'I love you, I love you not'

As France and Britain mark 100 years of 'Entente Cordiale,' public sentiment remains wary.

It is not unusual, as you drive on a warm summer's afternoon through the sleepy villages of southwestern France, to come across men in white shirts and flannel trousers playing cricket. They are, of course, English.

They are among 100,000 Britons who have bought homes in France, counterparts to the quarter of a million French men and women living in England, and the hard core of their 12 million countrymen who holiday in France each year.

But do they symbolize the "Entente Cordiale" (Cordial Understanding), whose signature 100 years ago Thursday the Queen of England celebrated with a state visit to France this week?

Not exactly, to judge by recent opinion polls. These most distant of neighbors and best of enemies are still bedeviled by a millennium of mutual mistrust that their political leaders must struggle to overcome.

"The relationship between France and Britain reminds me of a family," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said recently. "Families are not optional and they are not always easy. When there are rows they are often all the more intense. But family members know they have a special bond."

Try telling that to the editors of The Sun, a down-market British tabloid that reacted to French opposition to the war in Iraq with a front-page photomontage of the French president's head atop a slimy, serpentine tube: "Chirac is a Worm," screamed the headline.

Or tell it to Victor Hugo, the great 19th century French writer, who described the battle of Waterloo, at which the British finally put an end to Napoleon's dreams of European hegemony, as "the complete, absolute, shining, indisputable, definitive, and supreme triumph of mediocrity over genius."

Alliances forged

The "Entente Cordiale," signed in London on April 8, 1904, was essentially a colonial carve up: France agreed to give England a free rein in Sudan and Egypt, while the British gave up any pretensions to Morocco.

But the deal served as the foundation for one of the longest running alliances in history, which strengthened in the heat of two world wars.

That alliance, and the two countries' geographical proximity (at its narrowest point, the sea between them is only 21 miles wide) have proved fruitful in a number of fields. London and Paris joined forces to build the supersonic Concorde airplane, their engineers built a tunnel together under the English Channel (which the French call "La Manche"), and each does 10 percent of its international trade with the other.

Despite all this, though, neither the French nor the English seem to be able to get over their history: so deeply does it inform their views of each other that it comes as a bit of a surprise to realize that they have not actually fought a war against each other for nearly 200 years.

True, that conflictual history does go back a long way: to 1066, when the Norman King William conquered Saxon England, through the Hundred Years' War (which in fact lasted 116 years, from 1337 to 1453), all the way to the Napoleonic Wars. British and French troops have fought each other in India, in Canada and America, in Egypt, and all over Europe.

Delayed reaction

Strangely, it was only after all this fighting was over, in the 19th century, that Anglophobia really took root in France, says French historian Jean Guiffan, and England earned its lasting nickname "Perfidious Albion."

On the other side of the Channel, the British had been calling the French "frogs" (perhaps in reference to their partiality for frogs' legs) for some time.

"The French say that the English don't like us, so we see no reason to like them, and the English say the same thing in reverse," says Mr. Guiffan, who has written a history of French Anglophobia. "Each side blames the other."

Neither her majesty's subjects nor "les citoyens republicains" have much faith in each other, to judge by an opinion poll published this week in the French daily Liberation.

Asked how much trust they put in other people, both British and French respondents said they trusted Spaniards and Germans more than they trusted each other, and the French - sacrebleu - said they trusted even the Russians more than the British.

Ignorance seems even more widespread than wariness. Asked to name three famous living French people, 60 percent of the British respondents could not come up with even one.

It is small surprise, then, that Mr. Straw hopes this year's "Entente Cordiale" celebrations will be "a chance for people to get to know each other better ... and to break down the stereotypes, which there are on each side of La Manche."

Common goals

Certainly there would seem to be a good enough basis for common enterprise: Both countries are former world powers seeking a new future in a united Europe, with shared democratic values and a readiness to pursue vigorous foreign policies.

London and Paris have been the prime movers behind a drive to build a European military force that could enforce or keep the peace in or near the Continent, for example, and the two capitals are thinking about jointly building their next generation of aircraft carriers.

But beyond that degree of cooperation lie profound strategic differences that have tugged Britain and France apart. Paris has chosen Germany as its primary partner in the construction of the European Union, for example, in the face of London's reticence about its European identity.

And since World War II Britain has always looked to the United States, more than to its European partners, for guarantees of security.

That has led the French to suspect London of being a Trojan horse in international affairs for Washington, and has made cross-Channel intimacy hard to imagine.

"The two capitals differ fundamentally over how to deal with American power," says Steven Everts, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank in London.

"Do you stay loyal in public, like Tony Blair, or do you state quite categorically when you disagree with Washington, like Jacques Chirac?"

One hundred years ago, France and England drew together in the face of a threat from Germany, mustering the political will to overcome their differences. Today, they are working together with Berlin to try to lead an enlarged European Union, but the same political question hangs over them, says Mr. Everts.

"What matters is not their political differences, but their willingness to make things work," he argues. "Can they come to enough substantive agreements to make unity worthwhile?"

Where England and France have crossed swords
The Norman Conquest


Norman King William conquers Saxon England in the Battle of Hastings, and later names himself King of England.

The Hundred Years' War

1337 to 1453

Series of smaller wars between England and France actually lasted 116 years.

The War of Spanish Succession


The Grand Alliance, including England, declared war on France and Spain to prevent the union of the French and Spanish thrones. Known as Queen Anne's War in North America.

The Seven Years' War

1756 to 1763

The war lasted for seven years in Europe. The French/British colonial struggle lasted for nine years in North America, where it is known as the French and Indian War.

American War of Independence

1775 to 1783

France joined the colonists in their struggle for independence from British rule.

Napoleonic Wars


Napoleon Bonaparte's wars ended with his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, against the armies of England and Prussia.

The "Entente Cordiale," signed in London on April 8, 1904, is the foundation for one of the longest running alliances in history. The Entente Cordiale, the Anglo-Russian Entente, and the Franco-Russian Alliance formed the Triple Entente between Britain, France, and Russia.

SOURCES: http://www.fact-index.com



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