"Emmanuel Macron, friend or foe?"
The question about the French president was put to Liz Truss, the overwhelming favourite to become the next British prime minister, at a Conservative campaign event in Norwich on Thursday night.
"The jury's out," she replied, to laughter and applause from the audience. "But if I become prime minister I will judge him on deeds not words."
The exchange was light-hearted but as foreign secretary, Truss is still Britain's chief diplomat in a caretaker government. France and the UK are NATO allies as the West seeks to act in unity defending Ukraine against Russia's war.
Labour accused Truss of a "woeful" lack of judgement. Two former Conservative ministers also criticised her, one saying the foreign secretary had committed a "desperately serious error".
"The United Kingdom is a friend of France... regardless of its leaders," Emmanuel Macron said in response during a visit to Algeria.
Rishi Sunak — Truss' rival in the race to succeed Boris Johnson but who is 30 points behind according to the latest polls — did not hesitate when asked the "friend or foe" question about Macron, choosing the first option.
Relations between France and the UK have often been tense in recent years, strained by Brexit and its ongoing fallout. There have been clashes over fishing rights, migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats and passport checks at borders.
Johnson called Macron "un très bon buddy" of the UK on Friday, saying he had always had "very good relations" with his French counterpart.
When asked if Truss was wrong to say the jury's out on France's stance towards the UK, Johnson said relations between the pair are of "huge importance" and have been "very good for a long time -- ever since the Napoleonic era."
Although she backed "remain" in the 2016 EU referendum, Liz Truss has since picked up the Brexit mantle and is now one of its most fervent supporters. She has led UK negotiations with Brussels over Northern Ireland and piloted the recent parliamentary bill to override part of the Brexit treaty covering arrangements in the UK territory.
Truss' euroscepticism casts her as the direct opposite to Macron, one of the EU's most enthusiastic backers.
"Liz Truss using the last weeks of her leadership campaign to insult the President of one of Britain’s closest allies shows a woeful lack of judgement," Labour's shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said on Twitter.
"This is a desperately serious error, which the FS (foreign secretary) should take back," tweeted Alistair Burt, a former Conservative foreign office minister.
"The better answer would have been ‘of course he and France are friends and allies, both in NATO and the cause of freedom: it doesn’t mean we don’t have our differences and need to talk honestly, as I will’."
"There's playing to the gallery and then there's letting the prejudices of the gallery go to your head, especially when now is one of the worst times to try to fragment the West," wrote David Gauke, another former Tory minister.
Questioned on his Algerian trip about Truss' comments, Emmanuel Macron cited the need for clarity among allies in a "complicated" world with more and more authoritarian and unstable governments.
If the French and British could not determine whether they were friends or enemies, they were heading for serious problems, he added.
"The British people, the nation that is the United Kingdom is a friendly, strong and allied nation, regardless of its leaders, and sometimes despite and beyond its leaders or the small mistakes they can make in statements from the podium," said the French head of state.
Once a pro-European party, Britain's Conservatives have since undergone a massive eurosceptic transformation. In the wake of Brexit, EU enthusiasts have been largely purged.
"Barbs about the French get throatier roars than attacks on Vladimir Putin," the Economist noted recently about the campaign events to choose the new party leader.
The relationship between Paris and London came up again a few minutes later at Thursday night's hustings event. Truss was questioned on the subject of the UK's energy independence, where prices are soaring as a result of the explosion in gas prices.
The country needs to build new nuclear power stations, she argued, lamenting the fact that it has lost its expertise in this area. "If the choice is to depend on France or China, I will choose France," she said, also to applause.
Earlier this month Liz Truss was accused of another diplomatic blunder, when she invoked the ire of Scottish nationalists by describing Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as an "attention seeker" who should be ignored.
The winner in the Conservative leadership race needs a majority of votes from some 200,000 party activists. Voting is ongoing and the result will be known on 5 September.