The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has said British ministers including his counterpart, Priti Patel, should stop saying one thing in private while insulting his country in public if there is to be a solution to the crisis in the Channel.
In an interview with the Guardian, Darmanin strongly criticised what he called “double talk” coming out of London and said France was not a “vassal” of the UK.
“Relations are good when we speak in private. Every week I have my British counterpart on the telephone and when we have personal meetings and exchange messages we see the UK has a serious approach and we have things in common,” Darmanin said.
“Then as soon as it’s something said in public, in the House of Commons or on social media and the press there’s a difference of tone that becomes strongly unfriendly … and is often different, even diametrically the opposite of what has been said in private.
“The more France is used as a punching bag for British domestic politics, and we hear provocative statements like ‘France has to take back all the immigrants’, the harder it becomes to find a solution. It’s not only insulting it’s totally unrealistic.”
Darmanin was speaking after France convened a meeting of ministers responsible for immigration from Germany, Holland, Belgium as well as the European commissioner for internal affairs. Representatives from the EU’s agency for law enforcement cooperation, Europol, and Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, were also invited to the hastily arranged summit in Calais on Sunday.
The meeting was called after 27 people died in the Channel on Wednesday, a tragedy that shocked both sides of the Channel and has sparked a blame game between London and Paris.
Patel’s invitation to the meeting was rescinded on Friday after Boris Johnson published a letter to Emmanuel Macron calling on France to do more to stop Channel crossings including allowing British forces to patrol French coastal areas – which France has refused citing concerns about sovereignty – and to accept refugees being returned.
Darmanin said he had “a cordial relationship based on trust” with Patel, but expressed growing French frustration at the mixed and contradictory messages heard from Boris Johnson’s government.
This frustration was voiced by Macron on Friday when he accused the UK of a lack of seriousness over the Channel crisis. The president was furious that Johnson had published a letter to him on Twitter, calling on France to take back migrants and questioning the country’s refusal to allow British forces to join patrols on France’s northern coast.
Darmanin reiterated that frustration. “When it comes to the British government in general, it’s very difficult to work in a calm manner. Relations are fine with ministers … but unfortunately as soon as there’s a camera or they’re in parliament we seem to hear them say something very different,” he said.
“I say again: France is not a subsidiary of the UK, we are a free and equal country with Great Britain and we want to be treated as such, treated as allies not vassals and not be hostages to British domestic politics.”
He was incredulous at Patel’s suggestions that Britain could send naval ships or forces to turn back refugee boats mid-Channel.
“We do not imagine for a single instant that Britain could just ignore all the international conventions and marine law to put warships in the 30km between Britain and France to turn back boats when it will mean dozens of people, pregnant women, children, the elderly, who will die. We cannot imagine for one second that this could enter a British head,” he said.
The question of people crossing from France to the UK has poisoned relations between London and Paris for decades. Tightened security around ferry ports and the Channel tunnel have driven refugees camped out along France’s northern coast to increasingly desperate measures. French police tear up makeshift refugee camps, destroying tents and bussing people elsewhere in France where they are encouraged to apply for asylum in France. Within weeks, the majority return to the Calais area.
Darmanin repeated that France would not accept British forces in France.
“What would the British say if we suggested having French troops on the English coast? They would say, quite understandably, that they are a free country and they want their sovereignty respected and we say the same thing. There’s nothing extraordinary in that,” he said.
“It’s better that the British ask themselves why so many migrants want to go to the UK,” Darmanin said. “This is first because the labour market of your country works in part with clandestine immigrants because in your country you can work and even pay taxes without having any identity papers or be in any kind of regular situation.
“If there was a change in the labour law in Britain tomorrow there would be a lot fewer migrants who would want to cross over. Second, unfortunately, the British government today no longer allows any legal way for people to access their territory as immigrants.”
The UK government disputes Darmanin’s characterisation of the UK labour market, saying people have to prove their immigration status to work or rent a property. A Whitehall source said: “We will this week have more talks with counterparts on how we can work together to resolve this Europe-wide crisis. Priti’s nationality and borders bill is the first step in addressing the broken asylum system and the pull factors it creates.”
Darmanin confirmed the UK had paid France €17m of the €67m (£57m) agreed in July to police its northern coast, but added: “Sometimes I read in the British press that you pay us to intervene, but this costs us €250m a year. Of course €67m helps, but it cost us a lot more.”
The minister said he would be reporting to Macron on Monday and had a series of meetings scheduled for next week on the crisis and specifically how to clamp down on smuggling networks.
On the question of returning refugees in return for Britain accepting unaccompanied minors – a proposal Patel outlined in parliament last week – Darmanin said this would have to be agreed at European level.
“If we could send minors to the UK you think we would refuse? No, we would accompany them all the way. We are ready to consider minors going to the UK in return for migrants being returned to Belgium, France or Germany or the Netherlands … as long as it is one for one. … The British say they want to return a number of migrants for one,” he said.
Darmanin said screaming headlines in the British press attacking French police and gendarmes were “insulting”.
“It’s an insult to France and the French police who risk their lives every day. It’s terrible to hear things like that from the English side because not only are we guarding the border for the English, we are suffering the political consequences of this decision.
“That’s enough. It has become extremely insulting. We have to stop the slogans, work seriously.”
Asked if he was planning to speak to Patel in the next few days, he replied: “There’s no reunion foreseen but she has my mobile number and I have hers. I tell you again, I respect her and know her well. All I ask is for the same respect from the UK so we can talk on the basis of equality and France is not the considered subservient to the UK.
“From the moment we are treated normally we can discuss things seriously and everyone will make an effort to try to understand and try to advance the discussion. At the moment we have the impression that only France is making an effort.”