Boris Johnson is to meet his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault in Paris on Thursday, only two weeks after the French foreign minister denounced him as a liar over his role in Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
The French foreign ministry said: “This first trip to France by the British foreign secretary will offer an opportunity to discuss the most important international issues of the day on which we work closely with the United Kingdom, as well as our bilateral relationship, particularly in the areas of defence, counter-terrorism and border control.”
Johnson has no direct responsibility for Brexit negotiations, and has been emphasising in all his public appearances since his appointment that Brexit does not mean that the UK is turning its back on Europe.
The prime minister, Theresa May, has already met French president François Hollande in Paris for a general discussion on how the Brexit talks will be held.
On the first day of his appointment, Johnson went to the French ambassador’s residence to attend the annual Bastille Day celebrations where he was booed by some members of the audience.
Ayrault was infuriated by Johnson’s tactics in the referendum campaign. Johnson revealed subsequently that Ayrault had sent him a charming private letter and it is likely the two sides will try to set aside their differences over the EU to discuss their points of agreement over Libya, the Middle East peace process and the fight against Islamic extremism.
Paris has taken the lead in trying to kickstart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but there has been little enthusiasm for the initiative in Washington or Jerusalem, leading to British caution.
In the heat of the Brexit vote, Ayrault questioned whether Johnson could be a credible interlocutor.
He said: “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.”
At a subsequent meeting in Brussels, Ayrault said Johnson had not apologised for having compared the EU’s goals to those of Hitler and Napoleon during Britain’s referendum campaign, although Johnson had “behaved with a certain modesty” at the meeting.
Paris becomes an even more important diplomatic centre for the UK since the European commission announced Michel Barnier, a former EU commissioner and centre-right French foreign minister, is to be the EU’s main representative in talks with Britain about its exit from the bloc. There are fears in the UK that Barnier could prove to be a difficult negotiator especially over the City of London’s passporting rights for UK banks operating in the eurozone.
There have been suggestions that Edward Llewellyn, David Cameron’s trusted former chief of staff, will become the UK ambassador to Paris in a further sign that the UK regards Anglo-French relations critical in a new post-Brexit era.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, for theguardian.com on Thursday 28th July 2016 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010