THAT SWEET ENEMY: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present
by Robert and Isabelle Tombs
William Heinemann £25, 624 pages

Just over a year ago, I interviewed a French parliamentary deputy about Franco-American relations on the eve of George W. Bush’s visit to Europe. After delivering a critique of the folly of Washington’s imperial adventures in the Middle East, this deputy concluded with a grin: “You know, we may from time to time have our disagreements with the Americans but we have always reserved our special hatred for you, the English.”

Such an open expression of affectionate detestation fits the central theme of That Sweet Enemy, a deftly written and meticulously researched book that charts more than three centuries of cross-Channel admiration and antipathy. The authors, a British academic and his French wife who teaches at the Foreign Office, argue that the bilateral relationship has been one of the most intense, troubled and significant of modern times. The rivalry between this “infernal couple” has shaped the development of both countries and of Europe and has had an impact as far away as North America, India and the south Pacific. One only hopes the authors’ relationship has been less tempestuous.

The narrative begins in the 17th century with the reign of Louis XIV when France was Europe’s leading military and economic power. With a population of 20 million, the largest in Europe, France dominated the continent. It regarded the three kingdoms that were to form Great Britain, with only eight million people, as the sixth-ranking regional power. But confrontation with France forged Britain’s political and financial system and defined its identity.

The need to resist Catholic French hegemony encouraged Protestant English leaders to invite William of Orange to seize the throne and later led to the union of Great Britain. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a pragmatic compromise giving executive war-fighting powers to the monarch while reserving revenue-raising responsibilities for parliament. The soundness of Britain’s fiscal regime allowed the government to borrow huge sums from the City of London at low interest rates.

At times, during the incessant conflict that raged in Europe between 1688 and 1815, Britain was able to devote five times the proportion of gross national product on military spending as France. That helped it survive six of the 12 greatest wars in history, build an awesome navy that expanded its colonial empire and trade interests, and win the victory at Waterloo. “Warfare, not ideology, transformed English politics,” the authors state. “The combination of the House of Commons and the City of London was to create a world power.”

By contrast, the absolutist monarchy in France lurched from crisis to crisis in its public finances, defaulting six times in 70 years. Sub-contracting the state’s tax-raising functions to ruthless tax farmers created discontent and fuelled the French revolution of 1789. According to one French politician: “We only made the revolution to become masters of taxation.”

From the mid-19th century, Britain and France started fighting wars together rather than against each other. This led to a surge in fascination between the two societies - although for obvious historic reasons the Irish, Scottish and Welsh have had a different attitude to the French from the English (even if the French often lump them together as les Anglais).

It is striking to learn just how long ago national stereotypes were formed and for how long they have endured. In the early 17th century, a French ambassador commented that fog, beef and beer predisposed the English to spleen and suicide. Two centuries later, French writers ascribed Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality to Anglo-Saxon furniture, Liberty fabrics and the undesirability of skinny English women made “mannish” by sport.

Queen Victoria noted that the French were so “fickle, corrupt, and ignorant, so conceited and foolish that it is hopeless to think of their being sensibly governed…I fear they are as incurable as a nation though so charming as individuals.” A study of British opinion towards the French conducted between 1939 and 1941 found the stereotype to be “of a voluble, excessively excitable, often slightly bearded and somewhat lecherous personality”.

Although the book focuses mainly on military and political history, it is packed with detail and anecdote. One learns, for example, that Louis XV approached the British embassy in 1749 to provide him with 300 English-made condoms. Or that Burnley Miners’ Club remains the world’s biggest single consumer of Benedictine liqueur thanks to the Lancashire regiments that acquired a taste for it during the first world war.

The authors’ conclusion is that almost for the first time in history Britain and France face each other on equal terms. Both countries are middle-sized European powers, with murky imperial pasts and a sense of civilising mission that tend to take themselves more seriously than other countries do. In terms of gross domestic product, population, life expectancy, murder rates, Olympic gold medals won and even average age of first sexual intercourse, the two countries are “non-identical twins”. The most striking differences are that Britain has won twice as many Nobel Prizes (88 to 44) and has lower rates of unemployment and road deaths.

But this convergence does not seem to have produced any greater empathy. In anthropological terms, the authors suggest France is a more hierarchical, cautious and feminine society, while Britain remains more egalitarian, risk-taking and masculine. French people go to Britain to earn money; British people visit France to spend it. Britain is a global entity (thanks to its presumed “special relationship” with the US) trying to be European; France is a European entity trying to be global.

Arguably, the two countries are Europe’s natural partners and could achieve great things together. Yet, as recent disputes within the European Union have shown, national antagonisms remain a stumbling block. “We are the only nation in the universe that the English do not despise,” noted one French writer in 1759. “Instead, they pay us the honour of hating us as heartily as possible.”

John Thornhill is the editor of the FT’s European edition.

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