The Irish embassy car crunched over the gravel courtyard of the Élysée Palace. Two dozen French republican guards in red-plumed helmets and gold braid stood to attention as Taoiseach Micheál Martin alighted. President Emmanuel Macron waited at the top of the stairs to greet him with a perfunctory hug.
Despite the pageantry, it was an informal working lunch, a conversation that picked up where the previous one left off. Thursday was the Taoiseach’s third visit to France this year. He was Mr Macron’s guest at the oceans conference in Brittany in February, and in Versailles for an EU summit devoted to Ukraine in April. The two men also see each other on the sidelines of EU summits.
The joint statement issued after the meeting said the leaders “noted that relations had never been better”. Brexit threw Ireland into the arms of France. Their harmony is a good news story in a deluge of crises.
Irish Ministers have made more than 30 official visits to France this year; their French counterparts a similar number to Ireland. Maritime crossings between the two countries have quadrupled, from 11 to 43 weekly. French youths are the largest contingent of foreign students in Ireland, and France is the first destination abroad for Irish students.
The two countries will on Friday sign contracts for the Celtic Interconnector, a high-voltage power line between Brittany and Cork that will link Ireland to the continental grid from 2026. The EU will pay most of the €1 billion-plus cost. It is Ireland’s largest bilateral capital project with any partner.
The Taoiseach was guest of honour at the Ireland France Business Awards, held last year in Dublin and last night at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. He noted the expanding Irish diplomatic presence in France. This autumn, Ireland opened a consulate general in Lyon and an honorary consulate in Roscoff.
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Irish companies employ more than 30,000 people in France. Companies represented by Enterprise Ireland increased exports to France by 17 per cent last year. France is the largest export market for Irish lamb and seafood, the second largest for beef. Half a million French and Irish tourists visit each other’s countries each year. Ireland’s ambassador to Paris, Niall Burgess, contends that the Irish economy “is even more integrated in many ways with the French economy” than with the US.
Macron and Martin agreed to push ahead with plans for “an integrated sail-rail ticket option”, available next summer and geared at young people. One competitively priced, environment-friendly ticket will take travellers from Dublin or Cork to Paris by train and boat.
There were serious geopolitical issues on the lunch table at the Élysée as well, a sense of moral outrage in the joint statement of “unequivocal support for the people of Ukraine” and condemnation of “Russia’s relentless inhumane attacks on civilian infrastructure”.
The Taoiseach thanked Mr Macron for what their joint statement called “France’s unswerving solidarity with Ireland through Brexit”.
France and Ireland have acted as one in negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Both countries say they want strong, healthy, normal relations to resume between London and Dublin, and London and Paris.
“We believe there is a window of opportunity for the British government with the European Union to deal with [the Northern Ireland Protocol] once and for all,” the Taoiseach told journalists. “There are bigger issues to deal with globally which necessitates the EU and UK getting on constructively and hence the necessity to deal with the protocol and get a result.”
After lunch with the French president, Mr Martin visited the Centre Culturel Irlandais, the main instrument of Irish “soft diplomacy” in Paris. He was in his element in the building, which many still call the Irish College, and which has been in Irish hands since the 18th century.
The centre’s director, Nora Hickey M’Sichili, said she was most struck by Mr Martin’s generosity. “There’s a warmth to him. He spent more than two hours at the centre, and he was interested in everyone he met, from the artists in residence to Erasmus students, members of the diaspora representing different organisations, and members of the staff and board of the CCI.”
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From a political and economic standpoint, it might be more advantageous for Ireland to hitch its wagon to Germany, not France. But, as this newspaper’s Berlin correspondent Derek Scally observes, “there’s no real grá there.”
The ties that bind Ireland to France have often involved the Catholic Church and fighting perfidious Albion.
“We have a long, illustrious and sometimes daring and adventurous history of relations with France,” Mr Martin told the awards dinner. “From missionaries to merchants, to revolutionaries and writers, Irish men and women have played their part in making History in many ways in France.”