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The Entente Cordiale: Croissant Diplomacy and Teatime Treaties

Despite the occasional political turbulence and asymmetry in national interests, history would support that the values underpinning the Entente Cordiale – signed 120 years ago this year – have in fact existed for over eight hundred years, and will likely endure long into the future.

Historic connection: a member of the Scots Guards and a member of France's 1er Regiment de le Garde Republicaine shake hands during a ceremony to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale

This year is the 120th anniversary of the signing of the Entente Cordiale between France and the UK, an event that marked the end of eight centuries of on/off conflict, during which the pair fought each other 43 times. France was victorious on 26 occasions, England/Britain won 11 times, and there were six draws. Yet these centuries did witness periods of cordiality between the two, who even found opportunities to fight on the same side. History would argue that the Entente Cordiale was nothing more than a formal recognition of a reality that had prevailed for the previous eight centuries: one in which the two countries would work together when their interests aligned, but were not obliged to when they did not.

The Entente was not a treaty in the formal sense, but a set of agreements that focused on resolving foreign policy and colonial disputes between the two countries. It was also not an alliance for mutual defence. The UK and France were therefore free to act in their own interests. In the words of British Foreign Office official Eyre Crowe:

‘The fundamental fact, of course, is that the Entente is not an alliance. For purposes of ultimate emergencies, it may be found to have no substance at all. For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content.’

The earliest example of such an alignment of interests came in 1189, when Philip II and Richard I buried the hatchet for three years to undertake a religious alliance during the third and largest ‘King’s Crusade’ to the Levant. In 1658, the two countries allied against the Spanish at Dunkirk’s Battle of the Dunes. England was rewarded with Dunkirk by the French, while France concluded its war with Spain the following year with territorial gains. The confusing wars with Holland between 1672 and 1674 saw their national interests align again. It was initially understood that the alliance was an attempt to exact revenge for England’s humiliating defeat during the Raid on the Medway in 1667, but it was later discovered that Charles II of England had signed the Treaty of Dover in 1670 agreeing to support Louis XIV of France in return for secret payments that Charles hoped would make him financially independent of Parliament. Victory for France would have given it more territory, but this was not to be.

The war of the Quadruple Alliance between 1718 and 1720 saw France and Britain (following England and Scotland’s union in 1707) join forces with Austria and the Dutch Republic to respond to Spain’s invasion of Sicily. The alliance was formed in opposition to Philip V of Spain’s attempt to unify the French and Spanish crowns following the death of Louis XIV in 1715, despite having renounced his claim to the French throne two years earlier in the Treaty of Utrecht. For the British, it also reflected hostility generated by Spanish support for the Jacobite movement that sought the installation of James Francis Edward Stuart as King of England. The result of this period was a cementing of the post-1688 constitutional balance of power in British domestic politics and the independence of the Spanish and French crowns.

History would argue that the Entente Cordiale was nothing more than a formal recognition of a reality that had prevailed for the previous eight centuries

Just 30 years after Waterloo, the two undertook a five-year naval blockade together at the Rio de la Plata (off Argentina) to further their own interests in the markets of Argentina. The Crimean War, between 1853 and 1856, saw the two align again, this time against Russia, which had laid claim to Turkey. The British were concerned that Russia’s possession of Turkey would threaten the Royal Navy’s dominance in the Mediterranean. At the same time, the coalition presented France with an opportunity to demonstrate its military might and recover its once dominant role in European politics.

The final time that the two countries sided together before the Entente was signed was the joint invasion of the Qing Dynasty during the Second Opium War between 1856 and 1860. Both countries sought greater access to Chinese markets and diplomatic representation in Beijing.

In every instance, the reason for siding with each other was to defeat a foe that threatened their national interests more than they threatened each other. With the exception of the Crusade, which could be described as a religious campaign, the treaties and alliances between France and England all came after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In international relations terms, this marked the recognition of the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. That is not to say that the two countries always abided by these principles, but their actions after 1648 would imply that that there was a form of recognition of sovereignty between the two. In fact, history would suggest that they never fought for possession of each other’s home territories (mainland France and the British Isles) after that date, although the Napoleonic era does test this theory to the extreme, with the last ever battle between the two countries being fought in Belgium at Waterloo in 1815. There were ‘near-wars’ further afield, such as the Fashoda Incident in 1898, and the tragedy of Mers-el-Kébir after the fall of France in 1940, but on the whole, the two countries understood each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which provided a natural separation between their sovereign interests.

In the ‘modern’ era, Britain’s interests lay in the protection of its empire and the supremacy of the Royal Navy which allowed that empire to exist. For France, while it had its own empire which was equally as important, being part of mainland Europe meant that it had to contend with threats from both the land and the sea. Coming to a more formal agreement with Britain would allow it to concentrate on the burgeoning land threat posed by Germany, which, at the turn of the 20th century, was having its own Great Power designs. These designs inadvertently triggered a response from Britain, which had growing concerns over Germany’s maritime aspirations. This security dilemma eventually saw Britain join with France and Russia in the Triple Entente of 1907 ahead of the outbreak of the First World War of 1914–18, and reflected Britain’s efforts to maintain the European balance of power after 1815.

Similarly, despite initially courting the idea of Hitler’s Nazi Germany being a potential ally against the rise of communism in the 1930s, Britain again aligned with France to maintain its industrial advantage over Germany and the Royal Navy’s supremacy. For France, an alliance with Britain was seen as the only way to ward off a baying Nazi Germany that sought reprisals for the Treaty of Versailles. After the fall of France in 1940, the Anglo-British alliance was positioned to take a step further when the idea of combining the two countries to become the Franco-British Union was mooted by Jean Monnet, the architect of what was to become the European Union. This idea was seriously considered by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, but was ultimately rejected by the French Cabinet.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 refocused European attention on core values, and once again the UK and France find themselves with similar interests against a common foe

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Western Allies went on to form NATO, and while France – as the leading non-native English-speaking member – has, from time to time, felt that it was the estranged cousin within the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ alliance, the new trilateral relationship with the US has endured. This has not been without its highs and lows, as France and the UK have continued to follow their own interests. The Austrian State Treaty of 1955 can be seen as an early high point in their cooperation, whereas the fallout from the Suez Crisis of 1956 can be viewed as a significant low point.

The outcome of the Suez Crisis and the fall of the Fourth French Republic in 1959 saw the return of Charles de Gaulle as president, who provided a refocusing of France’s global vision through his politics of grandeur. While the UK and France were unlikely to come to blows, there was a definite cooling in France’s relationship with the UK and the perceived ‘Anglo-Saxon’ alliance. This was displayed in France’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command structure in 1966 and its pursuit of its own autonomous vision in world affairs. For the UK, it saw its future within a ‘special’ relationship with the US. The European project, underway since the 1957 Treaty of Rome, became the focus for France and an afterthought for the UK (which joined in 1973, after being vetoed by de Gaulle in 1963). While the two countries have rarely seen eye to eye on European issues, they have remained loosely aligned on global issues, even if France continues to remain somewhat guarded towards the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and will often retain its own distinctly French approach to any global situation. This was seen in France’s absence during the US involvement in Vietnam, its opposition to the Iraq War in 2003, and more recently in its more appeasing stance towards Russia (which has now fallen more into line with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ led perspective).

The Lancaster House Treaties of 2010 were a watershed moment in the renewal of the Anglo-French relationship. Again, these treaties did not provide for mutual support (now covered within the NATO Charter), but sought to outline future defence and security cooperation. After 14 years, the values of these treaties still ring true and are coming to fruition, with the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force concept now proven (but not yet used in anger), the sharing of nuclear test facilities and shared procurement projects such as the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon and Maritime Mine Counter Measures system. Of course, there has also been the occasional spanner in the works, such as Australia’s cancellation of its agreement with France to procure diesel-electric submarines in favour of the UK/US-supported AUKUS nuclear submarine project in 2021. For France, it has taken some time for that wound to heal, mainly due to what it considered to be the underhand way the arrangement was announced to the world. Yet France and the UK have continued to work together in delivering the expectations of the Lancaster House Treaties, as highlighted in Libya (2011–12), the Sahel (2020–22) and – with a similar expeditionary mindset – across the globe on exercises and operations.

While Brexit can be viewed in many ways, the drivers for it centred around British interests. The detrimental effect on the Anglo-French relationship was only momentary and predominantly driven by politics. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 refocused European attention on core values, and once again the UK and France find themselves with similar interests against a common foe. Despite the turbulence of politics, national interests and even the odd rugby match, history shows us that the Entente Cordiale has existed in principle for 835 years, despite only being signed 120 years ago. The two countries’ shared interests and values, all of which are encapsulated in the idea of Entente Cordiale, are likely to endure.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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