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…

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