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?

The self-evident but richly essential virtue of the Tombses’ approach is its bilateralism. The Anglophone reader is made forcibly aware that, even at the basic level, each supposed fact and understanding about our conjoined cross-Channel history has an equal and opposite counter-fact and counter-understanding. Did the British hold the key German attack on the Somme in the spring of 1918, and then make the thrust that ended the war? Or did they collapse in shameful panic and have to be rescued by French reinforcements? Was Dunkirk an example of British heroism which, by prolonging the struggle, gave France hope and eventually liberation? Or was it a further demonstration of the traditional British willingness to fight to the last Frenchman and then decamp, leaving their ally to its fate? These are rough assertions between which historical truth will lie (unless historical truth embraces them all, in all their contradictions). But rough assertions are what most people deal in when thinking about another country’s involvement in their national narrative.

Both sides are monocular when it comes to joint history. Each celebrates its victories and ignores its defeats (for us, the French victory at Fontenoy in 1745, for them, Blenheim, where Marlborough destroyed the French army in 1704), unless that defeat—like Dunkirk or Waterloo—has something in it which can supply a sustaining myth. But we also fail to appreciate, or too easily forget, our participation in what have become key moments in the other’s history. The sinking by the British of the main French Atlantic fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940, when the French—who had agreed to disarm their ships “under German or Italian control”—refused either to scuttle them or to sail to a British or American port with reduced crews, killed 1,297.

These losses, which happened only seventeen days after the two countries were discussing indissoluble union in London, still rankle in France, but are forgotten in Britain except by historians. I first heard of this necessary action (or shameful massacre) when I was teaching in France in the mid-Sixties; a boy who seemed even more resistant than most to my classes explained that he would always hate and despise the British because they had murdered his uncle at a place I couldn’t even locate on the map.

At the same school, the priests would often greet me with a smile, a handshake, and an ironical murmur of, “Ah, la perfide Albion.” It was, I judged, a kind of general and baseless tease, which is how most English take it (the French rarely call us “British,” which further confuses matters; we are all “English,” or, in De Gaulle’s preferred term, “Anglo-Saxons”—thus linking us to that other perfidious and transatlantic nation). I failed to realize the phrase’s religious origin—Anglicanism’s betrayal of Rome; nor could I, until I read the Tombses, have listed those subsequent events which, to the French mind, broadened this specific act of disloyalty into a general national characteristic. What percentage of the British population now remembers George Washington’s murder of “a party of peaceful French emissaries”—or so they were described in France—in the Ohio forests in 1754; Admiral Hawke’s perfidious imprisonment of a quarter of France’s seamen during the Seven Years’ War; or the perfidious deportation of 7,000–8,000 French settlers from Acadia (later Nova Scotia)?

And then there is Fashoda, that strange place-name at or beyond the margins of British memory. In July 1898, eight French and 120 Senegalese soldiers arrived at a ruined fort on the Sudanese Upper Nile, having spent two years crossing the continent to get there. (Frenchly, they set off equipped with 1,300 liters of claret, fifty bottles of Pernod, and a mechanical piano.) They raised the tricolor, and seem to have had no greater geopolitical purpose than to annoy the British. They did, a little: Kitchener turned up and advised them to leave. He also gave them copies of French newspapers, in which they read of the Dreyfus case and wept. The two sides fraternized, and the British band played the “Marseillaise” as the French withdrew. No one was hurt, let alone killed.

How can it not have been just a tiny comic sideshow in the broader imperial struggle? But that is a British response (also, one from the side that forced the withdrawal). In French eyes it was a key moment of national humiliation and dishonor, one that made a profound impact on a certain eight-year-old French boy, who in later years remembered it as a “childhood tragedy.” How was Kitchener to know, as he was drinking warm champagne with eight Frenchmen at that distant fort, and noting how its brief occupants had even planted a garden there—“Flowers at Fashoda! Oh these Frenchmen!”—that this encounter would play out, decades later, first in De Gaulle’s obstreperous and infuriating (translate into French as “determined and patriotic”) behavior in his London wartime exile, then later in his stubbornly vindictive (“principled and statesmanlike”) triple refusal to allow Britain to join (“disrupt”) the Common Market?

Queen Victoria thought the French “incurable as a nation though so charming as individuals.” Part of their incurability expressed itself in political instability. Every century or so, a new wave of exiles would arrive from the Channel ports: Huguenots, victims of the Revolution, Communards. Four successive monarchs (Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis-Philippe, and Napoleon III) sought exile in Britain; so too did Voltaire, Prévost, Chateaubriand, Guizot, and Victor Hugo. Monet, Pissarro, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Émile Zola headed for England when suspicion fell on them. The traffic in the opposite direction was far more meager: after the Stuarts, the only significant political exiles leaving for France were John Wilkes and Tom Paine.

Such an imbalance—which fed British complacency about their liberty—extended to motive as well as number. The French sought refuge for political reasons, the British to escape scandal: for the upper-class bankrupt, bigamist, cardsharp, or homosexual, France was the place to go and continue in your disapproved-of ways. And in the matter of voluntary rather than enforced Channel crossing, there was another imbalance. As the Tombses put it, “Most French came to Britain to make money; most British went to France to spend it.”

This has been the general pattern since the eighteenth century, and it still holds at a time when there are more French working in Britain than vice versa. The French come to enjoy deregulation and lower taxation: “By 2004…in Britain, it took two days and £200 to start up a business; in France, thirty-five times as much and forty times as long.” The British go in search of a bucolic fantasy which is sometimes still attainable, and to escape certain specific aspects of modern Britain. I recently met an English couple in the Pyrenees who gave as their main reason for exiling themselves “congestion.” Not of the heart, but of the traffic.

A French eighteenth-century visitor delighted in the “unbridled” and “unrestrained” bosoms of Englishwomen. Though their large feet, prominent teeth, and rustic complexions were mocked by the sophisticate (and the caricaturist), their freedom, indeed naturalness, of manner often came as a surprise. The writer Alain-Fournier, working for a wallpaper manufacturer in West London in 1905, was both disturbed and charmed by the lack of corsets and the flirtatiousness that he encountered. But in general it was the Englishman, rather than the Frenchman, who crossed the Channel with dreams of sex, and a greater hope of their being fulfilled. Sex, and for that matter Franco-British intermarriage, is an aspect of cultural exchange that might have been more fully treated. Similarly, our different attitudes toward race and how they strike our neighbors. When Rimbaud came to London, he was astonished by the hordes of black people in Regent Street: “it seems to have been snowing negroes,” he reported. A century and more later, one of the first surprises for the French coming to work in Britain is the number of nonwhite faces reading the news on television—and, the implication sometimes goes, having their authority accepted. It was not until very recently that French TV acquired its first official nonwhite face—inevitably, female and glamorous.

The period of richest cultural exchange between the two countries was from 1688 to 1815, uncoincidentally the time when they were most keen to destroy one another. The greater the difference, and the enmity, the greater the fascination. Voltaire and Montesquieu came to examine how Britain worked; John Law helped run (translate: “undermine”) the French economy in the early eighteenth century; Burke examined the Revolution in what the Tombses call “the most important English book ever written about France”; even the aging Dr. Johnson made it to Paris (if to no very great profit). At that time, your cross-Channel visit might be the only one of your lifetime; so you would make proper preparation, reflect on it more deeply afterward, and leave a record of particular value to later historians. The easier it is to get there and back, the more visits we know to be available, the lazier, or more inattentive, we seem to become.

In the nineteenth century, the points of cultural connection become more diffuse, in the twentieth much more so. Even allowing for this, the Tombses’ treatment of twentieth-century interchange is the only disappointing part of their book. In part, it just gets shouldered out by history: they have to deal with two world wars, the Versailles Conference, the European Project, and the Suez and Iraq wars; so the more private narrative gets squeezed. But there is much more, for example, to be said about the aftermath of World War I: how grief worked on national feelings, and how the process of memorializing (official and unofficial) affected both nations. Kipling, that great if unexpected Francophile, is barely alluded to, and would have made a useful witness. There is a sense of perfunctoriness as we get closer to the present, and a reliance on box-ticking surveys of national attitudes (yet the Mass Observation archive of ordinary Britons’ attitudes toward the French in 1940–1941 is only cited at second hand). It is in this section that skimpiness and error creep in: referring to Christopher Isherwood and P.G. Wodehouse as members of the same postwar “younger generation,” for instance, or claiming that “British football teams depend on Frenchmen” (insert “one”—Arsenal—before “British” and change plural to singular). While to claim that from the Sixties onward “it is intriguing that British cultural icons in France have all been women, and their French counterparts in Britain all men” is to invite multiple refutation.

At Dunkirk, on May 31, 1940, General Alexander concluded: “All that could be saved has been saved.” He was contradicted by a certain Capitaine de la Pérouse: “No, General. There remains honor.” The Tombses do not record Alexander’s reply (if there was one); but this is the kind of attitude—coming from a junior officer in an army which has also been routed—which infuriates the British. We, of course, feel we have a sense of honor, too; but—perhaps because of Falstaff’s strictures on the subject—we do not often flaunt it, referring instead to “fair play” and “doing the decent thing” and “not letting the side down.” Trust the French to take the abstract noun and the moral high ground—while usually behaving in just as self-interested a way as the British. No wonder we are sure that they are greater hypocrites than we are.

The French would reply that the British have invoked honor less down the centuries because it was a less precious commodity to us: money is what we have valued instead. It is salutary to be reminded of how you are seen by others, even if you do not find it a nuanced portrait. In the formative decades of our long rivalry, they regarded us as barbarian upstarts from the north, and our challenge to their status as puzzling as if it had come from Denmark or Sweden. When Britain first gained the upper hand, the French prime minister Choiseul expressed himself (in 1767) “completely astounded” by our dominance. “One might reply,” he went on, “that it is a fact; I must concur; but as it is impossible, I shall continue to hope that what is incomprehensible will not be eternal.” Even Frenchmen who saw some virtue or interest in British achievement were unimpressed by those responsible. Montesquieu found us “coarse, insociable, and, worst of all, corrupt.” Théophile Gautier called us “polished barbarians.” Delacroix thought Turner looked like an English farmer with a “cold, hard face” and “thick shoes.”

For the French, money was what we were always after. Money, trade, ships, empire, more money. Whereas French expansion, whether Royalist, Napoleonic, or Republican, was part of a civilizing mission; defeating the British on the way, and gaining money of their own, were side benefits. The British naturally judged their own civilizing mission as the more civilized, and the benefits of Napoleonic conquest—art treasures pillaged, young men conscripted by a general known for sacrificing millions to his own concept of glory, and familiar royal lineage replaced by some nepotistical crony—a mere exchange of servitudes.

Napoleon’s dream of an open, French-dominated Europe haunted the British unconscious, and was not entirely forgotten by the time the Common Market/EEC/EU came along. Many Britons regard its operation as the palest possible version of a democratic system (like most of my compatriots, I haven’t the faintest idea who my Euro-MP is), driven by the French, and run by an unelected commission. A British Euro-joke tells of a meeting of officials from various countries who listen to a British proposal, nodding sagely at its numerous benefits; the French delegate stays silent until the end, then taps his pencil and remarks, “I can see that it will work in practice. But will it work in theory?” That this is not too much of a caricature can be confirmed by one of Jacques Delors’s more magisterial remarks as he was pressing for speedy federalism: “We have made Europe, now we must make Europeans.” The British would be inclined to proceed in the opposite, and more logical, direction—though not at any great pace.

De Gaulle was probably right to deny the British entry to Europe, however personal his motive or strong his memory of Fashoda. The British always carried too much baggage—in Commonwealth and “Anglo-Saxon” ties—and had a radically different view of Europe. What De Gaulle most feared—that the EU would become merely a vast free-market zone—is precisely what the British have always deemed its main advantage; the true F-word in their vocabulary is Federalism. Hence the British push for expansion (currently to include Turkey, which would truly change the nature of the Union). Meanwhile the French want to relaunch the Union with a two-tier or “variable geometry” system in which the core countries of the eurozone proceed to greater political integration, while an outer circle of countries remains more loosely attached. This comes in response to the French electorate’s rejection of their own organizing elites in the 2005 referendum on the Constitution—not that those naysayers were voting for Blairite liberalism.

Nor is Blair’s almost certain successor, Gordon Brown, likely to delight them any more. It was his announcement in 1997 of five economic tests for entry into the euro which effectively took the matter off the British agenda; his conditions were technical yet vague, the vagueness confirming that any eventual decision would be political rather than economic. Brown, a fellow countryman of Adam Smith, is a keen Atlanticist who has calculated that 80 percent of Britain’s future trade will lie outside the EU.

The Tombses admit that when they started their book they were uncertain whether it was “a single story” or just a series of episodes; whether narrative coherence would prove feasible. That it does—and triumphantly so, without forcing the facts—is largely thanks to the least cheering of reasons: the recidivism in Anglo-French attitudes. Our joint history is a looped tape of mistrust, grudging admiration, overt and covert rivalry. True, we have started and finished two world wars on the same side; but neither was entered into with great mutual confidence, and the possible benefits of these enforced fraternizations were quickly and foolishly dispelled. At the official level, it is a struggle to find a disinterested action made for the specific benefit of the other nation. During the Falklands War, the French explained to the British the capacity of the Exocet missiles they had sold to the Argentines, and allowed RAF pilots to try out both a Mirage and a Super-Étendard fighter, to see what they would be up against. But perhaps there was a quid pro quo attached to this as well.

The British and the French have, at least, stopped killing one another; but their psoriatic irritation continues. When Chirac announced that he would veto the proposed Anglo-American second resolution on the Iraq invasion, the French ambassador in London was greeted by “a jubilant [Jack] Straw”—then foreign minister—“waving Le Monde and saying ‘It’s such a gift, we won’t stop there’” (i.e., the British would make the most of it). At such unedifying moments, the reader must make an effort to recall the frequent cooperation and amity at a social, cultural, and technological level: as evidenced by the Channel Tunnel, Norman Foster’s spectacular suspension bridge at Millau, Peter Brook at the Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris, Arsène Wenger as manager at the new Arsenal Emirates stadium in London, English mayors in small French villages, French fishermen on English trout streams. And, not least, this very book: proof that both Franco-British and marital collaboration can produce something of great and lasting worth.

Not that perfect harmony is ever to be wholly wished for. A national friendship—if that is what the “sweet enmity” eventually develops into, a few centuries from now—needs an edge of occasional incomprehension and surprise. For all the high military and diplomatic dramas described by the Tombses, the one I would have most enjoyed witnessing occurred during an official visit to Britain by General de Gaulle. The regular assassination attempts on the French President meant that he always traveled with a bag of his own blood, in case a sudden transfusion was required. When he arrived at Harold Macmillan’s house in Sussex, his entourage handed the blood to Macmillan’s cook, and instructed her to put it in her fridge. She declined, with the enduringly English explanation: “It’s full of haddock.”