While proposed joint military action between British and French forces has been greeted with harrumphing on this side of the Channel, in Paris there has been only shrugging, laced with smug satisfaction, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.
2:38AM GMT 03 Nov 2010
If proof were still needed of the essential asymmetry in French-British relations, you need only compare reactions on either side of the Channel to the Sarkozy-Cameron agreement, which proposes that the French and the British military co‑operate to form a joint expeditionary force. Beneath the diplomatic veneer, les Anglais are up in arms: the names Napoleon, Pétain, Exocet and Jacques Chirac are fiercely lobbed about.
To sum it up, the French are unreliable, devious, and let others actually win their wars for them, while making a lot of noise on the sidelines. And that’s only in the last century or so; before that, they were the Hereditary Enemy.
Meanwhile, we French, frankly, couldn’t be less bovvered. It’s a clear case of “you obsess about us; we hardly think about you”. Yes, of course, you can find historians and admirals to recall the infamous Mers-el-Kebir incident, when, on July 3, 1940, most of the French fleet was sunk by the British Navy rather than run the risk of seeing it join Nazi forces, at the cost of 1,297 French lives.
In a typical instance of mutual incomprehension, easily recognisable to this day to everyone who has ever worked in any kind of French-British corporate situation, the British ultimatum asking the French fleet commander, Admiral Marcel Gensoul, to surrender the ships under his command to Allied control for the duration of hostilities was delivered not by his hierarchical counterpart, Admiral James Somerville, but by Somerville’s best French-speaking officer, a Captain Cedric Holland.
English pragmatism predictably came up against the touchy French sense of precedence: Gensoul deemed himself insulted to be sent a subaltern, and delegated a junior lieutenant in his place. The resulting confusion was ended by Somerville’s fleet guns.
And while we, of course, always enjoy a bit of Rosbif-bashing – no, you have not been forgiven for Joan of Arc, or Trafalgar, or Waterloo (the gall of housing the first Eurostar terminal in its namesake train station!), or for Mrs Thatcher’s European contribution rebate – the truth is that we’ve spared next to no front-page headlines for the Traité de Défense Commune. We’re more interested in the US mid-term elections, and the announced defeat of this nice Monsieur Obama; or in the new terrorist threats; and naturally in the tail-end of the strikes against pension reform.
Yesterday’s military agreement is seen as a reasonable compromise for the sake of necessary budget cuts, in a country where “austerity” is political poison, and the population has only recently shown how it responds to calls for fiscal sacrifices. Whatever savings are made here will at least not involve our tax bills.
To be fair, there is also a not inconsiderable feeling here that France is gaining from today’s agreement. Perhaps it’s the kind of smugness that comes from providing most of the running water in the UK, a sizeable part of your electricity, and running hourly a high-speed train to Paris that shows your rail companies how Things Are Done. We sense that when Britain sacrifices perhaps the most original post-war aeroplane technology, the VTOL Harrier jet, for the sake of landing on our benighted excuse for an aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, a lemon that has spent more time in dry dock being fixed than on the high seas, Sarkozy must have pulled a fast one indeed.
There is also the simple reality that the French and the British regard their national military symbols in very different ways. To you, the Royal Navy is the Senior Service. A major naval history of Britain, such as N. A. M. Rodger’s superb endeavour, amounts pretty much to a history of your country. But the French navy, while respected, is by contrast peripheral enough to our national debate that it can get away, to this day and after two Revolutions, with the familiar name of La Royale (as in La Marine Royale.) What we’ve always believed in is might, Realpolitik, and prestige. This, as De Gaulle impressed on us, spells nuclear power, military and civilian.
“The French have become pragmatic, less history-obsessed,” explains the affable Dominique Moïsi, France’s leading geostrategy expert, chief adviser of the IFRI think tank, and a member of the Bilderberg Conference.
“We realise that David Cameron is completely committed to deficit reduction, so that it is not unthinkable that France would find herself the single nuclear power in Europe. That would make for a very uncomfortable position, under pressure from Germany, for instance, to give up on our nuclear deterrent.
“But if France and Britain share the costs of nuclear defence, then the whole concept is preserved. This is well worth an amount of compromise.”
Left unsaid are the potential gains for the French civilian nuclear industry, a direct inheritor of our Fifties and Sixties military programmes, which today produces 80 per cent of French electricity. In times where CO₂ is seen as more dangerous than depleted uranium, French nuclear technology has benefited from a broad national consensus that it was a Good Thing: “Le nucléaire, non, merci!” bumper stickers never caught on in France.
But perhaps such cynicism is uncalled for. At any rate, everyone in Paris officialdom is on message. Ministère de la Défense and Elysée flacks have been briefing assiduously on how complementary the French and British military are. Both armies deploy about the same numbers overseas – some 15,000 men – but in different theatres; the French mostly active in western and central Africa, while until recently the thrust of British military action lay in Iraq, and still does in Afghanistan.
The French-British Rapid Reaction Force is also welcome in French military circles, where the demise of the short-lived FAR, la Force d’Action Rapide, has been mourned. There is little bad history between French and British Special Forces, who share a healthy, mutual admiration for each other. The SAS have seen the French “Marsouins” (the nickname for the Commandos de Marine) at work, most recently in Afghanistan, “in situations where you mostly needed a parachute, night goggles, and a serviceable knife”, in the words of one Marsouin colonel, and were reportedly impressed.
One of France’s eldest special forces veterans, 92-year-old Brigadier Paul Aussaresses, active in the Jedburgh teams between June and December 1944, when the Resistance co-operated with Allied forces on guerrilla operations, recalled yesterday for the Telegraph his training and operation days with British commandos. “You could absolutely rely on them,” he said. “They were fantastic fighters, and they had your back. It’s good to know we’ll be fighting together again, French and English.”
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010