OLD enemies will become comrades-in-arms.
MORE than a millennium of mutual mistrust, nationalistic hostility and thoroughly enjoyable reciprocal stereotyping is under threat as Britain and France outline plans for unprecedented military collaboration.
British and French soldiers will train together under a new treaty announced last night. They may even, in future, fight shoulder to shoulder in a single brigade. British soldiers will learn French, and French soldiers will study English. The forces will share planes, aircraft carriers and expertise.
A few years ago, Jacques Chirac himself declared that France could never rely on Perfidious Albion (at least not gastronomically): “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that.” Now our soldiers will share a mess. Sir Humphrey, in Yes, Minister, succinctly defined the long-established tradition of Anglo-French military thinking: “If they’ve got the bomb, then we must have the bomb.” British nuclear warheads may soon be serviced by French scientists.
Is the animosity so carefully nurtured over centuries to be sacrificed on the altar of mere commonsense co-operation? Have we forgotten Agincourt, Waterloo and Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick? Have they forgotten the flambeing of St Joan, mad cow disease and the sinking of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir?
David Cameron is not the first Tory leader to embrace closer military and political union with Britain’s best enemy across the Channel. One of his predecessors once proposed an “indissoluble union” of Britain and France, suggesting that “the two governments declare that France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain; every British subject will become a citizen of France.”
The author of this proposal was none other than Winston Churchill. In 1940, with Nazi forces pouring into France, Churchill, backed by the war cabinet, proposed that the two countries become one, combining armies, parliaments and currencies. It was rejected by French collaborationists led by Marshal Petain, who insisted that Britain would soon “have her neck wrung like a chicken”.
“Some chicken, some neck,” responded Churchill. And “some hope” would once have been the response on both sides of the Channel to the idea Britain and France might become comrades-in-arms, their troops marching together in lockstep.
Churchill’s enthusiasm for closer union with France is proof that there exists a parallel tradition of mutual admiration, and a growing realisation that our similarities and shared military interests outweigh our differences. As two declining military powers of comparable might, the pooling of resources makes obvious strategic sense as a way for both countries to maintain global reach at a time of shrinking budgets.
The cross-Channel enmity has long operated as a distorting mirror. Since French people like to see themselves as spontaneous and passionate, in British eyes they are stereotyped as frivolous, foppish and unhygienic; Britons like to imagine themselves as solid and staunch, so in the French caricature we are cold, boorish and calculating.
But the rivalry is not what it was. Globalisation has made such narrow-focus antipathy meaningless. More than 12 million Britons spend at least a week in France each year. London is, by population, the eighth-largest French city. Polls suggest that, on both sides, instinctive dislike has given way to tempered respect.
Britain and France have not faced one another on the battlefield since 1815. The 19th century was a period of wary co-existence; greater understanding was reinforced by shared experiences in two world wars. The Miners Club in Burnley still serves “Bene and Hot”, Benedictine liqueur and hot water, a concoction quaffed by Lancashire Tommies in the trenches.
French documents discovered two years ago reveal that, in 1956, French prime minister Guy Mollet proposed to Anthony Eden that France merge with Britain, with the Queen head of the amalgamated state. Eden turned down the idea, but was more enthusiastic about a suggestion that France join the Commonwealth.
Today, Britain and France know one another better, and like one another more, than at any time in our shared history, for the simple reason that we are more alike.
As Robert and Isabelle Tombs write in their brilliant history of Anglo-French rivalry That Sweet Enemy: “For the first time, their wealth, populations, military power and external influence has reached almost identical levels.”
British and French interests will not always converge. But in parts of the world where they do, it is undoubtedly wise to pool the resources of the two biggest defence spenders in Europe.
France and Britain will never be one nation sharing an army, as Churchill briefly envisaged, but there is no reason why they should not make common cause in wars of the future.
It is a sign of how far Britain’s relationship with France has changed that the concerns over the Anglo-French defence treaty focus not on an assumed cultural incompatibility, rooted in history, but the practical and logistic challenge of aligning two great military powers.
The chauvinism that once characterised Anglo-French relations, particularly in military circles, is evaporating and one old soldier will be turning in his grave.
Nicolas Chauvin was a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, a ferocious (and perhaps apocryphal) French warrior-patriot who loathed the British with a legendary passion. It is pleasing to reflect that if he were in French uniform today, the man who bequeathed us the word “chauvinism” might soon find himself serving alongside the British he hated.