France and Britain: beginning of a beautiful friendship?

Jul 12, 2012
Crispin Black

Last time Hollande visited London, Cameron snubbed him. This time he sensibly rolled out the red carpet

THE British and the French should get on better together. We are after all pretty similar – same population, same wealth, same life expectancy, same average age of first sexual intercourse (sixteen-and-a-half). Even in international competitions our results are close. Similar numbers of Olympic medals (UK 737  - France 730). Crucially, we have both won the Eurovision Song Contest five times.

Perhaps David Cameron has come round to this view, pushing the boat out for President Hollande's visit to London this week.

Last time Hollande crossed the Channel, during the French electoral campaign, Mr Cameron refused to see him and made clear his unequivocal support for Nicolas Sarkozy in the contest – a boorish breach of protocol. 

The rules are quite clear – a candidate for election to high office in an allied country always gets face time with the PM, just in case he or she wins. If the candidate is in opposition to a sitting head of state or government with whom we are close then the meeting takes place behind closed doors and the use of any photographs for electoral purposes is frowned upon. 

But there was no room at the inn for candidate Hollande - the highlight of the poor man's visit was a meeting with Ed Miliband. Cameron later compounded the error in a speech last month gloatingly welcoming French tax exiles to London.

President Hollande's enemies at home are poking fun at the diminutive figure he cut alongside the guard of honour found by the Coldstream Guards during his visit to London. The fact that the Coldstream Guards played such a crucial part at the Battle of Waterloo seems to have added insult to injury.

One Sarkozy-supporting French newspaper said the new president looked like a dwarf. Slightly unfair as Hollande is actually taller than Sarkozy but does not wear high heels or surround himself with vertically challenged flunkies like his predecessor, so he seems smaller.

In truth the President of the French Republic looked both dignified and entirely at ease reviewing the guardsmen. Unlike so many other modern politicians he has actually worn his country's uniform as a national service officer in the French Army.

Luckily, the French newspapers appear to know very little about Windsor Castle where Hollande visited the Queen. The state apartments were largely refashioned under George IV as a living museum to the Battle of Waterloo.  He had the peculiar idea that as Prince Regent he had actually been present at the battle – a bit like Ronald Reagan, who used to reminisce in the White House about landing on D Day.

The highlight of any tour is the Waterloo Chamber – a vast dining room hung with portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence of the military and political leaders who vanquished Napoleon. Just about every possible route from the Quadrangle, where Hollande was met by the duty equerry, to the Queen's drawing room passes some extravagant display of British military superiority over the French.

On his journey President Hollande might have thought for a moment that the rooms were festooned with tricolours in his honour.  There are a lot of French flags on display at Windsor – generally captured from the French Imperial Guard. If the Queen gave him a cup of tea the china might well have depicted Wellington's entry into Paris.  In the unlikely event that he took snuff the box would probably have been fashioned from a hoof of Napoleon's grey charger Marengo – wounded in action five times carrying his master at all his major battles. 

Still it could have been worse – one modern British cavalry regiment drinks champagne from the silver chamberpot of Napoleon's younger brother Joseph captured after an earlier Wellington victory in Spain.

President Hollande successfully shrugged off both the weight of history and David Cameron's bad manners to make it clear that he will continue the new entente cordiale that initially arose from the personal and political chemistry between Cameron and Sarkozy. 

The French want a closer relationship because Hollande and the French elite have actually thought about France's place in the world. They have a certain idea of France – an acute set of assumptions on how to maximise France's wealth, influence and standing in the world. For the first time, that vision now includes close co-operation with ‘Perfidious Albion'.

Important parts of the French state are also less chippy towards their British counterparts.  The French armed forces no longer feel the poor relations having seen us drink the bitter dregs of defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. French spooks, long resentful of the reputation of MI5 and MI6, now see themselves rightly as having a better record on Islamist terrorism. Famously and to their eternal credit they refused to drink the Kool-Aid on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

The principal obstruction to a close alliance with the UK – our infantilising obsession with the Washington ‘special relationship' – is also less off-putting than before. The Americans seem contemptuous of their loyal military ally and the 600 British lives sacrificed in the wars of 9/11.  In any case they have re-focused their security strategy towards opposing China in the Pacific. Europe let alone the UK seems to count for little in their calculations.

French interests are converging with our own. The passionate commitment of their political class to the European project is waning. They rode it for all they could while it was a French racket to control Germany. Now that it looks like a German racket to boss everyone else around, it is less appealing. 

Vive President Hollande! Vive la France!

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Ticked all the boxes. Thanks for some clear foresight.

As always, a closer relationship with the French seems to make sense on paper but is more difficult to achieve than might be imagined. There are many differences in the way the UK and France view the world, and those experienced with dealing with the French at the diplomatic level have often found them them to be stubborn and duplicitous. French interests do converge with our own - but only so far.

The French score well for not taking the Americans too seriously and for taking their government and their language very seriously. Mr. Cameron takes himself and his silly wars seriously and fails to get attention of a waitress in an Italian breakfast coffee shop. He would do well to listen to President Hollande.