Thu. Sep 23rd, 2021

When Sylvie Bermann arrived in August 2014 as France’s new ambassador, London was, she says, a city of “extraordinary dynamism and optimism”.

French cabinet ministers were queuing up to visit, one after the other, all searching for “Britain’s recipe for success. It was an an astonishing place.”

Now, Bermann says in an interview in her flat on Paris’s Left Bank, lined with the souvenirs of 40 years in France’s diplomatic service, “It feels like I’ve lived through a revolution. To see all that blown up, deliberately, for what? A blind belief in some mythical idea … How did it happen?”

To answer the question, the now-retired career diplomat, who has worked in Hong Kong, New York, Brussels and Moscow and was France’s ambassador to Beijing before she moved to Britain, has written a book that pulls no punches.

Goodbye Britannia, published this month in France, calls Boris Johnson an inveterate liar, describes Brexit as the triumph of emotion over reason, and suggests its roots lie in a combination of deluded British exceptionalism and rank political opportunism.

For a woman who fell in love with Britain on her first visit, to Brighton to learn English as a schoolgirl “sometime in the mid-1960s”, and whose best friends have lived in London for more than 30 years, Brexit is also a matter of personal sadness.

“When you’ve admired a country for a long time, appreciated its humour, tolerance, courtesy, openness – of course it’s sad,” she says. “It also means, now, there’s no more jelly or Stilton in Marks & Spencer’s in Marché St Germain. And that’s Brexit, too.”

First and foremost, though, was the shock. “No one thought it would happen, not even the Brexiters,” Bermann says. “David Cameron told me several times there was no way he could lose – he just wanted to solve his problem with his Eurosceptics.”

At endless embassy lunches and receptions, she says, she was assured by all that “‘the British are pragmatic; we just won’t do this’. One very senior Brexiter told us: ‘We’re not leaving, and we’ll keep annoying you. Are you sure you want us to stay?’”

Sylvie Bermann in Paris. The career diplomat left London in 2017, but followed developments closely from her next diplomatic post in Moscow.
Bermann in Paris. The career diplomat left London in 2017, but followed developments in the UK closely from her next diplomatic post in Moscow. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian

Right up until referendum night, Bermann says, the story was the same: “I went to the party hosted by Roland Rudd, from the Stronger In campaign. George Osborne came by at about 11pm, and everyone congratulated each other. People were sure.”

Bermann went back to the French residence, on Kensington Palace Gardens, got a couple of hours’ sleep, then went downstairs at about 5am to watch the final results with her staff. “It was,” she says, “a bombshell. I wanted to analyse the reasons.”

Bermann blames a toxic mix of largely concocted fears over immigration, populist politicians willing to exploit them, and an identity crisis by which a nation that “not so long ago ruled the waves, somehow convinced itself it was in a dictatorship”.

The question of Britain’s identity was key, she says. “It’s very strange. On the one hand the British say, ‘We’re the best, we hold all the cards, we’ll divide and rule as we always have – and on the other: we’re a vassal state to Brussels.”

Sylvie Bermann with the then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in Trafalgar Square in January 2015, during a ceremony for the victims of the Paris terror attacks of that month.
Bermann with the then deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, in Trafalgar Square in January 2015, during a ceremony for the victims of the Paris terror attacks of that month. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

She spent a lot of time trying to talk to Brexiters, “and it was impossible – not to convince them, even, but simply to … discuss it with them. This really is an ideology. Brexit was a victory of passion over reality.”

The national narrative of a country never defeated, and uninvaded since 1066, had – according Bermann – created a “mad” and obsessive conviction among Brexit true believers that Britain had single-handedly won the second world war.

“Look, I did a lot to acknowledge the role of the British in the war,” she says. “I presented a lot of légions d’honneur to British veterans, and it was very moving. But at the same time, I’m sorry, the Americans and the Red Army did their bit.”

A lack of any real understanding of what the EU contributed to the UK did not help the remain cause, she says, nor did the fact that the campaign was so lacklustre. “Cameron said people would be better off in – but he never said how,” Bermann says.

It was “the demagogues and the populists”, however, who got Brexit over the line, Bermann says. “Farage managed to forge this link between the EU and immigration. [Jeremy] Corbyn played a very negative role too, he was a Brexiter at heart.

“There was no opposition campaign. And then of course Johnson, the determining factor. Charming, charismatic – and with no genuine reason at all to be hostile to the EU. He knew all those articles he wrote about it from Brussels were false.”

Sylvie Bermann with Boris Johnson when he was the foreign secretary July 2016.
Bermann with Boris Johnson, when he was foreign secretary, in July 2016. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Bermann has few kind words for the role the prime minister, whom she met often during his time as mayor of London, played in the Brexit process. From the moment he started to campaign for Brexit, she says, his bad faith was evident.

“No one should be surprised he gets called a liar,” she says. “Just look at the side of that bus: a flagrant lie. But lying is no longer a sin. The views of someone with no competence are worth as much as those of an expert – as Michael Gove said.”

Bermann was all the more shocked by Johnson, she says, because the first time she met him, at a breakfast, he had given “a fine speech, about how Sparta, in ancient Greece, had vanished because it cut itself off, while Athens, open city, flourished”.

She had more time for Theresa May, whose “inflexibilities and mistakes” – including the red lines of Brexit means Brexit, leaving the EU’s single market and customs union – produced the hardest of hard departures but who “at least had an honest side”.

Bermann left London in 2017, but followed developments closely from her next – and final – diplomatic post in Moscow. “The deal that was finally arrived at is a deal in which Britain sacrificed everything to a mythical idea of sovereignty,” she says.

“I’m sorry, but France is sovereign. Germany is sovereign. When we decide to share our sovereignty, it is to reinforce our power in the world, because there are now two superpowers, the US and China. Absolute sovereignty simply does not exist.”

Global Britain is also a myth: “The UK has erected new barriers with its biggest partner. For the US, it’s no longer the bridge it was. With China, there are moral problems. India won’t play unless it gets visas. Who will Britain be global with?”

Meanwhile, Britain is now a third country, Bermann says, “which means frontiers, documents, declarations. It wanted to leave because of EU bureaucracy, but it has a mountain of new paperwork – and companies are already suffering.”

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