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The Odd Couple

In January, a government document was discovered in the British national archives which, according to the Guardian newspaper, “shocked historians.” This was the note, dated September 28, 1956, of a meeting in London between the British prime minister, the conservative and Francophile Anthony Eden, and his French equivalent, the socialist and Anglophile Guy Mollet—one of those rare encounters when two premiers spoke each other’s language both fluently and willingly. Their more important business was to excite one another’s imperial fantasies and prepare the correct duplicities to justify the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. However, at this rare moment of concord, Mollet suggested that the two countries unite; or, if not that, then at least France join the Commonwealth. The British note shows that Eden recommended “immediate consideration” of the latter idea; also that Mollet “had not thought there need be difficulty over France accepting the headship of Her Majesty; [and] that the French would welcome a common citizenship arrangement on an Irish basis.”

The British newspapers, in their excitement, forgot that they had already published the story (if without the documentary backup) twenty years ago; the historians who were “shocked” were merely ignorant of what other historians already knew. Robert and Isabelle Tombs, in their grand and luminously detailed study of Franco-British relations from 1688 until the present day, duly register the approach and explain its background. (He is an English-born reader in French history at Cambridge University, she a French-born teacher of French at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.) There had been a previous proposal of union in June 1940—scornfully dismissed by Pétain as like being “wedded to a corpse”; while in the early 1950s the Belgian politician Paul-Henri Spaak—later judged “the father of Europe”—had floated the idea that Belgium and Holland might join the Commonwealth. The Tombses comment that “few remember this [Mollet’s] approach, which at best is regarded as simply bizarre.”

The reaction on both sides of the Channel to this rediscovered story is more interesting than the story itself. The British treated it as a jokey what-if, speculating on amalgamated soccer teams and the possibly improved quality of croissants in British shops. The French reacted with a sober down-playing: indeed, Mollet’s proposal seems to have been made on the spur of the moment, was not discussed with aides, and is not corroborated by any known French government archive. But there is political capital to be made from most stories. So Gilles Savary, the EU adviser to Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party presidential candidate, commented that today “the merger… would be politically and diplomatically out of the question.” In other words, the new left is not the left of the Fifties, and can be as nationalist as the next party. Some were more outraged. “If this had been suggested more recently,” said a Sorbonne professor of contemporary history, “Mollet might have found himself in court.”

If the French were more sensitive, it was not just because Mollet had been the supplicant, but because his approach tapped into a sempiternal French response to Albion. Since Britain first challenged French power over three centuries ago, the two countries have, despite occasional challenges, been the two preeminent European powers, fighting for control of their own territory, the Continental mainland, and the known world beyond. Each has been suspicious of the other to the point of paranoia, irritated to the point of contempt, superior to the point of smugness. There have been spells of nervous parallelism, and even of mutual interest verging on respect.

Yet there is one sure dividing line between the countries—one which the Mollet story pointed up. Over the centuries, each country has at different times had the upper hand, militarily, politically, economically, culturally. But when the British are doing badly, they very very rarely, if ever, look to France: their models of improvement are more likely to be Germany or the United States. When things go badly for France, they look across the Channel and wonder, with a mixture of embarrassment and queasiness, if it isn’t time to follow the British model, if the cold shower of economic liberalism must finally be endured to wash off a few layers of the protectionism, inertia, and top-heavy bureaucracy of the French model. The Tombses use many deft statistics to point up the systemic differences between the two countries. Here is one of the more unexpected: “By the early twenty-first century, in Britain, there were ten civil servants involved in running sport; in France, 12,000.”

After a thirty-year period from the late Fifties to the late Eighties, during which France was ahead of Britain in all the fields where statistics and indicators can be relied upon—so leaving out factors such as happiness and cultural achievement—France currently feels itself to be behind, a verdict the British are never eager to correct. I was recently having dinner in Paris with a retired French businessman who was bemoaning the state of his country: “What we need is five years of Thatcher followed by five years of Blair.” My instinctive response was, “Then you would have invaded the Falklands as well as Iraq”—to which he replied gloomily, “Well, at least you won in the Falklands.” But my answer was the easy (and British) one. I should have said: Well, now you have both on offer. At the next presidential election, the likely runoff will be between Nicolas Sarkozy, a hard-line Thatcherite deregulator, and Ségolène Royal, whose leftist campaign began in a manner entirely reminiscent of Blair’s in 1997: media-savvy, youth-flattering, policy-lite—if at least clear about not wanting union with Britain. She might have happily continued in this fashion, had not a four-point deficit in the polls prompted her to unveil an identifiably left-wing program according with the traditional French model.

The mood in France at the moment is certainly depressed. Why are we doing so badly, a visiting writer is frequently asked; even the less loaded question “Why is British literature currently stronger than French?” manages to imply that this too could be fixed if France finally acknowledged Adam Smith. Sometimes this is routine morosity, the strain of masochism which is the counterpoise to French jauntiness. But now it is a little more serious. Luc Ferry, professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VII and former minister of education, described his recent discussions with rebellious left-wing students (if those two modifiers are necessary when referring to France). He himself, he specified, had never been a soixante-huitard; but whereas the rebels then were denouncing a government for denying them access to Arcadia, Parnassus, or the Earthly Paradise, today’s were complaining about the threat to their future pension rights. Was it for this, his tone suggested, that Napoleon’s Imperial Guard fought to the last man at Waterloo? For this that General Cambronne, the guard’s commander, famously (if in all likelihood apocryphally) cried “Merde!” to the British demand for surrender?

Not that Sarkozy and Royal are the only two French models currently on display. Until the Socialists sorted themselves out, it seemed that Sarkozy’s more immediate challenger might be the current prime minister, Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin, whom the Tombses call “a decorative, aristocratic-sounding career diplomat with political ambitions and Napoleonic nostalgia.” In addition to an eight- hundred-page study of French poetry, Villepin has written a book about Napoleon’s Hundred Days, from which the Tombses, deadpan, offer quotes. For Villepin, the sacrifice of the Imperial Guard at Waterloo inspired the “spirit of resistance” embodied by De Gaulle, and still nourishes “the French dream.” This is of “an authoritative State, contempt for parties and compromise, a shared taste for action, obsession with…the grandeur of France, …refusal to bow to the inevitable, and dignity in defeat.” The British are often accused of living in the past—a charge they may self-congratulatingly accept—but the French in this mode run them very close. As Kipling put it in his poem “France,” Villepin’s compatriots are “First to face the Truth and last to leave old Truths behind”—old fantasies too. If the French sometimes find British democracy unconvincing, given a second chamber full of unelected lords, the British in turn wonder about a system whereby someone like Villepin can become prime minister (or Ferry can become minister of education, for that matter) without ever having been sullied by the rough touch of universal suffrage. If the French find the British attached to old hierarchies, we find them the prisoners of self-perpetuating elites.

And then there is Jacques Chirac, approaching the end of his second term in the manner of one who mistakes the 82.2 percent of the vote he received in his runoff against the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 for an 82.2 percent approval rating from the French public. His press conference on January 11 was all aimed toward a single moment. The President was at his rostrum at the Élysée, with a crowd of courtiers, journalists, and sycophants herded behind a velvet rope. One reporter was allowed across the rope to put the same question, in exactly the same words, as he had put when Chirac had been nearing the end of his first term: Would he perhaps consider standing for a further five years? (Technically, he could.) A knowing chuckle spread through the crowd. Chirac affected surprise, amusement, and a little grand modesty, thus giving the networks a choice of soundbites. His Elysean manner, to this English eye, is approaching that of De Gaulle, whose televised press conferences forty years ago resembled less events in the modern world than court announcements from a ruling Bourbon.

Chirac, for his part, represents two aspects of French power the British find least appealing (because most French): the whiff of corruption dating from those suitcases-of-cash days when he was mayor of Paris, and the unearned hauteur. This is also a throwback to De Gaulle, who once declared that “France must continue to behave as a great power precisely because she no longer is one.” Although public opposition to the Iraq war in Britain is high, it would take a lot more fair-mindedness than most British (or Americans) are capable of for them to utter, instead of “Blair [or Bush] was wrong,” the simple words “Chirac was right.”

Over the course of centuries, the French and the British have found many distracting differences to complain about in one another: French personal hygiene, British froideur, French frivolity, British joylessness. Britain was seen as “Carthage,” a place of boundless materialism, France as “Babylon,” a place of insatiable pleasure. But what emerges with depressing strength from the Tombses’ book is that, beyond and beneath all this, the fundamental character traits each nation deplores in the other are the same: arrogance, cruelty, and a desire for dominance; selfishness, duplicity, hypocrisy; cowardice and betrayal. Are these authentically observed defects, or merely a reflection of the viewing country’s own faults? Or both at the same time? And are they specifically Anglo-French, or does the catalog apply to any striving nation-state?

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