Ancient grudge. Anglo-French hostilities go beyond politics. The bad faith that exists between the two countries is the result of longstanding cultural divisions. Andrew Hussey on why we should not celebrate the entente cordiale
Friend or Foe: an Anglo-Saxon history of France
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 428pp,
Why should we ever trust the French? It is now more than a century since, against the instincts of ordinary people in both countries and to the surprise of most politicians, Britain and France signed the entente cordiale. This was not so much a treaty as an agreement - one typical of the colonial period - enabling two great powers to carve up territories in North Africa and the Far East without treading too heavily on each other's toes. At the time, however, the entente was presented as the solution to centuries of conflict between Britain and France. A similarly celebratory message accompanied Jacques Chirac's recent visit to Downing Street - even if, in most of the press calls, Tony Blair and Chirac eyed each other up like a pair of wary tigers.
In truth, there was little to celebrate - then or now. The most immediate consequence of the entente was that it unsettled the balance of power in Europe, leading directly to the First World War. The occupation of France in 1940 would almost certainly not have happened had France not relied on Britain acting as a counterbalance to German power. More recently, divisions over Iraq have underlined the bad faith that historically has existed between the two countries. This, it should be stressed, is not merely a political phenomenon, but a basic, visceral antagonism between two peoples.
Alistair Horne steps into the fray as an unrepentant and unashamed Englishman. Horne is perhaps the most accessible and - occasionally - authoritative writer on French affairs in English. His 1960 trilogy on the Franco-German wars, The Price of Glory, has yet to be bettered in any language. His epic work on the Algerian War, A Savage War of Peace (1978), remains the definitive account of that singular episode in French history. Containing sections dealing with terrorist and counter-terrorist insurgencies and the ethics of torture, the work seems every bit as relevant today as it was when first published.
Horne may be steeped in French political culture and fascinated by the details of its historical origins, but he is not quite a Francophile. And this promises to be the most interesting thing about Friend or Foe. Horne insists from the outset that his "idiosyncratic" history is not only written from the British side of the Channel, but with a distinctly British parti pris. In other words, the book's aim is less to question whether we should love or loathe the French than to act as a corrective to accounts of Franco-British relations that misrepresent the British side.
Horne's prose is entertaining, elegant and crisp, and his acerbic views on the great men and moments of French history are always bracing. Abelard, one of the founders of the Sorbonne and the avatar of a star-crossed and peculiarly Gallic kind of passion, is dismissed as "a quarrelsome wencher" who is "guilty of rape, or at least of harassment". Most French kings are portrayed as mad, weak, arrogant or lazy - and often all four at the same time. The exception is Henri IV, a swaggering Errol Flynn-like figure who, with "his hot and lusty Pyrenean blood", brings new life to effete Paris. But then Henri is stabbed to death in the rue de la Ferronnerie (now the heart of the Parisian gay district) by the religious maniac Francois Ravaillac. Ruthless fanaticism, the plot runs, is as much part of French history as swivel-eyed duplicity.
This theme is pursued through the revolution, the Napoleonic era and the turbulence of the late 19th century. Horne identifies the collision between France's overblown idea of itself and the realities of weak and venal government as the cause of the violent upheavals that have fascinated and appalled Anglo-Saxon observers from Edmund Burke onwards. He is at his best on the Second World War and its aftermath. The familiar tales of casual betrayal under the Nazi occupation, culminating in the deportations from Drancy and torture chambers in the heart of Paris, are given a new life in Horne's steely description.
None of this is new, and Horne never pretends as much. However, his book has a more important flaw. In line with other great Anglo-Saxon historians of France such as Alfred Cobban, Richard Cobb and Theodore Zeldin, Horne sets out to oppose the grand pseudo-scientific designs of French historians (the Annales school led by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre being the best-known example) with detailed accounts of social reality. It is, in other words, the age-old battle between English empiricism and French theory. The problem is that Horne's narrative is far too sweeping to display any of the "miniaturist" virtues of his English peers, while at the same time he obstinately refuses to engage with the genuine problems set by the French. And because he forgets to keep asking himself the question he sets in his title, what promises to be a gripping and timely polemic soon fades away. The narrative, although constantly engaging, settles into what the French call an histoire evenementielle - an endless series of non sequiturs centred on the lives of famous but ultimately not very significant figures.
Worse still is the distinct sense that the book has been put together in haste, with an eye to exploiting current tensions between the French and the English-speaking world. For all its bluster and entertainment value, the narrative of Friend or Foe leads us nowhere, while its half-baked arguments end up sounding thin and rancorous. Horne is particularly scornful of the generation of postwar French intellectuals, from Sartre to Derrida, who were responsible for the conscious break with the humanist values that, as he sees it, previously defined French culture. However, in an age dominated by Anglo-American wars, lies and stupidity, surely we need more, not less, of the forensic rigour that these thinkers displayed.
In the end, this book sets its readers only one truly urgent question. If an Anglo-Saxon chronicler as distinguished as Horne can so easily and carelessly avoid the most important aspects of France's past, then why- at least when it comes to writing history - should the French ever trust the English?
Andrew Hussey is the author of The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord (Pimlico)