Many Brits may be fuming over their toast and marmalade this morning while ogling newspaper pictures of Presidents Trump and Macron and their wives having a high old time in Washington, amid talk of a new ‘special relationship’ between the United States and France.
Wait a minute, the breakfasters exclaim, spitting blood and coffee all over the tablecloth, the special relationship is supposed to be between the United States and Britain. When have the French ever done anything to deserve such an honour?
Well, actually, a great deal.
The French acted as midwife to the birth to the American Republic. It was France that won the Revolutionary War for the colonies, my history books tell me. When the British General Lord Charles Cornwallis found himself in a sticky military situation at Yorktown, Virginia, it was the French fleet that bottled up him and his army, and there were French troops fighting alongside their colonial allies under Comte de Rochambeau. In fact – or at least according to Wikipedia, which may not be quite the same thing – French battle casualties were double those of the Americans.
And what, to continue the theme of Franco-American collaboration, is the inspiring sight that greets travellers sailing into New York Harbour? It is, of course, the Statue of Liberty. And who built it? The French, that’s who built it. It was designed, I see, by one Frederic Auguste Bartholi, and constructed by Gustave Eiffel, more famous for his tower in Paris. The statue has become the best known symbol of American liberty, other than anything with George Washington’s name on it, and it was given in 1886 by the people of France to the people of America.
In two world wars, the French were allies of the Americans. The French Army performed splendidly in the first war, and if it did not do so well in the second, every country has moments of madness and shame. France was one of the three western powers that administered Germany after the war, and kept the Russians at bay (or as Vladimir Putin would no doubt have it, the other way round).
Britain’s supposed special relationship grew out of those two wars, particularly the second, when the soldiers of both nations fought side by side and prevailed against the tyranny of Nazism. Britain’s stubborn refusal to surrender, as voiced by Winston Churchill, caught the imagination of the American public, or at least a section of it. A wave of sympathy for Britain’s plight led to such phenomena as Bundles for Britain and Lend-Lease, even before America itself had entered the fight.
But Britons who still believe in the Special Relationship, that there really was one, tend to confuse American generosity with American self-interest. The United States got by far the better of the Lend-Lease deal. Britain got a couple of dozen destroyers that were heading for the scrap-yard anyway. The United States got some very valuable bases. Subsequent American loans to Britain were required to be repaid, and were repaid, in full measure, which is more than most countries can say. The last payment was made just a decade ago, signed by Ed Balls, the Treasury official in charge of such matters at the time.
The special relationship is a figment of imaginations on both shores of the Atlantic, mostly the eastern side. America usually does nothing outside its own borders unless it suits America’s interests or turns a decent profit. America helped Britain win the war, it is true, but not from any altruistic impulses, even if there were some in Washington who entertained such feelings. The United States entered the war only when Hitler foolishly declared war on America after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Up to that point, the America First Movement had hounded President Roosevelt to stay out of foreign wars, and until the Japanese attack he had no choice but to comply if he wished to remain in office.
Brits tend to think of Americans as ‘our cousins’. They are no such thing. The English settled parts of America’s eastern seaboard, of course, and the language spoken in all fifty states is English, but the French took large chunks of territory to the north and west of them, and Spain was meanwhile busy colonising parts of the south-west (sometimes with French help). At the outbreak of the Second World War (1941 if you are American, 1939 if you are British) the population of the United States was by no means Anglo-Saxon in origin. The biggest waves of immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century were Germans, Italians and Irish. They, and other nationalities, outnumbered those of British stock by a very wide margin. By the way, none of those three main ethnic groups had any reason to like the British; two had just gone to war with Britain, and the Irish had been at war with its neighbour for as long as anyone alive could remember.
Donald Trump may actually like Emmanuel Macron, and he has a feisty, fun-loving wife. He certainly does not particularly like Theresa May, and it must be doubted that he would find Mr. May much of a laugh. In any event, Mr Trump has more to gain from starting an affair with America’s oldest ally, than renewing one with preachy, starchy old Britain, no longer good for much except venues for new golf courses.
The Special Relationship is no longer, if it ever was, a relationship of any kind – and things will probably stay that way.
‘Vive l’Entente Cordiale’, as they say in France.
And ‘C’est la Guerre’, as they mutter across La Manche.