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Time to modernize the Entente Cordiale

08 april 2021

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The spirit of the Entente Cordiale was idealistic, but the actual text is rather unpleasant

With Britain and France currently at loggerheads over vaccines, customs regulations and the nationality of mackerel, it feels like same old, same old – after all, we’ve been at each other’s throats pretty well continuously since 1066.

However, most people would agree that the western world really needs Franco-British friendship if global peace is to be ensured. Fortunately, we can always quote the Entente Cordiale, the agreement that we signed on 8 April 1904, to remind us of longer-term issues than the supply of AstraZeneca doses. Britain and France are, officially, allies. After all, the Entente was one of the main reasons why we stood side-by-side in two world wars, and through a cold one, too.

The problem with this is that the Entente Cordiale itself is horrifically out of date. If it were a statue, it would currently be surrounded by a protective ring of police or toppling off its plinth. It seems to be time for a serious post-Brexit rethink.

It’s lucky no one reads the actual text of the Entente Cordiale anymore. Here are some typical quotations:

On Egypt: “The Government of the French Republic (…) declare that they will not obstruct the action of Great Britain in that country.”

On Morocco: “His Britannic Majesty's Government (…) recognise that it appertains to France (…) to preserve order in that country.”

Similar assurances were given about Newfoundland, West Africa, Madagascar and parts of Asia. It was simply two colonial powers sitting down to divide up the planet.

This passive-aggressive text is all the stranger because the treaty was conceived in a true spirit of peacekeeping, at a time when Europe was already on the brink of war.

British and French armies had faced off in Sudan in 1898, and since 1899 the French had been opposing Britain’s war against the Boers in South Africa – though mainly because France coveted more of that continent for itself.

Conflict was also being threatened by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who wanted his uncle, Britain’s King Edward VII, to sign a triple alliance with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (like Wilhelm, a nephew of Edward’s). The basic idea was for the family to gang up and bash France.

However, Edward VII was that rare thing, an English monarch who was also a Francophile. He had (mis-)spent much of his youth in France, becoming a regular at Parisian can-can cabarets and brothels while he waited for his mother, Victoria, to vacate the throne.

But Edward had also used his gap years (or decades) abroad to get to know French politicians, including extreme republicans, and there was much mutual respect and understanding between them.

In 1903, Edward therefore agreed with France’s leftist president, Émile Loubet, that Europe did not need an aggressive Anglo-Russo-German mob. But with hostile public opinion in Britain and France, as well as pro-German sentiment amongst some British politicians, official dealings between Edward and Loubet would have been a hard sell.

So, with the aid of a very small group of diplomats, the French and British heads of state put together a James Bond-like plot involving a secret meeting between them off the coast of Morocco; a hurried parade down the Champs-Elysées for fear of a double assassination; a “chance” encounter in a Paris theatre with one of Edward’s former French mistresses; and a very modern manipulation of the media – all of which resulted in the signing of the Entente Cordiale a year later.

This Anglo-French show of unity kept the Kaiser in check – that and constant visits from Uncle Edward to calm the German’s belligerent outbursts. And after Edward VII’s death in 1910, the French declared that the man who “made peace less precarious” was gone. War was now much more likely.

So it’s clear that the original intentions behind the Entente Cordiale were idealistic.

Why, then, was the actual document so hideously colonial? Perhaps the politicians, miffed that they had been side-stepped by Edward and Loubet, wanted to take revenge and impose a little Realpolitik?

Whatever the reasons, the world still needs Britain and France to be formal allies. This is why it now seems timely to renew our vows, to conceive a fresh, politically correct, Entente Cordiale in the spirit of its original intentions.

In July 1903, when Emile Loubet visited London, he was presented with a gold casket that contained a parchment expressing Franco-British relations a much more idealistic way. It talked of cementing “the friendship which has existed unbroken for nearly one hundred years between the two (…) neighbouring nations.” It declared that the two countries shared a wish “to maintain the peace of the world, and that sentiments of international concord and sympathy may increase from year to year, promoting the advancement of human progress and the prosperity of the nations of the world.”

I would suggest that the Entente Cordiale has to be redrafted immediately, using similar – genuinely cordial – terms. Two or three well-conceived sentences should do the job. After all, who reads long treaties these days?