Fair-Weather Friends

Apparently both Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair called for major celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale. I’m still waiting. Though the Entente Cordiale official website tells us that “this year’s celebrations have particular significance”, we are never told why beyond the simple fact that the agreement between the French and British was simply signed 100 years ago. And to hammer the nail of bathos home, the website only lists a measly four official ceremonies: the Queen’s two-day state visit last April, Tony Blair’s trip in May to the Elysée Palace for the Europe Day Reception, the Bastille Day celebrations, and to round up this gruelling calendar, Jacques Chirac’s outing to the UK this very month.

You may think that such events are celebration enough, but personally I think these ceremonies are all nonsense. Okay, I’ll grant you that even the revolutionary French, like many of us, enjoy ogling at the pomp and pageantry that accompanies the ambulant tourist attraction that is Elizabeth Regina. And nobody would deny that it is only right for a Head of State to be involved in such celebrations, especially as the driving force behind the signing of the treaty was, after all, the Queen’s great-grandfather Edward VII. As the young Prince of Wales, Edward appeared to shun the Teutonic values that his parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, were trying to instil in him. Unperturbed by his rigid schooling, the Prince of Wales was a morally relaxed character, socially adept and rather charming. But following Prince Albert’s death, whilst still furious with his son’s sexual encounter with an actress, Victoria went into mourning and worse: accused Edward of patricide.

In an attempt to escape his mourning and raging mother, the Prince of Wales frequently travelled across the Channel where he was a hit in the Parisian salons. The foundations of the Entente Cordiale were possibly laid when he met the French statesman Leon Gambetta in March 1881. But when Edward eventually became King in 1901 (therein the oldest monarch to ever ascend the throne at age 59), things didn’t look good between France and Britain. On top of colonial conflicts, there was also criticism of the anti-Semitic treatment of the Dreyfus affair on the one hand, and on the other the brutality of the second Boer War (during which concentration camps took on their negative meaning with close to 50,000 refugees killed within their confines). It seemed at the time that the best option for Britain was to join an alliance that already existed between Germany, Austria and Italy — you can probably see where this is going — rather than the French alliance with Russia. But things weren’t great between Edward VII and his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was in the throes of building a navy to rival Britain’s (and nobody was allowed to do that!). So, following a trip by the King to his old haunt to visit the French president Emile Loubet, the climate was set for the signing of a bond of trust.

In celebration of this intricate weaving of political intrigue, it seemed only fitting that Queen Elizabeth II should visit the Cadre Noir, the cavalry school in Saumur, to watch a little dressage. Let’s face it, the relevance of courbette — literally to kowtow — is striking in today’s Anglo-French affairs. But it seems to me that her visit was all too cordial. Surely, more fitting to today’s climate would be a debate between Her Majesty (Head of State and head of the Church of England) and Jacques Chirac (Head of State and head of political corruption) on the divorce of church and state and the democratic elections of national leaders. But perhaps I am asking for too much, and there wouldn’t be much room during all this revelry for any entente.

Of course, the signing of the Entente Cordiale would eventually lead to World War I, which in turn would be partly responsible for World War II, which in turn would be partly responsible for the European Community. So perhaps Blair’s meeting with Chirac for the Europe Day Reception was fitting, after all. And I got my debate. Both leaders took questions from a gathering of British and French students and journalists on such diverse themes as “the European Ideal”, “Europe and Daily Life”, and “Europe and the Rest of the World”. I know, I know. How can one cope with such a wide variety of topics? But what got me most, beyond the carefully camouflaged sugarcoated pap, was their originality (ahem). Surprisingly, rather than a cleverly contended cross-examination on the finer points of autonomy and the death of the Nation-State, what followed was a series of courbettes from Blair with lots of I’m-in-total-agreement-with-the-Presidents and you-are-as-always-very-wises. This beggars the question. Why did Blair decide to follow the trans-Atlantic lead when it came to Iraq, rather than follow the lead of his closest European partner? And does he give the same reverences to Bush that he afforded to Chirac?

For the first time in the history of Bastille Day celebrations, the Grenadier Guards, the Household Cavalry, the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, and the Royal Marines Band Service took part as guests of honour. Ironic to think that these soldiers, whose Commander in Chief is a monarch, should partake in a celebration of the moment when the Bastille prison was stormed, in effect ending the reign of the absolutist Louis XVI. But beyond a certainly valid questioning of why France chooses to celebrate its supposed freedom from the grip of a debauched family claiming the divine right to rule (no I’m not talking about Bush and his entourage) with an erstwhile Soviet-style arm-wrestle against an absent adversary, one wonders what we the people are supposed to feel as we are faced with so much collaborative marching. Either we choose to adopt the behaviour of peacocks as a put down in order to ward off any eventual conflict (I think we’re unlikely to go to war in the foreseeable future), or we strut around to show the rest of the birds what they would have to deal with if they picked on “me or my mate” (though the role of military allies is a tenuous one these days).

Of course, I’m not against being entertained by the troops. The aeronautical acrobatics of the Red Arrows is always a spectacle to be enjoyed. I can marvel at customised supersonic fighter planes narrowly missing each other as much as the next man (it usually is men marvelling at such death-defying feats of pointlessness). But when it comes to a bunch of similarly dressed people walking in step down a street, well to be quite honest, I’d rather watch Fame all over again; at least I’d get a song or two by Irene Cara thrown in. Alas, I can’t imagine Private Leroy (the king) doing a grand jeté over a French AMX-10RC tank, so someone please tell me what the entertainment value is.

Who knows what awaits Jacques Chirac in Britain this month? Undoubtedly more reserved politeness and discussions behind closed doors about the Middle East. To be fair, there are a number of provincial not to say parochial “cultural” and “scientific” events happening, lots of town-twinning and discussions about flooding. But the only possibly edgy events that might have given way to forums addressing both the collaborative and polarised political interest-centres that define the modern relationship between France and Britain have all been hijacked by the Entente Utopiste that is the EU.

Perhaps this is because today the centres of interest have changed. The Entente Cordiale signed on 8th April 1904 had less to do with guaranteeing the happiness of two peoples living in close proximity and more to do with avoiding war between two hugely imperial nations. In 1904 the main concern was the dividing up of Africa. So one could say that perhaps the anniversary of the Entente Cordiale has been overshadowed by neo-colonial interests; the focus no longer being on Africa but on the carving up of the Middle East — and at times of its inhabitants — and the wealth it can offer the West.

Maybe the real test of the treaty came with the invasion of Iraq. As France turned toward its biggest neighbour, Germany, Britain looked westward toward America. Today we could argue that Chirac’s desire to veto any deployment of troops against Saddam Hussein had more to do with contractual agreements for oil than a strong belief of moral injustice. But it would be naïve to believe that this undermines Chirac’s pre-war stance. Though this story only recently broke worldwide, any avid follower of French current affairs will have known about this for a year now. But the people he was elected to represent were against the war and so, democratically speaking, Chirac did the right thing, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. And although Republican supporters in the US have jumped upon this, it would be wrong for them to believe that this is solely a Franco-centric occurrence. It would appear that the American companies Chevron, Mobil, Texaco and Bay Oil also benefited from the oil-for-food programme. Now we must wait to see if it is deemed whether or not the players acted illegally.

Moreover, Chirac’s alleged actions need to be balanced against the involvement of the Bin Laden family with the Bush family’s former oil company, Arbusto Energy, Inc. Osama Bin Laden’s brother, Salem, the head of the Bin Laden fortune, had been an investor in the Texas-based company set up by George W. Bush. But we are wise enough not to be immature when it comes to thinking about world politics and realise that what really matters is the endgame. If only someone knew what the endgame was. Even an educated observer has trouble not succumbing to the Fox News-like media-fuzziness that deliberately confuses the War on Terror with the War in Iraq.

And what is the War on Terror? Is it a war against Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaida, all known terrorist groups (the rest of the world has been fighting against those for decades)? And where does the War in Iraq end? With the taking of Fallujah, with strikes against Iran, Syria, Palestine? And if the question of Iraq was simply a pre-emptive one, as we are now told, then why didn’t Bush start with North Korea, which surely poses the greater threat? Is it because North Korea actually does have the weapons to strike back which wouldn’t look good on Bush’s record of achievements which currently includes . . . err . . . well, he wouldn’t want a negative score now, would he? It appears then that Bush did the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Lucky he has God on his side, well at least, he has his god on his side.

So how did Blair come to the conclusion that the so-called Special Relationship outweighed the Entente Cordiale? Was it because Blair always did see himself more as an American-style president than a conventional British prime minister? Or was it because all of a sudden another born-again Christian with an evangelical bent was at the helm of a predominantly Anglo-Saxon country, and the world’s hyper-power to boot? Blair’s love affair with the US came to a head once Bush took place in the White House, but it quickly came to be an affair based more on S&M than mutual respect. Whilst Blair tried to convince his government that British involvement meant the possibility of influence, everyone else realised that blindly following the US meant that any chance of influence got lost up Britain’s little lap-dog nether-regions. As many have pointed out, the only Special Relationship Bush’s neoconservative entourage has is with Israel.

The problem is that Blair is both somebody driven by the need to please everybody all the time, and the fact that he is a do-gooder. Therefore, he can’t afford to do grand gestures towards a people for whom only nine percent of Brits feel any affinity (compared to 24 percent for Americans, according to an Anglo-French poll carried out on behalf of the Guardian, or towards an institution so despised by the British tabloids like the European Union. And like all do-gooders, neither can Blair stop himself from meddling in the affairs of those he deems are in need of saving. No need, then, for Cabinet approval as he knows he knows the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. So how could he not jump on the back of Bush’s crusading bandwagon?

I should state that I’m writing this a week before the US presidential elections, but I know, along with most people whose optimism has been corrupted by realism and cynicism, that Bush will win. In the lead up, the representatives of the Labour Party have been stating that Britain has no sway in the American elections. But in the meantime, to alleviate some pressure, Bush asked Britain if some of its troops could be moved north. We were told that this was a military decision. not a political one. Indeed, it seems obvious that the 130 thousand strong American troops needed the help of 850 Black Watch soldiers. I am a fool. But once again I fail to see what influence Britain has gained from its alliance with the US in this, except for its positive though undoubtedly small influence on Bush’s re-election. And amazingly this comes at a time when all the pre-election polls done in Britain and across Europe showed a population massively in favour of a Kerry victory.

However, even if the Blair feels closer to America than it does France, imagine if the Entente Cordiale had not been signed. The royal family’s German roots would probably have been strengthened, instead. As it was, Edward VIII wasn’t alone among the British ruling classes in having Nazi sympathies, and Hitler admired the British monarchy. Russia, the power that really did make sure the Allied Forces won the Second World War, would have struggled without Britain on its side. America came in late anyway, and with an initial ally imbalance this time it would probably have been too late.

So where does this leave the majority of us who realise that our future is in Europe, because that is where we live, and not in a country 3,500 miles away? Perhaps this was the importance of the Queen’s state visit to France. I do understand the underlying benefits of having a constitutional monarch as a head of state. Because the role is primarily diplomatic rather than political, it means that she can have dodgy world leaders like China’s head of state over for tea without causing too much of a stir (excuse the pun). I know this is cynical, but when Chirac did the same it didn’t go smoothly. He is a democratically elected representative of the people, and at the time the people weren’t happy with this. And because the Queen and her family aren’t subject to the swing vote, it also means that she represents historical lineage. So Elizabeth, speaking in Paris in April, reminded us that our two nations could not afford to be divided and that it was the enduring relationship that must be considered. Referring back to her great-grandfather she added, “we too need to recognise that we cannot let immediate political pressures, however strongly felt on both sides, stand between us in the long term”.

Speaking on the BBC television programme Question Time, broadcast from Miami this week, the Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn said that Britain and the USA had realised that they could not rely on fair-weather friends like the French. It is in fact vital that we realise that it’s Bush and his administration that are the fair-weather friends: to show the world that they aren’t insular demagogues, they’re glad to have the Brits onboard as long as they shut up and do as they’re told.

It is time to disassociate ourselves from the tabloidesque prejudices that plague our views of both France and Britain. The popular majority has always had a fondness for each other’s countries. It has always been la difference, which has kept us so consensually close. It’s not a case of Mésentente Cordiale, because it would appear that both nations know exactly what to expect from one another. Perhaps a more concrete translation of Entente Cordiale would be “We’ll agree to Disagree”. Just as long as we don’t forget to agree about that.