Alright, we all knew that Queen Elizabeth II’s passing would make for special editions, breaking news live coverage, etc. But I didn’t expect to be that big, especially in France. Hell, Putin could nuke Kiev today and I feel like it wouldn’t make it to the news ! So, let’s take the opportunity to give some personal thoughts about the UK, the Commonwealth, and french-english friendship 🇫🇷🇬🇧
I don’t have much to say about the Queen herself, and personally I strongly remain in favor of republican institutions. But as Frédéric Bastiat once noted, what matters is not so much the form of government, so long as it respects individual liberty and property. I do understand that such an old nation would want to keep certain ties to its past, and if the monarchy is its way of doing it, then so be it.
The Queen’s passing, however, had me reflect on a much broader and more important issue : that of the franco-british alliance and friendship. I am often pessimistic about human tendencies to fall for the traps of war and plunder instead of peace and free trade. So I really find it amazing that after so many centuries of bitter wars, those two nations, France and England (and now the UK) decided that yesterday’s arch-enemy would become tomorrow’s closest ally in Europe. France and England partly built their national identities in the context of the Hundred Year’s War. As Georges Minois mentions in his excellent history of this war (succession of wars, rather), it is during this period that common people and nobles alike started to identify as French or English rather than mere subjects of the Duke of Guyenne, Burgundy or Normandy. Notably, Henry V was the first English king to use the help of interpreters when negotiating with the French Crown. If you add all the subsequent struggles over religion, colonies, world trade, etc, and then of course the disastrous Napoleonic Wars, it is truly extraordinary that in less than a century, those two nations became allies.
Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the reasons and context of this new alliance. Just some basic background : the Cobden-Chevalier free trade agreement, and also the rise of Prussia and then Germany. The alliance was becoming logical a some point, but would it hold in the face of difficulty ? It did hold in 1914, which is already admirable when considering that the English, after all, could have remained more isolated and not commit so strongly (to the point of madness, but that’s another subject) to the trench warfare of the western front. The most amazing part comes in 1939, when the British fought almost alone against Nazi Germany. How resilient were these people in the face of shortages, bombings and shameful surrender of their closest ally ! How amazing that Winston Churchill, a descendent of old English aristocrats would be so supportive of France, especially in the worst of times ? That he would support De Gaulle against all odds, and despite the latter’s uncompromising personality ? And what about that crazy project of a full-on union of our two countries ? And let’s not forget : the USSR was an ally of the nazis until they found themselves invaded, Spain was neutral but pro-german, the rest of Europe was either defeated by Hitler or at war with Mussolini’s fascist Italy… It really took courage to keep on fighting, and the British did it until the odds became more favorable and then the tide of the war turned altogether.
“France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union. The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defence, foreign, financial and economic policies. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain, every British subject will become a citizen of France.”Shlaim, Avi (July 1974). “Prelude to Downfall: The British Offer of Union to France, June 1940”. Journal of Contemporary History. 3. 9: 27–63.
I am also still amazed that France and England managed to incorporate Germany in the new plans for a peaceful Europe based on trade and cooperation. The result was that for the first time in our history, several generations enjoyed a life free of major catastrophes (hunger, plague, etc.) and free of major wars. If only we had stuck to those fundamental principles of peace and trade, instead of letting the EU become a bureaucratic monster that now arguably creates more problems than it solves…
Another point that strikes me is just how visionary the British were in the process of decolonization. This is not to deny all the atrocities committed in the name of the British Empire, as with any Empire. But instead of fighting useless wars – which were already lost politically – like the French did in Indochina and Algeria, the British took their time and followed a more peaceful process with their former colonies, even managing to keep ties through the Commonwealth. Their cultural legacy paved the way for such economic miracles as Hong-Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.
So, regardless of the Queen, the King or the President, I can only hope that young generations understand how much a radical decision to project two nations in the future rather than the past has changed millions of lives, including theirs. This change for the better can only last so long as we understand what enabled it in the first place. Accepting to see the world economy as a positive-sum game played a huge part in the process, and this idea is not so obvious today to many people, including world leaders. It really was a gamble, a leap of faith made by men who had the courage to face hostile public opinions instead of taking pride in seeing enemies everywhere but home. Let us not forget that democracies always prevail in major world conflicts, so it is crucial to remain close to those who share the values of individual liberty.
The power of a country largely resides in the quality, inventiveness and resilience of its people. Focused on individual liberty and sovereignty in normal times, and yet capable of resisting as a unit in times of trouble. Even though the “greatness of France” is not something that really matters to me – I would rather see my fellow french citizens prosper than cling to a vague collective notion as if to forget about their trivial but more pressing issues – I strongly believe that France has everything to gain from keeping the UK as an economic, military and cultural ally. This friendship is an unlikely outcome of history, which makes it even more important to preserve.