On either side of the English Channel, the debate is about a moral vaccum.
In Britain, the immoral approach to rules by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.
In France, the immoral approach of the state as a whole to murderous foreign leaders with deep pockets.
Let me explain.
A leaked video shows Mr Johnson’s staff laughing about a party in December 2020, a time when Christmas had been cancelled for the UK and police were prosecuting and fining ordinary people for breaching government orders. The party (one of three, allegedly) was held at 10, Downing Street, which is both Mr Johnson’s office and his official residence. Downing Street is, admittedly, a pretty big place – I’ve been there many times – there is the prime minister’s flat; some grand official reception rooms and a warren of offices. And there is no suggestion that Mr Johnson himself attended any of these parties. But the overwhelming impression that the British public is getting is of an imperious immorality – a careless and contemptuous attitude to rules and restrictions, a heedless Great Gatsby-esque frenzy for fun, sensation, partying, whooping it up…
As Robert Shrimsley has written (paywall), “Carelessness and contempt have long been hallmarks of Johnson’s administration. In almost every controversy surrounding this government, from the suspension of parliament over Brexit to the doomed effort to save a colleague who was guilty of paid advocacy, the consistent theme is not only the ‘whatever works’ justification but the belief that a problem is only a problem if you cannot tough it out…”
This will damage Johnson in the longer term, he argues. “…what this and other recent errors have highlighted is what will prove his ultimate downfall. It will come when his MPs conclude his careless leadership style is jeopardising their electoral prospects.”
For France, the moral vacuum is bigger than one man.
When President Emmanuel Macron ended his recent Gulf tour with a visit to Saudi Arabia, many diagnosed the French malady as a laissez faire approach to criminality, ethics and probity in public life.
That sounds hard but here’s the argument advanced by some people:
Mr Macron was not particularly moral in becoming the first major western leader to visit the world’s biggest oil exporter and meet in the country with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since he was implicated in the brutal murder in 2018 of Saudi columnist and critic Jamal Khashoggi.
In ‘Le Monde’, Amnesty International chief Agnes Callamare said she regretted Mr Macron was “lending his presidential aura” to Prince Mohammed, .
He did it for sound economic reasons. Soon after he met the UAE’s Crown Prince MBZ, the French government announced a deal worth more than 17 billion euros for 80 Rafale fighter jets and 12 Caracal military helicopters. Mr Macron has also sided with Arab leaders in their restriction of political Islamists’ freedoms. He awarded the Legion of Honor to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
France’s ties with Saudi Arabia cover disparate sectors including defense.
Mr Macron has said that travelling to Riyadh “doesn’t mean that we are complacent, or that we forget. We remain a demanding partner but we have to talk to each other and stay engaged.” Ahead of the trip (which ended on December 5) Mr Macron’s office said that he would raise the issue of human rights during private conversations with the Saudi Crown Prince.
The stench of immoral considerations is strong for some. Formula 1 world champion driver Lewis Hamilton, for instance, said he felt “uncomfortable” racing in Saudi Arabia. It was the same weekend that Mr Macron visited.