What is it about us and the French? We ought to like each other. But when the Queen lands in France on a state visit next month and starts talking tosh about how splendidly our two nations get on together, 100 years of misrepresentation will be complete. The entente cordiale whose centenary she will be celebrating is as short on genuine cordiality as it was when her great-grandfather Edward VII thought it necessary to inscribe some in a treaty back in 1904.
It is hard to recall a single British prime minister since who has enjoyed what could reasonably be described as a cordial relationship with a French leader. Workable, yes, purposeful at times, but cordial? We haven’t been at war since well before the entente – since the age of Napoleon, in fact – which is nice, but that does not make us cordial. The word has heart in it, warm blood. Today’s cross-Channel relations at government level never advance beyond the wary; at ground level, despite Thierry Henry’s sublime contribution, they aren’t much hotter. Never have been. No big problem for Europe here. This state of affairs is precisely what a united Europe is made to address. But as the French have us down as born hypocrites, it might be interesting for the Queen to flout expectations for once and tell it like it is.
It is painful to watch Tony Blair seeking to transpose the leadership of Europe into a threesome, in place of the long-running Franco-German twosome we are used to. How can he claim this place for Britain, when he is unable to summon up the courage to make good on his promise to join the euro, the cement of the European economy? At the start of a ballyhooed triangular summit in Berlin last month, France’s Jacques Chirac, by nature a hugger, stiffened the frankly cordial, wide-armed embrace he gave Germany’s Gerhard Schroder into a straight handshake for the PM. The body language spoke loud and clear: it’s good to get the three main European powers together like this, but the way Britain plays its European hand can’t make Britain an equal partner with France and Germany in an expanded Europe.
Clearly it is not just Iraq, or British kowtowing to America, that is the obstruction. Or even Tony Blair’s unhuggableness. As we all know, between France and Britain (between France and England, in reality, because the French feel cosy enough with the Scots, Welsh and Irish) there is history. The entente cordiale has not moved things one whit. Damaging admissions have to be made on both sides. We know very well the French know how to live better than we do, and indeed they do so; they know we govern ourselves better and are probably more resolute. Such things rankle. We are allies right enough, but allies given to simmering rivalry, jealousy and no little spitefulness. Neither of us is sorry if the other runs into a spot of trouble. Read the joyful London press the minute the French trip up in the world. There is no nation on earth (Germany included, just) that we enjoy whipping more.
The English have forgotten what led to the entente cordiale in the first place. The French haven’t. It had to do with what continues to annoy the French about us.
We vaguely connect the 1904 milestone with King Edward’s fondness for Gay Paree, where he spent as much time as he decently could. No doubt his way with the Parisian demi-monde merits a marker. Yet talk to the French, and they at once start to mutter darkly about the “Fashoda incident”. I have yet to meet one English person who has so much as heard of Fashoda. The French still smart over it; it stands with Britain’s sinking of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in the Second World War as a model of English high-handedness.
Fashoda turns out to be an old Egyptian fortress on the Upper Nile now known as Kodok, in southern Sudan. At the close of the 19th century, Britain and France were locked in a long-running struggle over colonial expansion; the dusty hovel far up the Nile became its unlikely flashpoint. While Britain was extending her African possessions on a north-south axis, with a view to building a Cairo-to-Cape rail link to dominate the continent, France pushed east on a colonial traverse from the jungles on the Atlantic to the Red Sea, with broadly similar objectives. The lines crossed at Fashoda, which a fly-bitten French force of 150 men took possession of in July 1898.
This was a valiant move, but risky, not to say impertinent. Britain, already in charge of Egypt, had previously warned France that any incursion on the Upper Nile would be seen as an unfriendly act. Horatio Kitchener arrived in Fashoda two months later, at the head of a force 15 times larger than the French one, having been delayed at Omdurman and Khartoum in putting down the natives; he dispossessed the French without bloodshed. It was a terrible blow to French pride; and Britain’s imperial bullying had brought the two countries to the brink of war.
Passions cooled down, at Edward VII’s urging, only with the negotiation of the entente, under which Britain accepted French control of Morocco in exchange for French acceptance of British sway in Egypt.
Formally, that is all the entente amounts to: a grudging sweeping of the colonial decks, with the French promising to cause us no trouble at the Straits of Gibraltar and us promising to cause them none at Suez. What launched the current exceptionally long record of non-belligerence between France and Britain occurred 90 years before the entente: the carnage at Waterloo, with a post-battle tilt from Talleyrand, France’s artful peacemonger.
Among Europe’s “great” powers of old, no other pair has been at peace for so long. Let us hope we don’t start liking each other in those unreal terms on which the Queen seems obliged to harp. That would be the end of a peculiarly satisfying relationship.