UK's Starmer tells Macron will seek stronger ties if elected

Keir Starmer has stepped into the international limelight this week (ANDY BUCHANAN)
Keir Starmer has stepped into the international limelight this week (ANDY BUCHANAN)

British opposition chief Keir Starmer on Tuesday told French President Emmanuel Macron he would seek stronger ties with Paris if elected, with the Labour Party increasingly confident it can take over from Britain's ruling Conservatives.

The French president has dealt with no less than four UK Conservative premiers over the last half decade during a period of political turbulence in Britain that has seen surging tensions between the two capitals.

"It was my first opportunity to say how much I value the relationship between our two countries, particularly when it comes to prosperity and security," Starmer said in a video posted on X, formerly Twitter, after the meeting in Paris.

"And how, if we are privileged enough to be elected into power, I intend to build on that relationship and make it even stronger than it is today," he added, hailing "a very very good meeting."

As a gift, Starmer handed Macron a shirt of English football club Arsenal and the Labour leader was given a pair of Elysee cufflinks.

Macron and Starmer spoke about "the importance of strengthening cooperation between France and the United Kingdom, so that this partnership continues ensuring prosperity and security for the French and British people," the French presidency said in a statement.

More specifically, the pair "discussed the need to guarantee economic and energy security in Europe and reiterated their desire to lend continued support to Ukraine," it added.

The closed-door talks at Macron's Elysee Palace in Paris came as part of a mini-international tour for Starmer.

He visited Europol in The Hague last week and appeared alongside fellow centre-left leaders -- including Canada's Justin Trudeau and former British prime minister Tony Blair -- at a weekend gathering in Montreal.

In a Sunday interview billed by the Financial Times as Starmer "stepping onto the global stage", he said he would "attempt to get a much better deal for the UK" with the EU.

The post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation agreement struck by ex-PM Boris Johnson is due for review in 2025.

- Vote by 2025 -

France is a partner of rare importance for Britain as an EU heavyweight, close military ally and fellow nuclear power, fellow UN Security Council member and immediate neighbour.

Cross-Channel ties have warmed under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a former banker like Macron whose relationship with the president has been dubbed a "bromance" by parts of the media.

But with his party struggling in the polls, the Conservative leader must call an election by January 2025 -- even as he confronts stubborn challenges including inflation and irregular arrivals of migrants across the Channel.

Even so, Macron's invitation was "not an endorsement, it's not going to be a negotiation," Georgina Wright, a European politics expert at French think-tank Institut Montaigne told AFP ahead of the meeting.

"Macron does this all the time" but "never once has he endorsed a candidate" ahead of an overseas election, Wright noted -- recalling his meetings with German candidates including now-Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his opponent Armin Laschet ahead of the 2021 election to the Bundestag.

- King Charles visit -

Struggling to make headway on his legislative priorities in a hung parliament, Macron also has a domestic political interest in showing he remains a coveted interlocutor abroad.

Any British-French meeting was likely to include discussion of migration, as one of Sunak's biggest political headaches is the frequent arrivals in small boats from northern France.

Starmer last week signalled that he would like Britain to join an EU-wide quota system for sharing out migrants.

The arrangement has come under strain following record arrivals on the Italian island of Lampedusa and Germany's suspension of accepting migrants living in Italy.

Starmer's trip to France also comes the day before a state visit by King Charles III and Queen Camilla -- British figures generating "much more excitement in France" than the opposition leader, Wright said.