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Entente Cordiale at 115

Marking 115 years since the end of a Franco-British rivalry

Like many a neighbourly relationship, the French and British have not always seen eye to eye. It’s not simply a case of not getting on, more a question of never-ending competition; perhaps the ultimate in one-upmanship or keeping up with the Joneses.  

The term ‘entente cordiale’ is more than an abstract expression of a genial understanding between two parties. It specifically refers to the Entente Cordiale of 1904, an agreement signed on 8 April by the British and French. It marked the end of  nearly a thousand years of sporadic conflict between the two nations and the beginning of a new, more enlightened and pragmatic approach to 20thcentury geo-politics.

A little history

‘Historic rivals’ is a phrase often heard in the same breath as France and Britain (or England). There is, of course much in common. A good deal of entwined history for starters: Roman occupation and a shared alphabet formed the basis of deep-rooted common ground with much of the English language stemming directly from the French.

William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and subsequent centuries saw fluctuating fortunes on both sides underlined by a perennial need to out-do, surpass or conquer the other.

Medieval times were complicated with intertwined monarchies, the Plantagenets ruling much of France as well as England. The concept of nationhood, and its definition, was a fluid matter and this Angevin empire was eventually lost during the time of Richard the Lionheart and his successors. It was certainly a time of political intrigue, strategic marriages and dynastic engineering, not to mention many bloody episodes.  

L'entente Cordiale - British Pathe footage from 1939

The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) was a turbulent time, with great battles at Crécy and Agincourt and a cameo role played by Joan of Arc who ensured her place in history as a unique unifying force for the French. The main shift during these years was that, for the first time, the English and the French each united politically in their own, respective identities and language. Anglo-French relations would never be the same again.

During Renaissance times things got famously competitive between Henry VIII and his French counterpart Francis I. Each tried to out-do the other in martial prowess, artistic ability and sheer magnificence. In 1520 the Field of the Cloth of Gold, held near Calais, was a massive boast-a-thon with each vying to eclipse the other.

The Napoleonic era was distinctly confrontational with the British forces facing Bonaparte’s men from the Battle of the Nile, through the Spanish peninsular, Trafalgar in 1805 and culminating at Waterloo in 1815.

Vive L'entente Cordiale! - British Pathe footage from 1927

From that point on things calmed down a little. As allies during the Great War and World War Two, Britain and France learned to jog along together without major incident. Indeed after 1945 they were founding members of NATO (though President de Gaulle famously distrusted the British for being too close to the Americans and so blocked the UK’s entry into the European Common Market.

An island nation

In an apocryphal leader, The Times once famously thundered “Fog in the Channel. Continent cut off”. Though this was never actually published it does neatly demonstrate the impact this narrow stretch of water, just 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, has had on the British psyche.

Or to put it another way, the English Channel is what made Britain what it is. But it also made the British what they are.

It has been noted that the British see themselves as a nation of independent-minded individuals, while the French are more enthusiastic about the concept of the state. The British are naturally wary of anything appearing to represent the Nanny State or Big Brother tendencies, while the French more readily embrace the unifying appeal of the umbrella entity (the état) that binds everyone and everything.  

Postcard celebrating the Entente Cordiale
Postcard celebrating the Entente Cordiale

Matters of national pride

Despite centuries of war, long-held prejudices and petty grievances, there has always been a great deal of mutual admiration flowing in both directions across the Channel.

Shortly after the Entente Cordiale was signed, Louis Blériot was the first to cross the Channel in a plane in 1909. This landmark event was timely and immediately celebrated as a symbolic event connecting the two countries. There was an outpouring of both bonhomie and goodwill.

Some national pride issues remain forever unresolved, in terms of ‘who is the best?’ Always in a good natured way… of course.

Rugby

A game born in England, then introduced to the French who began regularly beating the English. Today both teams are invariably of a pretty evenly matched standard (ahem, well most of the time). So the rivalry is intense, the expectations are high and the disappointment can be crushing.

Wine

St Emilion, Côte d’Or, Margaux… just some of the great names of the stellar French wine world. Internationally renowned and rated, for sure, but are they always better than certain English wines? Some would beg to differ, championing the new breed of white wines from the South Downs and Kent, or the world-class English sparkling wines that have out-gunned French champagnes (famous labels at that) in international competitions and blind tastings.  

Fashion

Aficionados of a finely tailored Parisian jacket with exquisite detail may argue with followers of the edgier urban fashions for which London has become famous. Of course both are correct but few things stir the passions of national pride more than fashion and the ‘look’.  

Cheese

It’s a brave person who tries to conclusively argue that Camembert is better than Cheddar. Or that Stilton is better than Roquefort. This is a debate that will never cease, from the picnic spreads on French campsites or at England’s Glyndebourne, to the dinner tables of Paris and London.

The future

All light-hearted, if intense, rivalries aside there is plenty to be positive about. The Brits and the French have long shown they can work together and create extraordinary projects. They can organise the Normandy Landings of D-Day in 1944 or, more parochially, hundreds of town twinnings – surely the epitome of entente cordiale?

In terms of capturing the public imagination, take Concorde, a joint engineering project. This magnificent beauty flew between 1969 and 2003, oozing style and decadence and distilling the Hollywood glamour of the Joan Collins era. Or the Channel Tunnel which opened in 1994 to concerns in some quarters but which was quickly celebrated as a triumph of engineering and cultural advancement.

Regardless of constant peeks over the neighbourly fence to compare and contrast, to admire or sneer, it seems the entente cordiale is here to stay. And with an estimated 350,000 French living in the UK and 400,000 Britons resident in France, it seems that the future will be inextricably linked, come what may.

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