18 January 2007

Frangleterre? Or Brance?

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Almighty in His infinite wisdom did not see fit to create Frenchmen in the image of Englishmen,” Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons in 1942 — but only two years before, he had publicly offered to merge France and Britain into a single country. And now it turns out that the same offer was made again, this time by France to Britain, in 1956. A quite serious offer, by the French prime minister of the time, that would have created a new country that would by now number 125 million people and have the world’s third-biggest economy.

Churchill’s 1940 offer to merge the entire British and French empires was a counsel of despair, issued when France was on the verge of surrendering to Germany and the British prime minister was trying to keep her (or at least her navy and her overseas possessions) in the war. Most French leaders rightly saw it as a British grab for French resources with which to carry on the war, and the proposal quickly died. 1956 was different.

British prime minister Anthony Eden was astonished when his French counterpart, Guy Mollet, showed up in London in September, 1956 and secretly proposed the unification of the two countries. Mollet was quite serious, however, even saying that France would have no problem in accepting the young Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state.

It runs counter to everything that other people believe about the nature of French identity, and indeed what the French believe about their own national character. Yet it really did happen. The British documents describing the discussion were declassified twenty years ago, but the throng of researchers who pile into the archives each January as another year’s government documents are released under the thirty-year rule somehow missed them.

The documents confirming the offer were only discovered last month by a British Broadcasting Corporation television producer who was trolling through the National Archives on a fishing expedition for new documentary topics. (They’re running out of ideas at the BBC.)

Eden rejected Mollet’s suggestion for a full union of the two countries, but two weeks later he recommended “immediate consideration” of the French prime minister’s fall-back proposal that France join the British Commonwealth, the new club for all the independent bits of the rapidly shrinking empire. France would accept the Queen as head of the Commonwealth, and also wanted “a common (British-French) citizenship arrangement on the Irish basis.” (After Irish independence in 1921, British and Irish citizens retained the right to live and work in each other’s countries.)

That didn’t happen either, because Eden was soon afterwards swept out of office when the joint attack on Egypt that Britain and France were plotting with Israel went badly wrong during the Suez crisis. Mollet only lasted in office until halfway through the following year, but by then France had joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union, instead. And when Britain finally applied to join the EEC in 1963, another French leader, Charles De Gaulle, vetoed its entry.

It was a weird episode, and it only came about because France was in even worse shape than Britain in 1956, after the disasters of the previous fifteen years: military defeat, four years of German occupation, and ten years of economic and political chaos. Britain in 1956 was only starting to understand how greatly its power had diminished, because it had not suffered defeat and occupation during the Second World War, so Eden rejected union with what he saw as a weaker and supplicant France. Seven years later the shoe was on the other foot, and De Gaulle rejected even a looser link with Britain.

But it could have happened, had the timing been right. Great powers in decline often consider radical moves to shore up their status in the world, and sovereignty is not indivisible. After all, twenty-seven European countries, including both Britain and France, now share large amounts of their sovereignty within the admittedly looser structures of the European Union.

In France, the almost universal media response to the revelations about 1956 has been to find some historian who would pour cold water on the Mollet proposal, insisting that it was not seriously meant, for the story shows France in a rather humiliating light. The British media, by contrast, just had fun with it.

The “Guardian” tracked down Denis MacShane, former minister of state for Europe in the Blair government, who obligingly opined that “France and England are like an old married couple who often think of killing each other, but would never dream of divorcing.” And the “Independent” indulged in dystopian fantasies about what fifty years of union would have done to the two countries.

“France might have had our public transport and health systems; we might have had the ramshackle French university system,” speculated John Lichfield, the Independent’s Paris correspondent. “We might have had French rates of unemployment. They might have had the London Tube instead of the Metro. We both might have ended up with French TV, British hospital waiting lists, the French police…British school dinners, French plumbers and Scottish joie de vivre.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“It runs…them”; and”But it…Union”)