European Affairs

Europe’s Most Influential Love-Hate Relationship     Print Email
Avis Bohlen

That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present
By Robert and Isabelle Tombs
Alfred A. Knopf Press, 2007, 816 pages

Reviewed by Avis Bohlen

The ancient rivalry between France and Britain is, as recent events remind us, the most enduring and influential relationship within Europe. Overshadowed during most of the cold war by the crucial Franco-German tie, the motor which drove European construction, the Anglo-French quarrel exploded with full force during the bitter run-up to Iraq in 2003. The enlargement of the European Union and the defeat of the Constitutional referendum in France in 2005 spelled the end, at least for now, of a certain idea of Europe which France supported and Britain opposed. At the heart of both debates are long-standing Franco-British differences about the relationship with the US and the future shape of Europe. But the bitterness and animosity of these debates are hard to explain without reference to the past.

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The history of that rivalry and of the many strands – political, cultural, sociological – that go to make it up are the subject of That Sweet Enemy, a splendid book by two historians, one French, one British, married to each other and mostly, though not always, in agreement. Their rich and enthralling narrative takes us from 1688 – the year the Glorious Revolution established England once and for all as a Protestant nation governed by a parliamentary monarchy – up to the present. Based on superb scholarship, their text is informative, entertaining and immensely readable for all its 700 pages.

When the story opens, the France of Louis XIV is dominant in Europe – politically, culturally, demographically – while England under the Stuarts is little more than the Sun King’s client state. The slow leakage of France’s ascendancy over the 18th century, the parallel rise of England to global dominance, is a familiar story, but not often as compellingly and authoritatively told as here. Throughout this century, the two countries were almost continuously at war. Money, trade and command of the seas proved decisive. France – richer, larger, more populous but cash-poor and less creditworthy thanks to its rickety public finances – was never able to match Britain’s command of resources; nor, though its army was far and away the best in Europe, was the French navy able to compete with the British.

The story is naturally of interest to Americans since North America was at once prize and locus of the struggle. Act I (known somewhat parochially to Americans as the French and Indian War but to the rest of the world as the Seven Years War) expelled France from North America. In Act II, the French had their revenge by subsidizing American independence in the revolutionary war – a revenge that proved short-lived, for the cost of bankrolling the Americans proved the last straw for the already bankrupt French state and contributed not a little to the onset of the French revolution. Americans will not be flattered by the picture painted by our French allies of the ragged uncouth irregulars of the Continental Army nor by the obvious preference of British and French officers for dealing with each other rather than with George Washington and his field commanders. Act III shifts back to Europe, to the French Revolution and Napoleon, a turning point that ends with the decisive defeat of French ambitions and ushers in a century of global dominance by England.

This historical narrative unfolds in a unified and carefully balanced manner, but when it comes to final judgments, the two authors fall into a crackling debate along national lines. The language is sharp and unvarnished, no “on the one hand, on the other hand” for these authors. Thus Isabelle (French): “the taproot [of the wars between them over centuries] is British aggression… British aggressiveness was expressed through the notorious francophobia… a mixture of ‘paranoia’ and ‘anti-Catholic hysteria’ [that] made colonial aggression and even Continental war against France acceptable and popular. France, even under Louis XIV, was essentially on the defensive...” To which, Robert (British) retorts: “In India and North America, it was the French who repeatedly took the offensive… British francophobia was an expression… of opposition to despotism, religious oppression and extreme social privilege… The real origin of the conflict is that France, by far the most bellicose state in Europe, for 250 years, sought to impose a European, and eventually a global, hegemony.” Nor are the authors any closer to agreement when they discuss the relationship as manifested in culture, politics or the economy.

Supplementing the grand sweep of the historical narrative, some of the most original and delightful chapters describe the many ways in which the two societies and cultures have influenced, enriched and borrowed from each other over the centuries – what the authors call “the counterbalancing Franco-British story… not about conflict, but about mutual fascination, amusement, admiration, exchange and imitation...[the intermingling born of]… ideas, art, fashion, sport, food and literature, backed by tourism, job-seeking and residence.” The English have flocked to Paris in all ages, to be dazzled or naughty, depending on one’s tastes, to admire or feel superior, to buy, and, of course, to eat. If the French, until recently, found less pleasure in visiting London (French refugees – from aristocrats fleeing the guillotine to de Gaulle – usually departed more anglophobic than they arrived), once there they found much to admire and envy.

This constant ebb and flow of mutual influence created strong ties between the two countries but also a number of stubborn, recurrent stereotypes, some of which still recognizably reverberate in the British or French press. In centuries past, the materialistic, arrogant English – Carthage to France’s Rome – and their ugly women, were invariably portrayed in French media as having buck teeth. Even today the British media – the London tabloids in particular – never tire of taking shots at the frivolous, superficial, pretentious, unreliable French. In the Tombs’s account, we find admiration tinged with envy, animosity mixed with grudging respect – an endless cycle of fascination and mutual resentment which persists to this day. The authors note wryly that “few countries have such intermingled cultures. Amusingly, they like to think of each other as opposites.”

After 1815, France and Britain never fought another war but, we are reminded, “that was not how it seemed at the time,” and rivalry remains the dominant note throughout the 19th century. Americans tend to forget that although Britain may have been globally dominant it was at best primus inter pares in Europe. France was still a major European power and the two countries clashed intermittently until, towards the end of the century, a common fear of a rising Germany brought them together and made them allies in World War I.

Some of the best chapters in the book deal with the interwar period and World War II, starting with the analysis of the role of both countries at the post-war Versailles peace conference. A sympathetic treatment of France’s Clemenceau, the reparations issue and French toughness towards Germany (“alas they were right”) is a useful corrective to the standard Keynesian line that French rapacity and greed drove Germany into the arms of Hitler. Were the failures of the interwar period caused by “French saber-rattling” or “self-indulgent British idealism combined with idiotic francophobia and a strong dash of duplicity?” Again, no agreement between our two authors there.

But no disagreement either that the fall of France in 1940 was a shared defeat for which both Britain and France bear some responsibility. That the French army fought hard and bravely in May 1940 is a fact many Americans seem not to care to know, preferring clichés about “surrender monkeys.” Who knew that the first tank battles in history were won by the French army?

A moving chapter dissects the relations between Churchill and de Gaulle – surely one of the remarkable relationships of the 20th century. Churchill famously complained that the cross of Lorraine was the heaviest he had to bear. But he was also an unabashed Francophile, who understood viscerally that the survival of France was vital to Britain, even though this put him occasionally at odds with Roosevelt. De Gaulle, in contrast, was no Anglophile and in 1940 was too precariously situated to be either generous or grateful: intransigence was the key to survival. But the main point was that each respected the historic European nation which the other represented and submerged ancient enmity to forge a historic bond in the face of a common peril.

After the war, it was France’s turn. It enjoyed thirty years of steady economic growth, Les Trentes Glorieuses. De Gaulle gave France self-respect and a new constitution and laid the foundation for the privileged relationship with Germany which ensured French influence at the heart of the newly emerging European Community. In contrast Britain, excluded (partly by its own choice) from the European Community until late in the game, languished in economic decline, which was to be reversed by Margaret Thatcher only in the 1980’s. After de Gaulle, the rivalry seemed muted, except for the perennial spats over financing the European Community. The two countries had much in common: a shared destiny as middle-sized powers in the age of superpowers, a vital interest in protecting their nuclear deterrent from overly zealous arms controllers in Washington, challenges arising from the loss of empire and a national willingness to contemplate the use of force. As the authors note, referring to Robert Kagan’s thesis that Europe is Venus to the United States’ Mars, Britain and France are “Europe’s surviving Martians.”

Throughout this tale of two nations, America is an off-stage presence – contested territory or pawn in the early years, dominant power after 1945 – but curiously irrelevant to the narrative in this book except as the rock on which the two European countries so often divided. De Gaulle transferred all the animus he felt towards Britain to the United States, which of course Roosevelt compounded with fresh grievances. Just as France sought to expand its influence by strengthening its ties to Germany and Europe, England saw in the US a multiplier of its power and influence. But the realities of the Cold War set limits to French ambitions for Europe, while the reality of Europe limited the influence Britain derived from the special relationship with the United States.

Much changed with the end of the Cold War. Regrettably the chapters dealing with the 1990’s are not on a par with the rest of the book, often almost seeming an afterthought. The narrative seems rushed and polemical, without the admirable balance so evident elsewhere. A disappointing end to a gripping and admirable book, but perhaps it is too soon to write the history of these years.

The post-cold war era will not be remembered as a great period for either France or Britain. Today, British growth has edged out France’s and it is France that seems stagnant. The debate over Iraq exposed once again deep fissures within Europe that revolved around Anglo-French differences. Enlargement and the defeat of the European Constitution have halted at least for the moment the Franco-German vision of the European Union. Although this is a setback for the French it is hardly a victory for Britain. Where Europe is headed seems very unclear at the moment. If France’s defect is to entertain ambitions which outrun its resources, Britain’s is to lack vision. But the centrality of their relationship seems once again paramount – “more important,” the authors conclude, “than any other relationship France or Britain has had – with Germany, for example, or America.”

Today, there is more intermingling than ever. Large numbers of English buy country houses in France, young French people flock to work in London. The Chunnel links London and Paris. And yet as the authors make clear, these ties do not run very deep. Neither French nor British are particularly curious or well-informed about the other country. The British press remains addicted to “Frog-bashing”; the French papers are not much better – “a puree of prejudice on a bed of inherited loathing,” as one French journalist puts it. Nor does it seem likely that their myriad common interests will bring them together any more than it has in the past. Rivalry aside, the two countries see things too differently. As has been true for the last 300 years, Britain looks – mostly – outwards towards “le grand large” and the world outside Europe while France looks to Europe and the Continent.

According to a possibly apocryphal anecdote dating from the cold war, three generations of French were asked in a poll which country posed the greatest threat to France’s security. Those over 50 unhesitatingly answered Germany, those under 50 cited the Soviet Union but the school-age group, immersed in their French history lessons, had a different answer. Joan of Arc. Waterloo. Fashoda. Mers el-Kebir. So many French humiliations and defeats at the hands of the British. They knew who was the real enemy.

Avis Bohlen is a retired U.S. diplomat who served in France and other European countries before becoming ambassador to Bulgaria and then Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control. She teaches at Georgetown University.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.

 
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