The Spectator

From the archives: Why England and France will never be best friends

From the archives: Why England and France will never be best friends
Text settings
Comments

To mark David Cameron’s get-together with Nicolas Sarkozy today, we’ve

dug up this essay from the Spectator archives by Lord Powell. As foreign policy advisor to Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major, Powell provides a first-hand insight into the incompatibilities that

separate our two nations.

A fundamental incompatibility?, Charles Powell, The Spectator, 3 September 1994

A few summers ago, I accompanied Margaret Thatcher to a meeting with President Mitterrand in Paris. The weather was sunny and the mood equally so. The agenda was rapidly disposed of and the

President proposed that we adjourn to the Elysée garden. Once there, he took Mrs Thatcher — as she then was — off for a stroll while Jacques Attali and I subsided on a bench in

the sun. For a rare and blissful moment all seemed well with the world. But within moments, the President and Prime Minister came speeding back, the President clutching a bloodstained handkerchief

to himself. ‘My God’, I thought ‘this time she’s really gone too far. How am I going to explain to the press that she’s actually bitten him?’

In fact it was the dawg that done it: an excitable new puppy had jumped up and nipped the President's hand. But it speaks volumes for the schooling of British officials in the ancient rivalry

between Britain and France — as well as for Lady Thatcher's vigorous approach to diplomacy — that my instinctive reaction was to assume an outbreak of bloodletting between a British

prime minister and a French president.

The accumulation of history is too well known to bear recounting: Joan of Arc, Napoleon, the General's non are among its more obvious milestones. It was the General himself who once observed that

'fundamentally our two countries have always been at war'. There are also the stereotypes which the British and French have of one another: the rational French, quick as rapiers, full of Gallic

verve, masters of the arts of love and diplomacy versus the pragmatic, puritan and foot-slogging British. The images construe into a fundamental incompatibility of character and purpose.

Are Britain and France, in fact, condemned to be two scorpions in a bottle? Can we ever break out of centuries of rivalry and competition into a more productive relationship? Has Britain

irrevocably surrendered the leadership of Europe to a Franco-German alliance which it has been Britain's historic mission to avoid?

I recently examined some of these issues for the BBC, to mark the 90th anniversary of Entente Cordiale. What emerged straightaway was an imbalance in the extent to which the two countries are

preoccupied with each other. The British are far more obsessed with the French than vice versa. There was an air of polite puzzlement among the French whom I interviewed as to why the relationship

was thought worthy of special attention. This mirrors the experience of a young British diplomat seconded to the Quai d'Orsay a few years ago. She was eagerly quizzed by the Foreign Office on her

return as to where Britain figured in the master plan of French diplomacy. The answer was: nowhere. It seemed that the French simply did not spend time worrying about us.

That contrasts with my recollection of being asked, as a Foreign Office planner in about 1970, to write a paper on the subject of 'Why can't we be more like the French?', reflecting the prevailing

view that the French were ten feet tall when it came to diplomacy, constantly scoring tricks and outmaneuvering us. The not very flattering truth is that the French see the main challenge to

them coming not from Britain but from America: from American films, slang and ham- burgers as much as from American power, influence and technological supremacy. Britain is peripheral on this

yardstick.

One can divine all sorts of motives at play here, among them an exaggerated notion of France's own importance in the world and a bombastic belief that France and the United States speak on level

terms. There is also a deep ambivalence about the respective roles of Britain and France in the second world war. There is no gainsaying France's gratitude for Britain's help, gracefully and

genuinely expressed in this summer's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings. But it is over- laid with an unspoken resentment that Britain emerged with the honour, glory and

post-war ranking in the world which France could not match until the Sixties at least. Indeed, the feeling that France has something to prove has been the great motivator of an active French

foreign policy. It contrasts with the long-dominant sentiment in Britain that we only had something to lose, which inevitably led to a more defensive approach.

A gulf of incomprehension still exists between Britain and France despite a thousand years of intertwined history. The fierce desire to protect France's culture and language engenders a prickliness

in the French which makes them hard to deal with. So too does the constant ambition to score points for France internationally. I still feel rage at the memory of going to Paris on a January

morning in 1991, on the eve of a fighting phase of the Gulf war, for a meeting with President Mitterrand at which both sides seemed to be thinking on exactly the same lines. We returned to London

in the afternoon to news of an ill- judged and ill-timed French peace initiative which had never even been mentioned to us. That's the sort of selfish diplomacy which can set back years of patient

work in the undergrowth to improve relations, and it very rarely secures any significant or last- mg advantage.

As an aside, I would say that Britain has too often swallowed hard and preserved a stiff upper lip in the face of French tactics. The most effective response is knock-for- knock diplomacy, and it's

a pity that we do not practise more if it, in the way we once did when Britain's farmers were being monstrously harassed by the French in the mid-Eighties. The Ministry of Agriculture's vets

suddenly identified a mysterious but virulent disease affecting French turkeys (and only French turkeys), necessitating a complete ban on importing them about two months before Christmas. The

problems affecting British farmers were rapidly resolved, following which the French turkeys were miraculously restored to health. It would be absurd to suggest that the failings are all on one

side. A rather patronising way of dealing with the French is deeply ingrained in Britain. As a small if entirely harmless instance of it, the BBC recorded British controllers in Bosnia it French

armoured car patrols as Froggy One, Froggy Two and Froggy Three.

We also underestimate French reverence for their own past. When Lady Thatcher was invited in 1989 to intone a few respectful words about the French Revolution for French television, to mark the

bicentenary, she caused horror in France by denouncing it to the hilt as bloody and unprincipled, contrasting it with our own much more successful and glorious revolution of 1688. The French are

remarkably sensitive, too, to the screaming headlines of the British tabloids. The Sun's 'Up Yours Delors' is still widely quoted with a sort of stunned disbelief. The French elite find it hard to

comprehend the licence enjoyed by the British media. I recall also Jacques Attali's plaintive assertion that we could perfectly well call off the British press assault on his stewardship of the

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development if we wanted to: it would not be allowed in France.

A more recent complication between Britain and France has been M. Delors' period as president of the EC Commission. He wilfully succeeded in fusing in the minds of most Britons the more absurd

excesses of the European Community with the notion that it was France's fault. As a result, Britain's rows with the Community came to seem like rows with France. Overlaid on all these little local

difficulties has been a long history of missed opportunities to bring France and Britain closer. Indeed the two countries sometimes seem like a long-married couple, each of whom pleads a headache

at just the wrong moment. When France most wanted Britain as a pillar against a resurgent Germany in the interwar years, we were looking the other way until it was too late. Britain's need for

French support to join the EEC in the Sixties received reciprocal blind eye treatment.

As Europe's only two nuclear powers, one would have expected France and Britain to draw closer in the Seventies and Eighties, sharing technology and weapons systems and devising common strategies.

But Britain was fearful of putting its special nuclear relationship with the Americans in jeopardy, even though the Americans were doing more with the French in the nuclear field than either side

admitted to us. The French, for their part, always wanted to put a price-tag on nuclear co-operation with Britain: we had to buy their missile to demonstrate OUT sincerity, even though we thought

it inferior to the American alternative.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of all was the affaire Soames, when General de Gaulle appeared to offer Britain the opportunity to join France and Germany in a directorate to own Europe.

Whether he could actually have delivered is another matter. But the British, conditioned by a thousand years of suspicion of French motives, smelled a rat. Instead of calling the General's bluff,

we preferred to sneak to the other Europeans. It was not the most heroic episode in Britain's diplomacy. But there is much on the positive side of the ledger. The two greatest collaborative

projects of this century — Concorde and the Channel Tunnel — have been conceived and executed by Britain and France. Despite fierce clashes in Europe — once leading M. Chirac to

use a naughty word about Margaret Thatcher which fortunately she did not understand and the interpreters were too shocked to translate — Lady Thatcher always saw France as Britain's natural

ally. This was greatly bolstered by the speed with which President Mitterrand rallied to support Britain in the Falklands conflict.

The effect of this gesture was subsequently rather dissipated when the President presented Lady Thatcher with a handsome globe. Initially it was given a place of honour outside the Cabinet Room in

No. 10. But while idly spinning it one day, the great Lady suddenly noticed the Falklands were described as the Malvinas, whereupon the globe was instantly banished to the basement where, as far as

I know, it still languishes. President Mitterrand's former advisers told me that his discussions with Lady Thatcher were the best and most interesting of all those he held, because they dealt with

the broad sweep of history rather than just the technicalities of the moment, which were properly delegated to others. In truth, there is a great deal driving Britain and France together. France is

our third largest export market, and vice versa. The number of trans-national companies is steadily increasing. I am on the board of one, and the integration of British, French and American

management is remarkable.

Despite the fatuous Toubon law banning use of anglicised words — universally referred to in France as the Allgood law — the French recognise that the harsh reality of the modern world

dictates that they need to master English; and they are doing so on a scale which makes English efforts to speak French look puny. The Channel Tunnel is going to have a profound psychological

impact on how the next generation feel about Britain in relation to the European landmass: it will no longer be possible for storms in the Channel to isolate the Continent. Lady Thatcher was surely

right in believing that the Tunnel would do more to establish Britain's place in Europe and public acceptance of it than all the EC laws and regulations strung end to end. There are already over 9

million Britons who travel to or through France every year. The supermarkets of Calais are a modern substitute for the Field of the Cloth of Gold. And it seems as though about half the Cabinet are

currently holidaying in France.

The need for a closer relationship is there on the geopolitical level as well. Britain and France face the same fundamental dilemma: how to retain their traditional strong voice in world affairs

from a much narrower base. The wheel has come full circle since the two countries defied world opinion with an unsuccessful attempt to regain control of the Suez Canal 40 years ago. Both drew

different conclusions from that unhappy experience. France under General de Gaulle exalted its independence and seized the leadership of Europe. Britain drew closer to America, compensating for its

declining national power by increased influence over American policy. Or, as Henry Kissinger put it, de Gaulle made France so obstreperous that it was impossible to ignore, while Britain was so

effusively supportive that it was embarrassing to ignore.

Forty years on, both policies have run their course and the world has changed. France is overshadowed by Germany in Europe, and its room for manoeuvre between the two great power blocs has

evaporated with the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the United States looks increasingly to a united Europe as its partner rather than to Britain alone. We are officiously reminded that the road to

influence in Washington lies as much through Paris, Bonn and Brussels as through London. Actually that is more a confused aspiration of American officials than a reality, as the Gulf war showed:

when it comes to the crunch, Britain has invariably been America's only truly reliable ally. Yet the leadership of Europe is the key issue round which the relations of Britain and France will

revolve. At present it is exercised by France and Germany. Some- how Britain has to find a way to break into the magic circle. There is no future in trying to forge competing alliances with smaller

European states: they invariably crumble, as we saw over the choice of Mr Delors' successor. Nor is it worthwhile trying to drive wedges between France and Germany: Lady Thatcher tried that over

German reunification, although she came closer to success than many people realised.

But while deep down the French and Germans may not like each other, despite the manufactured bonhomie, they are bound to each other by institutions and a habit of consultation which cannot now be

broken. Our aim has to be to enlarge it to include Britain as well. A triangular relationship is the only satisfactory way forward, difficult as it will now be to establish. It has operated

spasmodically but successfully in the past: Jacques Attali, Horst Teltschik from the German foreign office and I used to meet secretly in the late Eighties to hammer out common approaches on behalf

of our respective masters.

With President Mitterrand reaching the end of his reign, and the tightly centralised European Union favoured by Chancellor Kohl looking distinctly unfashionable and irrelevant to the actual

problems which the European countries face, it may be possible to fashion a new consensus on Europe in which Britain and France can both — to coin a phrase — feel at ease. But for now

it is the people who are doing most to show that Britain and France can get on: the shoppers, trippers, students, home-owners and businessmen for whom the ancient rivalries which immobilise their

governing elites seem irrelevant and out-of- date. It's time for governments to catch up.