GRÃ-BRETANHA E FRANÇA
GRÃ-BRETANHA E FRANÇA, ANDRÉ FONTAINE
(In: The Economist, v. 331, no 7861, April 30th 1994, p. 21-24)
Perhaps it had something to do with the black uniformity of the cars, or
the bowler hats, or the way in which so many of the young and not so young
ladies seemed – unlike the men – to care so very little about looking their best.
Or perhaps it was the fact that, the reverse of the situation in Paris, tea was
rationed and coffee sold freely. At any rate, when rail traffic resumed across
the Channel almost half a century ago and the author of these lines set foot in
London for the first time, he found doing so a far more disorienting experience
than anything he had been given to expect.
But that was then; and times have changed. Americanisation has had
its way. Wherever you go you find the same hairstyles, the same jeans, the
same short skirts, the same motley crowds piling into the metro. The time-hon
oured breakfast tea is giving way to coffee. The metric system has triumphed
over that outlandish currency which used to so baffle continentals. The
righthand-drive car remains, of course, as does most important of all – the
Crown, with its inimitable pageantry. But too many a recent escapades have
diminished the weight of that institution. In France, meanwhile, the election of
a president by universal suffrage has created something of a non-hereditary
monarchy; this being, of all the principles of the french constitution, the one
that the public has taken most readily to its heart.
One might even begin to conclude that the traditions and contradictions
which separated, even opposed, the bristish and french peoples for so long,
were now disappearing, true, an interminable film about Joan of Arc came out
recently in Paris; but it was a critical success and no more. The Hundred Years
War disappeared from the school textbooks 15 years ago and few people
nowadays have a clear idea as to what it was all about. It is hard to imagine
that a century and a half ago the most famous, though probably not the
greatest, of French historians, Jules Michelet, could write simply: “The war of
all wars, the combat of all combats, is the one between France and England.
all the rest are mere episodes”. Or that General de Gaulle could have said to
the British ambassador one day: “Fundamentally, our two countries have
always been at war, save when they were allied against a common enemy”.
Their size, age and proximity, their enduring refusal to be subsumed
into anyone else’s empire, the loss of their colonies, their nuclear weapons
everything, including their current decline, surely makes twin peoples of the
British and the French. and yet, if twins they are, they are not twins born of
the same egg. Either nation might invoke that proud phrase from “The Tempest”:
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. But the dreams of one are not the
dreams of the other. Both peoples have learned only too well to cherish their
respective uniqueness. Listen again to Shakespeare: “This happy breed of men,
this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea.” And to Michelet:
“Nations can be classified like animals. But France – France is a person”.
Insularity helps to nourish such dreams. Perhaps it is consider Japan a
precondition for them. But how, then, to cultivate such singularity of character
when one is not, in fact, an island at all? The answer: by trying to become one.
That, in effect, is what France has been doing over the centuries as it has
sought to prolong its coastline by means of other “natural frontiers:” – moutains
and rivers supposedly easy to defend. In the end, it hoped for its sins to rest
easy behind the imagined security of its Maginot line.
Even now, considerations of this kind still carry weight. The Channel
tunnel would have seen the light of day much earlier had so many britons not
been worried that it might offer too easy a passage to possible invaders. But
France can scarcely afford to snigger: the National Assembly’s defence
committee heard similar arguments, sometimes from very distinguished people,
when plans were being made for the tunnel under Mont Blanc.
To affirm one’s singularity is, by definition, to cultivate one’s differences.
In the case of Britain and France, the prime difference is obviously that of
language. To cite Michelet one last time, language is “the principal mark of
nationality”. No surprise, therefore, that the common use of English should
have created so particular an intimacy between Great Britain and its
transatlantic offspring, often underpinned by powerful family links.
John Major has made a point of cultivating his american connections;
so too did Harold Macmillan, who dreamed of having his country play Greece
to America’s new Rome. It was Churchill above all who upheld the “special
relationship” with America. However great his regard for France – which owed
him its zones of occupation in Germany and Austria, and its permanent seat
on the United Nations Security Council – it was clear enough that two nations,
and two only, were “more equal than others” in Churchill’s eyes: the United
Kingdom and the no-less-United States.
These were the “English-speaking peoples” on whom he called, in his
famous speech at Fultion, Missouri, on March 5th 1946, to join forces and
resist the ambitions of Stalin in his hour of triumph. Nor would De Gaulle
ever forget what Churchill said to him on the eve of the Normandy landings:
“You may be sure, general, that if we ever have to choose between Europe and
the open sea, it is the open sea we would choose.” As for Anthony Eden, without
doubt the best-disposed towards France of all the occupants of Number 10,
his vision was of three interesting circles circumscribing the Atlantic, Europe,
and the Common wealth-with London as their common element.
To have asked the french to accept that vision would have been like
asking them to suffer a return of the law of primogeniture that they had
abolished in the Revolution. And yet, nor could Britain, for its part, having
long made “divide and rule” a cardinal principle of its diplomacy, fail to be
alarmed when it saw France moving towards a reconciliation with Germany
so complete as to create another “special relationship” – this one destined,
moreover, to serve as the cornerstone of a new Europe.
In fact, it was up to Britain to decide whether or not it joined from the
start in the building of that new Europe. But for it to do so, it would have
wanted the others to let it be both “inside” and “outside” Europe at the same
time. In any case, Britain scarcely believed that this complicated mechanism
could ever succeed, with its legalistic approach so very alien to the common-
law tradition. And, above all, Britain was confident that it had the means,
should the need arise, to bring the structure down from with out. The
consequence, with its succession of vetoes, ultimatums, empty chairs, claims
for “money back” and, in fine, vain attempts to stop the germans from
reunifying, lives on in our memories.
Palmerston’s remark that “England has no friends, only interests,” is
one that people everywhere like to quote. All countries have that much in
common. Very often, however, it is not the interests themselves that matter, so
much as what countries imagine them to be a process in which vanity, naturally
enough, is quick to play a part. This much has been apparent in recent
disagreements over european economic policy. But to look only at the detail of
such disagreements is to miss the point. More than anything else these are
clashes of style, of approach, of philosophy.
Max Weber analysed magnificently the contrast between Catholic and
Protestant conceptions of the relationship between money and sin. That apart,
Great Britain is a maritime power by vital necessity and – like the United
States – a free-trader of sorts by vocation. France, on the other hand, has been
a centralising state since its birth under the Capetian Kings. Its successive
rulers were always busy putting down rebelions and feudal barons. France did
not wait for Colbert in order to become protectionist; and it has remained so,
after the brief parenthesis of the Second Empire, in its deepest soul. Look at
the farmers’ anger towards the Maastricht treaty and Gatt; look at the emotions
stirred by loss of jobs when production is transferred out of France to lower-
cost factories overseas or when french firms give their business to subcontractors
in the developing world; look at the fishermen in revolt against imports that
force down the price of their fish.
The prime minister, Edouard Balladur, is a champion of privatisation
and a believer in the market economy. He knows very well, and readly reminds
others, that France cannot expect to hold its position as the world’s fourth-
largest exporter – second-largest for agricultural products – and at the same
time yield to pressure from whichever of its own interest groups feels threatened
by low-cost imports. But for all that, Mr Balladur is – like Valéry Giscard
d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac, Michel Rocard, Laurent Fabius or Alain Juppé – a
product of the École Nationale d’Administration, that essentially french
institution where the creme de la creme are taught that there is nothing in life
more noble than serving the state.
The power of ENA transcends party politcs: it is the real crucible wherein
the political class is forged. The énarchie is, for better and for worse, the
backbone of both the administration and the business world. One need only
look at how the bosses were chosen for the state corporations that have recently
been privatised; no cause there for surprise on the part of anybody who
remembers that Mr Balladur learnt his craft under Georges Pompidou, a
faithful student of Saint-Simon who was convinced that the job of those in
power was to keep a firm hand on the tiller guiding the course of national
development. Had this not been so. Mr Balladur would not have dealt in the
way he has been doing with the crisis at Air France – a striking contrast to the
way the problems of British Airways were resolved. But it must be understood
that Adam Smith has found very few followers in France; nor is the fall-out
from experiments with liberalism in Russia and Eastern Europe going to swell
the ranks of his admirers.
At the cultural level, the story is much the same.There is certainly a
large group of honorary frog-eaters in Britain who manifest a real passion for
France and its language, and who are enduringly loyal to their french friends
from the Bordelais and the Loire to the backwoods of Provence. But the fact
remains that the great majority of the british people still seems to find it difficult
to understand that the french are determined to protect – that word again – a
language which is spoken now by no more than 3% of the world’s population,
even while English is well on its way to supplying the global village with the
global language so fatally absent since the Tower of Babel.
It might be argued that to say “the French are determined” is over-stating
the case, since a number of them have already given up the fight. Leaving
aside the excessive invasion of our everyday vocabulary by Anglicisms which
are so often merely barbaric or nonsensical, the fact is that many researchers
and academics in France are reduced to publishing almost exclusively in English.
But that serves only to reinforce the strength of feeling within the state and
among the intelligentsia. Over and above the almost sensual pleasure that
many frenchmen take in savouring the language of their writers down the
centuries, the existence of a francophone community, which now numbers some
50 countries among its members, is crucial to France’s world role. By the same
token, and helping to explain the fierceness with which Paris defended the
principle of the exception culturelle during the recent Gatt negotiations, the
vitality of the French language represents an essential asset for a country which
produces so many books, films, plays and television programmes, for which it
wants the largest possible market at home and overseas.
Yet even this is not what matters most. What matters most is the question
which has been begged throughout the process of building a new Europe “ the
question of what form that Europe should ultimately a free-trade area run by
a club of fair – whether friends who only really feel safe under Uncle Sam’s
security umbrella? If one looked into the hearts and minds of the great majority
of britons, would one not find that they asked for nothing more? As to the
French Fifth Republic, its constant ambition has been to bring together the
nations of Europe in such a way that they might loose the grip of what de
Gaulle, like Mao, called the “double hegemony”.
Now, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the arrival of Bill Clinton
has been marked by a certain resurgence of American isolationism – though
not to the extent of deterring the White House and the Departament of
Commerce from advancing their country’s commercial and cultural interests
with their customary zeal. Yet the impotence of Europe when confronted with
the conflict in the former Yugoslavia has brought the superpowers of yesteryear
to stage a dramatic comeback on the diplomatic stage. Not the least paradoxical
element in that process was the role played by France in February, in persuading
America to throw its weight behind an ultimatum on Bosnia which had not, to
put it mildly, excited any very great enthusiasm among other members of the
Now that the Twelve are likely soon to become 15 or 16, and whith the
prospect of opening their doors to Hungary and Poland and others after that,
could it perhaps be time for the british and the french to stop their wrangling
and to try to settle on a common answer to this question of what Europe
should become? The circumstances are there to help concentrate their minds.
Germany is still digesting its unification, and its chancellor will soon face a
difficult election. The days have long gone when the Iron Lady could boast of
giving advice to the president of the United States, and the present holder of
that office does not seem to pay any particular attention to John Major (whose
sin it was to wish openly for the re-election of Gerge Bush). As to France, it
scarcely matters that Matignon and the Quai d’Orsay are now in the hands
of gaullists, for they are moving as fast as anyone might to normalise relations
No one still nurses the illusion that he might see in his own lifetime that
federal Europe of which Westminter has been so afraid for so long. The question
now is whether there is still time to build a “Europe of Nations” that is strong
enough to make its voice heard and to defend its interests; and whether Great
Britain is inclined – as so many of its french admirers hope – to take its “place
inside that Europe without ulterior motives.
Fine words, it might be said. But what do they signify in concrete terms?
They signify, first, that institutions alone are not enough: an Europe of nations
must flow from the will of its peoples. “Where there is a will there is a way,” as
french students have long chanted when trying to learn the language of Albion.
Britain and France would never have been created if our ancestors had wasted
their time on the sort of byzantine arguments – like that over the 23-or 27-vote
blocking minority “ which have recently been dividing our governments.
They signify, too, that the new European Union needs to prove itself
worthy of that name by actually functioning as one; in other words, by
becoming more and more united. This can be pursued without endangering
the national characteristics that constitute, by contrast with the American
“melting-pot”, one of Europe’s richest endowments. Politically, this would mean
giving the European Parliament – the only one in the world, to my knowledge,
which lacks the power to pass laws – the means needed to play its full part.
Economically, it would mean developing common policies for industry, energy
and transport. In monetary terms, it would mean bowing to the evidence that
there cannot be a durable single market without a single currency. Militarily,
it would mean enlarging the Eurocorps, which should be easier now that the
United States no longer opposes the concept of autonomous european defence.
It means recognising that, faced with a scourge of unemployment no
member of the EU can hope to solve alone, it will certainly be necessary one
day to lay the foundations of an european social policy, and also to take a
fresh and concerted look at Europe’s relations with the developing world; only
by raising living standards there can we hope to restore long-term growth in
our own economies.
It means resolving that Europe must speak with a single voice on the
international stage: this is the era of NAFTA, of the Commonwealth of
Independent States, of Asia-Pacific economic co-operation. Regional groupings
predominate. It would be perverse if Europe alone were unable to unite behind
its own ambition in that direction. Above all, it means accepting that a
structured Europe provides the best frame work for maintaining or restoring
peace and democracy in a continent freed from totalitarianism.
Without such an Europe, there can be only two destinations left for our
worn-out peoples: the retirement home (but paid for by whom?), or a future as
museum attendants living off the tips provided by tourists from the Far East
and West. We cannot afford to go on much longer reinforcing the notion, already
widely accepted on all five continents including the eastern part of our own,
that our decline is irresistible.