When a century ago the British foreign secretary Lord Landsdowne and the French foreign minister Theophile Delcasse signed the agreement that was soon dubbed the Entente Cordiale , they could not have realised how important a watershed it was. What began as a deal over various colonial issues became an increasingly close relationship in a world growing more dangerous. Ten years later it became a life-or-death alliance in World War I, and during the fraught inter-war period a partnership attempting vainly to keep the peace. During World War II the two countries struggled together for the freedom of Europe and their own survival. Since then, they have been leading partners in European politics and the chief representatives of Europe and defenders of its interests in the outside world. This book explores the understandings and misunderstandings that make up the Entente Cordiale - the hundred-year relationship between Britain and France, as well as the everyday common interests and shared pleasures that give it substance.
The actors include monarchs and politicians, soldiers and Resistance heroes, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, engineers, tourists, expatriates, sports stars and students. Many hands have made light work of the story. Those who tell it have themselves contributed to history. They include the late Roy Jenkins, in a witty and personal view of Winston Churchill's relationship with France; Pierre Messmer, a companion of Charles de Gaulle during World War II and later his prime minister; former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, who remembers the historic meeting of Edward Heath and Georges Pompidou; Hubert Vedrine, a former French foreign minister, on the difficulties of cross-Channel relations; and their successors Dominique de Villepin and Jack Straw. Protagonists and witnesses are balanced by analysts and scholars from both countries. Not all are professional historians. They include well-known writers ranging from John Ardagh, Miles Kington and Gillian Tindall to Maurice Druon, Andre Fontaine and Jacques Viot. Their work has been welded into a coherent whole by the Franco-British editorial team.
What the book reveals, again and again, is the importance of looking beyond agreements and disagreements to the unspoken assumptions that underlie conscious thoughts and policies. Only thus, as experience shows, can the Entente be truly Cordiale.
Douglas Johnson is professor emeritus of French history, University of London.
Richard Mayne is a writer and broadcaster. He was personal assistant to Jean Monnet, a senior official of the European Commission, and for six years its UK representative.
Robert Tombs is a reader in French history at the University of Cambridge, and the author of France 1814-1914 (1996).