nothing to do with it”. The confusion about the EU’s role was “deliberately maintained” by populists like Farage, she says.

And Vote Leave?

Before she can answer, her cat struts into view on our Zoom call. Quite clearly piqued by the subject, it (I didn’t catch the name) parked itself on her keyboard staring with cocked head into the camera, before leaping to the floor.

“Take back control, but take back control of what?” she asks.

“This whole anti- European debate [put forward by Brexiters], I think, is a rather distorted illusion of their country.” Though Boris Johnson, she believes, only made the choice to support leave as a means of positioning himself as Cameron’s successor – his support for the campaign and his borderline celebrity status made the vote acceptable to the public. His “incredible ability” to attract adulation is such that he is a celeb even to those who couldn’t stand him.

“On one occasion,” she explained, “I was talking to one of our ministers about how everybody was angry with Boris because of everything to do with Brexit, but when he came to Brussels everyone wanted to have a photo with him. He’s a star.”

On an inevitable aside about the prime minister’s porkies, Bermann mentions that she took a lot of flak for hammering Johnson about his litany of whoppers in her book.

“When I call him an unrepentant and inveterate liar”, I didn’t invent that,” she is quick to highlight. “You British are always going on about it.”

Turning to the second question of her book, the prospects of post-Brexit Britain, Bermann’s prognosis for Johnson’s “Global Britain” isn’t exactly rosy.

Since Brexit and the inexorable rise of Johnson, the Mandarin-speaking diplomatic high-flyer concludes, the UK has cut itself off from international relevance and is, or at least will be, left floundering without the EU.

The “special relationship” with the US – which, Bermann observes, “has always been more ‘special’ for the UK than for the US” – will take on a different tone with the Biden administration.

Beyond President Biden’s criticism of Boris Johnson and his concerns about Northern Ireland and the safeguarding of the Good Friday

Agreement, there hangs the question of the UK’s strategic value to the US.

“The relationship in the war and security and intelligence sharing will continue,” Bermann says, “but in the past, the Americans used to ask the British to act as a bridge between the US and the EU and, of course, it’s not possible anymore.”

“It’s probably less valuable for the Americans,” she adds. Biden’s omission of the UK

in his address to the Munich Security Conference was taken as a knowing snub of both Johnson and Brexit Britain, but for Bermann its nothing personal.

“It’s not a question of whether a country has good points or not,” she shrugs, “It’s just a question of critical mass.”

Hoping for a glimmer of optimism amid the doom and gloom, I wonder aloud, what comfort, if any, can Britain expect from the Commonwealth, pointing to the renewed calls for a CANZUK union (of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK). Will it bear any fruit?

“Since the beginning of the campaign for Brexit, all the Brexiters were mentioning the Commonwealth being a replacement for the EU but it’s totally different,” she insists.

“Even if Australia, for instance, doesn’t have a particularly good relationship with China for the time being, it is the economic partner,” Bermann says. “For Canada, it is the US, so I don’t think it’s possible to have this revival.”

In short, without the EU, the UK doesn’t stand a chance. So much for “Global Britain”.

26th April 2021