Entente less than cordiale

That Sweet Enemy - The Almost Impossible Ally - Instructions for British Servicemen in France 1944
July 28, 2006

Richard Parish explores a love-hate relationship lasting 300 years

Don't like the French." So the assembled officers in Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd , set in 1797 aboard HMS Indomitable , begin their chauvinistic song: "Don't like their bowing and their scraping," they go on. "Don't like their hoppity-skippety ways." Robert and Isabelle Tombs's authoritative and splendidly balanced survey (he is English, she French) examines more than 300 years of mutual hostility, fascination and incomprehension, and affords in the process a remarkable if sobering account of the bilateral costs of hegemonic ambitions and hubristic nationalism, enlivened by a brilliantly ironic awareness of the absurdities involved in centuries of reciprocal mote-removing and beam-ignoring.

The project is divided into four parts, which deal successively with the years of intermittent (if often sustained) warfare beginning in 1688 and culminating at Waterloo in 1815, labelled by the authors as "the second Hundred-Year War"; with the period of coexistence that broadly corresponds to the remainder of the 19th century, and leads to the Entente Cordiale of 1904; with the collaboration in two world wars, separated by what Marshal Foch presciently identified as a 20-year armistice, rather than an enduring peace; and with the ensuing decades that saw the founding of the European Union and the building of the Channel Tunnel.

Much of the early part of the narrative is dominated by military history, and the painstaking exposition of campaigns brings the ubiquity of death in combat powerfully to bear on the picture, above all in the context of two nation states whose histories are so inextricably linked and which, as the authors happily conclude, now share more than they squabble over.

The story of France and Britain is, over the centuries studied, also a narrative of Europe and the world. This is first apparent in their interaction with more unstable European nation states in the early modern period and in the confessional differences that split Europe in the century after the Reformation, when refugees from the Catholic and the Protestant traditions sought mutual asylum in the two countries. The 18th century witnessed the growth of imperialistic ambitions and so added the North American, African and Middle and Far Eastern dimensions to the enduring European conflict. Different tensions again are revealed in the authors' exposition of the often strained Franco-British relations during the two world wars; in their analysis of the contrastively handled dénouements to colonialism; and, in the final pages, in Robert Tombs's solo attack on Tony Blair's involvement in the 2002 invasion of Iraq in the face of well-informed French opposition. But Franco-British conflicts were also the cause of internal dissension, and the narrative just as often turns inwards as outwards, most consistently, in the case of the British Isles, towards Ireland and, in that of France, towards the Vendée.

Yet all this bloodshed and posturing is accompanied by an irresistible intimacy, and the compressed oxymoron of the title opens up time and again into a sequence of paradoxes: thus, the major financial figure of the French Enlightenment was a Scot, John Law, and Voltaire was not alone among 18th-century philosophers in admiring England for its practice of religious tolerance, fruitful commerce and constitutional monarchy.

Predictably, it has tended to be in the non-political domains of literature, philosophy, art and music that minds have been most open, and where, as a consequence, the most creative examples of cross-fertilisation have occurred: so, in the 19th century, Berlioz based his Harold in Italy symphony on Byron, the impressionists painted London, Wilde fled to Paris - and Zola to Weybridge! But the same admixture is apparent in matters of gardens, clothes, games, clubs, horses, food, drink and language, exemplifying the paradoxical co-existence of military hostility and cultural emulation, whereby "each nation helped to form the other's sense of itself".

Tourism has been a constant if asymmetrical phenomenon and has served both to challenge and to confirm prejudices and caricatures. Stereotypes are predictable and stable: England is industrial, France rural; England epitomises commercialism and pragmatism, France is synonymous with taste and rationalism; English women have protruding teeth, French men are effeminate; the English drink too much, the French think too much, and so on. And the Tombs, having run through two lists of epithets that each nation has most typically applied to the other in their movement towards an "ever-closer disunion", conclude with a series of those that are shared: "cynical, irreverent, stoical, bloody-minded, individualistic, tolerant and self-righteous".

The writing is exemplary - clear, subtle and often witty, and the authors are always ready to err on the side of circumspection in their presentation of multiple motivations or contested historical judgments, or to quote conflicting authorities without proposing a simplistic compromise. The scope of the project is formidable and, although military and economic history clearly play a leading role, the broader cultural dimensions that complete the picture are carefully explored and illustrated: thus Racine and Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Victor Hugo, Dickens and Balzac all have their voice; and extensive and enlightening use is made of paintings, prints and especially cartoons, even if the maps, with their variously stripy zones and Dad's Army arrows, are the least accessible aid to the non-specialist reader.

Quibbles? Hardly any. One is with the format of the book, which happily limits endnotes to an informative function. The compensation, however, takes the form of the long-interposed sections in small print, which expand on single issues that might otherwise have interrupted the narrative. But since they do that anyway, and since they require varifocals (or perfect eyesight) to absorb, why not just incorporate them into the text? And, of course, each reader will note their favourite omissions: where, for example, is Asterix chez les Bretons , with his tea flavoured by "un nuage de lait"; or The Magic Roundabout (originally Le Manège Enchanté ); or, more significantly, Etiemble's defining work on le franglais, or the masterpiece of cross-Channel harmony that is Britten's setting of Rimbaud's Illuminations ?

A striking feature of That Sweet Enemy is the recurrent pairing of national leaders in a range of love-hate relationships, starting with Pitt and Choiseul in the 18th century, passing through Lloyd George and Clemenceau, and most recently incarnated by Thatcher and Mitterrand or Blair and Chirac.

Of these, it is the interaction between de Gaulle and Macmillan that is insightfully explored by Peter Mangold, basing his title on another oxymoron, attributed in this case to the Foreign Office. The division of the major part of his text into three, after a rapid survey of the background, corresponds to the successive phases in a friendship that went sour or, as Mangold calls it, a drama in three acts.

The first and happiest collaboration took place in 1943-44, when Macmillan was posted as Resident Minister to Algiers to facilitate the establishment of a French Committee of National Liberation, in the face of both intra-French disagreements and American intransigence. Macmillan played a major role in the installation of de Gaulle as de facto prime minister of the Free French provisional government and earned as a result his confidence and indeed friendship, no doubt because he had understood that "those who had influence with de Gaulle were those who encouraged him along the path he wanted to tread". And yet, as Mangold astutely notes at the end of this episode, Macmillan, for all his diplomatic skills and fair-mindedness, was not a Francophile; on the contrary, he suggests, Macmillan's American roots (his mother had been born in the US) allied him in the longer term more closely to the transatlantic axis, leading quickly thereafter to a sense of exclusion on the French side. He was also, inevitably, contaminated by the perceived and real slights administered to de Gaulle's amour-propre by Churchill.

The second series of encounters, beginning 14 years later in 1958, was now between two heads of government. Postwar Anglo-French differences were initially concentrated on the questions of French nuclear power and the relationship of Great Britain to the European Economic Community (as it had become in 1957); but the backdrop of the Cold War also served to sully cross-Channel negotiations, and Macmillan emerged from the quadrilateral summit of 1960 aware that de Gaulle had shown himself to be the stronger player. Finally, between 1960 and 1963, the two leaders addressed the, as it proved, intractable issue of British entry to the EEC. Macmillan worked to juggle the conflicting interests of Atlanticism and the Commonwealth versus the Common Market, trying (and failing) to identify a bargaining token that might assuage French reservations.

The brutal conclusion to this final chapter, and the impact of de Gaulle's veto on the "outclassed" Macmillan, are both well known. It remains that, alongside the meticulous and detailed exposition of the political history that led up to it - authoritatively compiled from archives, memoirs and letters - there emerges from Mangold's pacey account a strong flavour of the interpersonal ties and tensions that shaped the two nations' destinies.

Perhaps de Gaulle's cryptic words sum it up: "They had both basically had the same ideas, but the ideas had come together at the wrong moment."

The reprint of the 1944 Instructions for British Servicemen in France is a period-piece curiosity, which was nonetheless described by a contemporary journalist as "the gentlest and most human article the soldier carries to the wars", and which makes the whole grim experience more immediate. What primarily emerges is an insistence on the closeness between the two countries and on the need on the part of the British soldier to show consideration and courtesy to a neighbour in distress. To that end, a description is provided of France's geography, history and mores, as of its present plight; useful phrases are rendered into a bewildering approximation to English orthography ("Eel-ee-ah-ewe urn ack-see-dong"

would take a bit of deciphering, especially if you had indeed had an accident); and certain telling pieces of advice are proffered thus: "Don't drink yourself silly. If you get the chance to drink wine, learn to 'take it'." Plus ça change...

Richard Parish is professor of French, Oxford University.

That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present

Author - Robert and Isabelle Tombs
Publisher - William Heinemann
Pages - 780
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 434 00867 2

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