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Britain’s forever war with France It's time for a new entente cordiale

"Oui bien sur ma femme est barbe..." Antonio Masiello/Getty

"Oui bien sur ma femme est barbe..." Antonio Masiello/Getty


November 5, 2021   4 mins

“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 Ă©levĂ©. 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.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Richard Lord
Richard Lord
2 years ago

In my visits to rural France the people have been delightful, friendly and welcoming. However, people in the cities have been rude, unhelpful and clearly just out for our cash. The latter seems to be a reflection of the French political classes.

There can be no peace with France until the politicians get over their annoyance at the cheek of the British in rejecting the monstrous and undemocratic EU.

The Brits are reasonable, friendly people until crossed by the petulant and unreasonable eg Macron, Beaune, Barnier.

As with many people I know, I have actively stopped buying anything French, despite working for a wine retailer. History shows that if you back the Brits into a corner they will fight back. The tinpot Napoleon should know that.

Last edited 2 years ago by Richard Lord
Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

The French have not behaved well. For men of my generation the enthusiasms of Vichy collaboration will never be forgiven.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

Not ‘the French’ – perhaps some French politicians. And of course something much like Vichy would have happened here had we had a land border with the Continent, or even had politicians like Halifax won out over Churchill. It was a very close run thing. This is well evidenced by the case of the Channel Isles, where enthusiastic collaboration was endemic (I don’t judge them, easy for us etc).

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

Surprisingly, I actually liked thia article. I am not a Francophile, but neither am I a Francophobe, I am neutral, and I would like Britain to have better relations with France. But I honestly do not think that the antagonism comes mostly from Britain, there are few votes to be gained from butting heads with M. Macron, and what few there are would be cancelled by the large contingent of Francophiles in Britain. The real modern problems arose after Britain joined teh EEC (we should have listened to De Gaulle) and were exacerbated when Britain left the EU, so if France (and the rest of the EU) would just let it go and wish Britain well, as Mr Johnson has wished the EU well, we could have better diplomatic relations. Of course, one must not forget that there is a looming election in France, so perhaps this will all blow over when the elections are finished.

Ri Bradach
Ri Bradach
2 years ago

Why should Britain extend the hand of friendship, much less that of family – for that is what underpins the relationship of 4 of the 5 eyes – when France acts like it’s only intent is war?

Fergus Mason
Fergus Mason
2 years ago

the Five Eyes should become Six”
No chance. We won’t be sharing that level of intelligence with the French, because as they have shown time and time again we simply can’t trust them with it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Fergus Mason

Can you provide any examples? The French security services were completely exasperated for years about out lackadaisical and complacent attitude to Islamic extremism, and gave the UK plenty of information. They called it ‘Londonistan’.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

Mutual understanding will not happen until Boris is replaced by a statesman who gains the respect of other leaders. Boris reminds me of a child, very full of himself, running around with a wooden sword.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

In return, the UK must recognise that France has global interests beyond the borders of Europe â€” 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.

French technology and intelligence security isn’t good enough though.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

Aah, Emmanuel, Monsieur le President, isn’t it funny that when you took office you announced to the world that you wanted to rule “as Jupiter” yet, these days, most of what you spout seems to come straight from Uranus.
For all that the BBC tries to paint this as France-bashing by the UK Govt, i challenge anyone to find a comment from PM Johnson that is hostile to France. Yet you’d find several dozen anti-UK (anti-UK interests) comments from Macron.
His petulance and pique has already cost France – and will continue to do so. They only have themselves to blame. The reason for being shut out of AUKUS is the same reason that France was not invited to share Five Eyes intel either. They are proven to be untrustworthy allies – and certainly not to be trusted with sensitive intel or military hardware.
Any who’d decry what they see as â€œFrance-bashing”, should be honest enough to look back over the last 4 years and see how many times Macron has, quite deliberately, tried to undermine the UK. Over Northern Ireland, over Galileo, over fish, threatening energy supplies to the Channel Islands, over trade, over migrants, – even over sausages for heavens sake.
Needlessly antagonistic – and for no other perceived benefit than to “get one over” on the British.
Such spats are not private. They are seen and noted by other countries, other world leaders. France’s behaviour towards “allies” – both recently and historically – comes at a price. Macron and France are now paying that price.
On rĂ©colte ce qu’on sĂšme, mes amis. You reap what you sow

Last edited 2 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago

“The Five Eyes should become six.” Nope. Sorry. Love the French, but can’t trust them.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

Hey, they started it…

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
2 years ago

We must resist any slide into Anglo-Saxon chauvinism or any return to US-led adventurism.
Agreed, but I fear it is already too late. AUKUS was a pre-emptive move presenting us with a fait accompli—the spectre of imminent monocultural AngloAmerican domination of great swathes of the world, not least Australia-Pacific.
Australia didn’t have much wriggle room, but it has now sacrificed the little it did have. It sold out the sizeable percentage of its population which has European, as opposed to English, roots, as well as its large numbers of citizens hailing from former French IndoChina or the French Pacific.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

‘the spectre of imminent monocultural AngloAmerican domination of great swathes of the world, not least Australia-Pacific.’ Man, I hope you are right.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

Man, I hope you are right.
Then you are a racist. That means you are approximately 2000 years behind the evolutionary demands of our time. A laggard. Maybe even a throwback? At the very least, someone who is incapable of understanding that there is more to the human race than white skins and Anglocentric cultural developments since circa 1400.
To believe that any one race or culture has the monopoly of talent for positive future human evolution, is to be entirely ignorant of the history of the human race, which shows different cultures forming, maturing, leading, then decaying, vanishing, to be replaced by another culture embodying the next upcoming leading global impulse.
The evolutionary leading edge currently resides with European culture. But already, seeds are sprouting for the next development, which will not be Eurocentric, and signs of decline are beginning to appear in Western anglo culture.
A vital part of preparing for positive human futures is to know about and take account of these long-term evolutionary imperatives. At present, this means mixing and miscegenation. This in turn means facilitating multiculturalism in its positive manifestations around the globe.
Anglo-bashing the poor old French is having disastrous potential consequences for these broader healthy trends.

Last edited 2 years ago by Penelope Lane
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

It is slightly ironic that you talk about the ‘poor French’ who are amongst the most culturally chauvinist people on Earth! Yes, they have a great culture, not sure they wish to be swamped by Asian and African ‘miscegenation’ . Your anti racism itself sounds a bit racist, or at least racially deterministic.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Yes, the issue is a complex one, and crucial distinctions between race and ethnicity tend to get lost.
Race refers to physically inherited characteristics such as skin colour. So it is correct to speak of the white races. If a society is monocultural and consists only of culture brought by white races, then these days it can be called a racist society. I should have been more careful in the way I phrased my remark.
But you are correct too in saying the French are “among the most culturally chauvinist people on Earth!”. They indeed believe French culture to be second to none (and I confess to agreeing), but they are not racist—or have not been racist in terms of official policy up until fairly recently. Miscegenation and intermarrying with other races has been fine, as long as French citizenship obtains equally for all in the nation regardless of difference, and French culture continues to reign unthreatened by external forces.
My personal view is that a good proportion of recent French chauvinism has its roots in the justified fear that all that is good and unique about French culture is in danger of being swamped by economically globalising AngloAmericanism. Hence we all need to support the French on the international stage, including M. Macron whatever his personal pecadilloes.
Racial determinism is also an interesting concept. My understandings of race and culture derive from the spiritual teachings of the initiate Dr Rudolf Steiner, 1865–1925, who of necessity spent a great deal of his mature-age lecturing time in heroic efforts to illuminate the subject, given the fast-gathering anti-Semitic forces of Nazism.
Steiner’s teaching describes the epoch of Atlantis, i.e. the period of approximately 12,960 years in cosmic zodiacal time preceding the sinking of that continent’s final remnants in 10,500 BC (the approximate end of the Ice Age)—Steiner describes this as the earth epoch during which the human races were formed and geographical territorial separations developed. According to Steiner’s account, this was right for that time in the framework of long-term positive human evolution.
Coming to the period Steiner calls Post-Atlantis, beginning from a couple of centuries before 7000 BC when things had settled down enough for human civilisation to begin to progress again, Steiner explains that our new earth epoch has been, and will continue to be, devoted primarily to human cultural development. So, racial development was completed during Atlantis, and in Post-Atlantis we move on to mastering the challenges of cultural development. This is where the idea of ethnicity belongs, as an essentially cultural concept, hence malleable and able to be improved upon. The nurture as opposed to the nature of things. That is the teaching. Humans being what they are, progress consists in one step forward, another step back, with a portion of humanity of every ethnicity always lagging behind while another portion flags the route ahead.
In a nutshell, race has already been determined—it is transmitted via heredity and contains the qualities of an exclusive bloodline—and its evolutionary development was completed 12,000 years ago.
So it is no longer relevant to progressive human evolution. Any attempts to make it such may be regarded as anti-evolutionary in the extreme, and in contradiction to all modern progressive spiritual teaching around the globe.
I hope this helps a little to sort out some threads. Thanks for your thoughtful reply!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

The Aukus issue was handled extremely poorly although poor French diesel submarines will now be replaced by much better American nuclear ones. I think France has to be included in any grouping of free nations in the Pacific, with the long term goal of containing China, compared to which the current squabbles, especially over fishing, sound much like two bald men fighting over a comb.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Thankyou, I’m in complete agreement. Other free nations’ participation also may be necessary to combat potential AngloAmerican imperialist excesses, notwithstanding the fact that one supports them unreservedly against China.