It was presented in the French press as a desperate Theresa May flying to the south of France to enlist the president’s help with Brexit.
Fine food and wine served with a dose of politics was on the menu for a private dinner between Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, and May and her husband, Philip, at the 13th-century Fort Brégançon.
As the Mays’ convoy wound its way up the rocky road to the fort, the weather forecast provided an appropriate metaphor: a sunny start to the evening, storms expected later and clouds before sunset.
Macron had travelled to the state summer house on the Mediterranean coast earlier in the day after his last council of ministers in Paris. The Mays arrived from Lake Garda in Italy, where they had been holidaying.
May was counting on a personal approach to persuade Macron to soften EU resistance to her Brexit plan during their “informal” two-hour meeting.
The prime minister, in a dark jacket and grey dress with a necklace of large green and white balls, and Macron, in a long-sleeved shirt and dark tie, sat side by side at a table installed in the interior courtyard of the fort. Their advisers were seated either side of the table. Behind them, a union jack, an EU flag and a French tricolore had been hastily installed.
Footage of the meeting, relayed without sound, showed much nodding by both leaders.
Fort de Brégançon
The 13th-century fortress at Brégançon on France’s Mediterranean coast is the presidential equivalent of Balmoral or Camp David.
Fort de Brégançon sits on a tiny 35-metre-high rock off the coast, and has been the official summer retreat of French presidents since 1968.
Not all of them have enjoyed the stay.
Charles de Gaulle, the first president to stay there after requisitioning the site, left after one night complaining of small, uncomfortable beds and that he was plagued by mosquitos. He never returned.
Georges Pompidou and his wife, Claude, liked holidaying at Brégançon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, installing the preferred huge white leather sofas and Plexiglas tables of the era.
France’s first socialist president, François Mitterrand, held talks with the then German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, at the fort, but only actually stayed there once. Jacques Chirac was bored there, and Nicolas Sarkozy was pictured with his supermodel-turned-singer wife, Carla Bruni, there before they married. They did not return after.
Brégançon, where Napoleon Bonaparte once stayed in the winter of 1793-94, fell into disrepair until it was decommissioned as a military base in 1919. Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, have installed a €35,000 (£31,500) swimming pool, partly in an attempt to avoid the paparazzi who have snapped previous presidents and their partners on the fort’s private beach.
Inside the fortress is said to be as austere as it is from the exterior and more like a country house than a presidential palace.
Stéphane Bern, a French royal expert who visited the retreat, said: “It symbolises the prestige of the state. Everything there is sober and in good taste, without gold taps.” Kim Willsher
Whatever May’s expectations, Macron made it clear beforehand that he would do nothing to undermine the efforts of the EU’s designated negotiator, Michel Barnier.
“The plan was to go to Brégançon, which is to be a summer residence but also a place for working, and since May was finishing her vacation in Italy we proposed hosting her here,” a source in Macron’s office said.
May was going to lay out “London’s position on the Brexit talks and its future relations with the EU,” the source said. “It will be the occasion to clarify this proposal and discuss the political context.”
Macron has long dismissed attempts by British negotiators to divide and rule, refusing to become personally involved in the talks and potentially weaken Barnier’s hand.
As a result, the Elysée said there would be no press conference or statement after the meeting. “There is absolutely no intention to speak in place of Michel Barnier,” the presidential source added.
Pressure is growing on May to win allies on the continent after her Chequers plan prompted two of her ministers to resign in protest last month. She has just a few months before an agreement on Britain’s divorce from the EU – due on 29 March 2019 – must be forged in principle ahead of a European summit in mid-October.
France is seen as having taken a particularly hard line in the Brexit negotiations, especially on financial services, with Paris already expecting to get about 3,500 new banking jobs as leading players move operations out of London.
The source in Macron’s office said Barnier had maintained that any Brexit accord “must conform with the economic interests of the 27 remaining EU members, and the president has always supported this as well.” But Macron also wanted to avoid a “messy divorce”.
On Friday the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, said the possibility of a no-deal Brexit was “uncomfortably high” and such an outcome would lead to higher prices.
He said the UK and EU should “do all things to avoid” a no-deal scenario, but added that the country’s financial system was in a position to be able to withstand such a shock.
Asked by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether no-deal would be a disaster, he said: “It is highly undesirable. Parties should do all things to avoid it.”
Pushed on what no-deal would mean, he said: “Disruption to trade as we know it.” He added: “As a consequence of that, a disruption to the level of economic activity, higher prices for a period of time.”