Lifelong liaisons

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Until the US arrived on the scene, the UK and France were getting along very nicely. Now, Dominique Bromberger argues, the European neighbours should revive the Entente Cordiale

There was a time when the French Republic and the United Kingdom dominated the sea, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, and the land from Africa to the Indo-Chinese peninsula. Competition between them was always keen, sometimes bitter, and occasionally bloodthirsty. But, as they developed their power overseas, they came to realise the growing danger from a great Continental force. In the disastrous war of 1870, the German empire brought France to its knees and soon began to nurse ambitions abroad.

So France and England decided to combine forces, as far as they could, to end their competition for colonial influence - in Africa, the Indian Ocean, North America and in the south Pacific - and hold in check the power that sought to dominate the European stage. Thus was born the Entente Cordiale in 1904. It was a union of ancient nations more than of democracies, despite the gilded version of history passed down by our great-grandparents.

The events that followed, however, gave substance to the legend. Defeated Germany began to suffer appalling convulsions. The Weimar Republic, created after the First World War, survived no more than 15 years, and the National Socialist regime revealed the hideous face of unknown demons. With that, myth became reality: the Franco-British Entente became truly an alliance for democracy.

But the Second World War left France humiliated and Britain exhausted.

There was now another great power, without which Paris might have remained under the Nazi heel and London might have been crushed. America had saved them both, but now it was about to divide them.

Throughout the 19th century, the London press had shown nothing but scorn for Uncle Sam. After World War II it was quite otherwise. The new entente, between Britain and America, had been forged in combat - D-Day, the battles of France and Germany - and at summit meetings from Casablanca to Yalta, in the absence of France.

From then onwards, Great Britain liked to imagine the United States as a somewhat fractious child which in the long run would follow the wise advice of its erstwhile mother country. Then, one autumn day in 1956, American president Dwight D Eisenhower put an end to the Suez expedition that France and the UK had mounted together. This also forced British Prime Minister Anthony Eden to resign. And it made the two nations' peoples and their leaders realise that they were no longer the superpowers that they had thought themselves to be.

Eden's successor was Harold Macmillan. He had declared 12 years earlier:

"We are the Greeks of this American Empire." Henceforward, British prime ministers busied themselves with remaining in the good books of the presidents of the US. Some did so out of opportunism, bearing in mind what had happened to Anthony Eden; others because they were convinced that the fate of London was bound to that of Washington. This was the case with Margaret Thatcher and may be so today with Tony Blair. But France maintained its grudge against the US.

When General de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, he became convinced that the UK had forever "chosen the open sea" over the Continent and made Germany France's major partner in the unification of Europe.

Between the reign of General de Gaulle and that of Margaret Thatcher, however, a more modest statesman briefly occupied 10 Downing Street. This was Edward Heath, and he had firmly chosen Europe.

Georges Pompidou was not instinctively drawn to the Germans. Thanks to him and Heath, the UK joined the European Economic Community, then known as the Common Market. But Britain still hesitates between Europe and the illusion of its "special relationship" with the US.

French leaders are well aware that in matters of defence, their only serious Continental partner is the UK. In European and other theatres of war, whether in the republics of former Yugoslavia or Africa, British and French soldiers find themselves side by side. If an aircraft is to be built, either military or civil, it cannot be effective unless manufacturers from both countries are involved. Many people in France today are hoping that the mist will clear from the eyes of London's leaders.

Before World War I, the Entente Cordiale was born from the appearance of a new power on the European stage. It has suffered, most recently, from the inability of both our countries to deal with the arrival on the world stage of the US, now the only superpower.

When Britain and France finally come to terms with America's place on our planet, when Britain sees that America cannot be influenced by persuasion alone, and when France realises the need to be stronger to stand up to the giant, then perhaps the Entente Cordiale will be reborn. Only thus will Europe be able to be heard in the world: only thus will the US be induced to appear to listen.

Dominique Bromberger is a French radio and television journalist and author. He has been a correspondent in England and Washington. This article is one of many by well-known French and English politicians, journalists and historians, in Cross Channel Currents: 100 years of the Entente Cordiale, edited by Richard Mayne, Douglas Johnson and Robert Tombs, which will be published by Routledge on April 8. For a TESreader offer and a French translation of the article, see

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