“Every man has two countries — his own and France.” For me, this is literally true. I am both a British subject of the Her Majesty the Queen and a citizen of the French Republic. And that’s not always been easy. The ferocity of the fish war has once again reminded me that there’s something deeply wrong with the relationship between my two countries.
It was summed up by a book on prominent display in a local library: Fifty Reasons to Hate the French. Why not “Fifty reasons to hate the… Germans”? Too crass. The Irish, Scots or Welsh? Too divisive. Just about anybody else? Too racist. These days the list of socially-acceptable bigotries is thankfully short, but the French are still on it.
It’s not entirely without provocation. In 2021 alone, the French have threatened to blockade British trade, punish us for Brexit, cut off our energy supplies and divert exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine (despite casting doubt on its effectiveness). This is tinpot Putinism, not fitting behaviour on the part of a friend and ally.
The attitude of the French government — and of President Macron in particular — is perfectly summed up by the expression mal élevé. Meaning “badly brought-up” or “ill-mannered”, it also conveys a sense of entitlement, pushiness and preening self-regard. Which isn’t to say the British side is blameless. It’s obvious that our Prime Minister enjoys annoying the French. In his speech to party conference, Boris gleefully referenced the “raucous squawkus” over Aukus. But the French weren’t laughing. The security pact between the Australians, the UK and the US not only killed off a major defence deal with Canberra, but rubbed salt into the open wound of perceived Anglo-Saxon arrogance.
So while the temptation to wind-up a self-important popinjay like Macron may seem irresistible, Johnson must restrain himself. The trouble with humourless people is that they don’t get the joke — especially when it touches upon matters of national sensitivity. France was humiliated by Aukus and there’s been no meaningful gesture to make things right — least of all from Boris Johnson. But that’s symptomatic of the Anglo-French relationship in general. Neither country is even trying to understand the other. That has to change. It’s time for a new Entente Cordiale.
The original pact dates from 1904 when the British realised that they didn’t have any European allies and the French that they had enough to worry about with the Germans. Entente cordiale can be translated as the “cordial agreement” — but entente also means “understanding”. In 1911, the British diplomat Eyre Crowe noted that the alliance wasn’t really an alliance, but “nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be so vague as to lose all content”. And yet there is something profound in trying to see the world from another’s perspective — especially when the two parties are as dissimilar as Britain and France.
Beyond the outward divergences in language and culture, it’s hard to define the essential difference between the two nations. It is easier to feel than describe. But if I had to put it into words — in fact, one word — it would be tristesse. France, for all her enjoyment of the earthly pleasures, is a sad country.
The last time I visited my mother’s home town of Bar-le-Duc, in Lorraine, I happened upon a long-disused train station. Unconnected to the mainline from Paris, the reason for its existence was a mystery to me. But then I found out: the station served a single-track line that once carried French soldiers to the front at Verdun. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The past lies heavily on France in a way it just doesn’t in England. The Republic’s borders are bloodstained, their violation a trauma to successive generations. Such differences in experience have shaped the character of the two nations, their sense of place and destiny. Which is why the Entente Cordiale — the conscious effort to “share an outlook upon the world” — was in some ways more ambitious than a mere alliance.
For a while, the effort bore fruit. Through two World Wars, the neighbours stood together against tyranny. Even when France fell in 1940, the government of Free France continued the struggle from its headquarters in London. The relationship was not an easy one, of course. Sir Edward Spears — Churchill’s envoy to the Free French — once remarked that the “heaviest cross I have ever had to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.”
And yet, for all the tension, the respect between the allies ran deep. Churchill called De Gaulle “the saviour of France” And, on his death, De Gaulle said this of Churchill: “in the great drama he was the greatest of all”.
So how did we descend from the Entente and the World Wars to the sausage and fish wars of the present day? Well, there’s only one answer to what went wrong between Britain and France — and that is Germany.
It’s been said many times that the Germans lost the war, but won the peace. What they won in particular, though, was the French. This was the new partnership at the heart of Europe. Piece-by-piece, what became the European Union was built around a Franco-German axis, in the shadow of which the Anglo-French relationship withered away. The Single Currency was the final straw. The EU became a project alien to British concerns — and Brexit became inevitable.
Given their history, the French choice of Germany over Britain was also inevitable. From the point at which the Germans offered cooperation in place of strife, it was the only way for France to go. A new Entente needs to start by accepting the course of events. The tides of history have carried Britain to a future outside of the EU and France to a future within it. Each country must wish the other bon voyage.
For the French that means repudiating the Juncker doctrine i.e. “Brexit cannot be a success.” Far from being the first to make trouble whenever a dispute arises between the UK and EU, Paris should serve as mediator not antagonist. Indeed, it should strive not just for a frictionless border on the island of Ireland — but across the Channel too.
In return, the UK must recognise that France has global interests beyond the borders of Europe — and beyond the capacity of the EU to provide for. The British government should work towards the fullest possible inclusion of France within its security alliances. Aukus should become Fraukus and the Five Eyes should become Six. We must resist any slide into Anglo-Saxon chauvinism or any return to US-led adventurism.
The Channel is a narrow stretch of water, but also the meeting point between the two halves of the western world: the English-speaking nations and continental Europe. It is up to the British and the French whether it becomes a fault line or the glue that holds the West together. In a world where the enemies of freedom are again becoming stronger, the Anglo-French relationship is of more than local significance.