Sarkozy proposes an ‘Entente Amical’ between Britain and France
France and Great Britain have historically been never quite friends for long and never quite enemies for long. Even during the Napoleonic Wars they had a grudging respect for each other. Voltaire, in the days of the Enlightenment, admired Britain, its constitution and its achievements and he and later intellectuals picked over and compared British experience and French experience in political, cultural and economic terms. The French Revolution started with hopes of being similar to the ‘Glorious Revolution of 1688’ and ended very differently. Today, Sarkozy, who is seeking reform in France along lines not dissimilar to those achieved by Margaret Thatcher a generation ago, is now making similar comparisons. Sarkozy was greeted by the Queen today in Windsor at the opening of the State Visit to Britain. What political changes in the relationship between Britain and France is Sarkozy proposing? How receptive will the British be to the changes?
Sarkozy’s State Visit to the United Kingdom is being treated as a very significant occasion. The President of the French Republic is being singularly honored by being given direct access to a joint meeting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, a political platform that allows him to speak directly to every shade of represented political opinion in the country. Sarkozy has gone to Britain determined to make every opportunity count with respect to his political message count. France is changing. It is willing to praise Britain and learn from the British experience of economic reform and economic flexibility. Roughly 300,000 French citizens live and work in the UK where unemployment is lower and opportunities greater than in France. Sarkozy is willing to re-engage with the world, with the UK, with the United States and with NATO. France under his leadership is willing to send troops to Afghanistan. He talked about reforming the Common Agricultural Policy as well. Sarkozy wants Britain firmly attached to the rest of Europe and a closer alliance with France will help secure that. He wants a new ‘entente’ between Britain and France and he is willing to dedicate himself to bring this about. He will follow up these initiatives in his political meeting with the British Prime Minster, Gordon Brown to be held on Thursday. Sarkozy recognizes Britain’s special links with the United States but in a quote on the BBC web site he is reported as saying ‘Certain people in France call me Sarkozy the American. I’m proud of it. I’m a man of action. I do what I say and I try to be pragmatic’. The fact that he campaigned for French votes in London during the Presidential election was an early signal of change.
There is a price to pay for this for the UK for it is not admiration pure and simple that brings him to London. It is also pragmatism. Sarkozy has not spelled out what he means by Britain becoming more involved with France and with Europe. The Franco-German cooperation, though under some strain, will continue. Sarkozy wants a Europe with a military capacity within the NATO but distinct from it. He wants senior appoints within NATO to be French. The British want to strengthen the transatlantic aspects of the NATO relationship and fear that Sarkozy’s ideas may actually lead to a weakening of the Transatlantic Alliance. If he is to sell his idea to Washington, he needs to have UK support. If he wants to see an economically dynamic Europe and not simply a protectionist Europe, then Britain’s voice needs to be heard loudly. If he cannot sell his idea to Britain, he may just keep beating a path to doors of the White House. The offer of troops for Afghanistan is a sweetener, for Afghanistan is now a significant military problem, but also a measure of his good faith in the sense that France is back and willing to define anew its role in Europe and the world.
A 19th century cartoon in Punch carried the caption ‘fog in the channel, continent cut-off’. The British press has had bouts of anti-French sentiment over the years but especially during Chirac’s Presidency. Sarkozy is pointing out once again to the British public that France is on its doorstep and that France, modern and modernizing, wants a new relationship. He can point to an existing pattern of working with Britain. He more than anyone achieved the closure of the infamous Sangatte Immigrant Camp that was little other than a jumping-off point for illegal migration into the UK. It will be interesting to see if and how perfidious Albion succumbs to this current outbreak of French charm.