They think of us as boozy philistines, formerly with tails, eating boiled beef with mint sauce, and constantly plotting to betray our allies. If we stop beating our children, it is either to indulge in the adult sado-masochism of le vice anglais or to worship Mammon. Our attitude to them is encapsulated in Harold Laski's remark that "if only the French would cease to occupy themselves with politics, they would be the most attractive people in the world", and by an incident which followed de Gaulle's 1963 veto on our first attempt to join the Common Market, when an anonymous patriot added to the British Railways advertising slogan "Harwich for the Continent" the pencilled afterthought "and Paris for the incontinent".
This intelligent and well-documented study is nevertheless far more than what the French call a sottisier or collection of silly remarks. It is a detailed explanation as to why the political, military and intellectual relationship between France and Britain has been so tumultuous, as well as a reluctant recognition of why it is overoptimistic to look for any radical improvement. Politically, we stand together as the two countries in Western Europe to have enjoyed the longest tradition of parliamentary democracy, and Robert Gibson is to be especially congratulated on the skill with which he illustrates the similarities as well as the differences between the vision of Winston Churchill and that of Charles de Gaulle. Both represented the deep attachment of their country to democratic politics and the rule of law, and if either of us goes down, the outlook for freedom in Western Europe is indeed bleak. But as Gibson also remarks in his final chapter, it would be utopian to expect any permanent or even any genuinely cordial entente. Their culture is embodied in Marianne, with all she stands for by way of political subversion and readiness to mount the barricades, followed by a tendency to create an even stronger state than existed before the revolution. John Bull, the solid and stolid representative of law and order, is as suspicious of bureaucrats as he is of rebels.
Perhaps without intending it, Gibson suggests that it is the French rather than the British who have most benefited from the relationship. Admittedly, our behaviour in the hundred years war included the ethnic cleansing of Calais as well as the scorched earth policy of the Black Prince. If, as Michelet remarked, it was the English who taught the French to think of themselves as a nation, it was because of the sufferings we had inflicted upon them. But while the great feats of French classicism still leave the English cold, and Cartesian rationalism is as suspect as frogs' legs or stewed snails, the intellectual history of France from Voltaire onwards would hardly exist without the associated impact of British liberalism and the tradition embodied in the Royal Society. While on the political and military front, it would be as sad to visit a country in which Louis XIV's or Napoleon's dream of conquest had been allowed to triumph as it would be to go to a subjugated France where most of the place names were in German.
What one needs now is a French scholar with the same knowledge of both cultures as Gibson to tell the same story in the other language and thus, inevitably, from the other side. If one could be found, it would refute the uncharitable suggestion that it is the French who have now become insular, being little concerned with what happens outside what they call l'Hexagone, and anxious mainly to ape the Germans and thwart the Americans.
Philip Thody is emeritus professor of French, Leeds University.
Best of Enemies: Anglo-French Relations since the Norman Conquest
Author - Robert Gibson
ISBN - 1 85619 487 6
Publisher - Sinclair-Stevenson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 340