A rewriting of history over the role of the French in the Falklands conflict has gone unchallenged in the coverage of the Anglo-French treaty signed in London yesterday. I’ll come to that in a moment. That episode was part of the tissue of stereotyping, misunderstanding and rivalry that still lingers in the prickly relationship between Britain and France that was given full vent in the pop press. Newtownards’ favourite son Col Tim Collins led the charge in the Daily Mail, as noted in a comprehensive wrap by the French TV news channel.
An opinion piece in the Daily Mail by retired Royal Irish Regiment Colonel Tim Collins – titled “Will we ever trust the French?” – opens with a reminder that “Horatio Nelson famously instructed his officers that, ‘you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil’ and that the Duke of Wellington proclaimed: ‘We always have been, we are, and I hope that we always shall be detested in France.’”
By and large this stuff has been relegated to the level of football rivalry after hundreds of years when war was a normal instrument of policy in Europe. World War One changed all that. World War Two left the French with a embarrassing legacy of defeat in six weeks they’d prefer to forget and a chip on their shoulder amounting to a reluctance to forgive the British for helping them out ( or is this just a British distortion?)
What is easier to refute is the claim repeated in the press yesterday that the perfidious French went on selling their Exocet missiles to the Argentines as the Falklands conflict loomed, so exposing the British taskforce to disaster. In fact the French gave invaluable help to a sting operation that halted the supply of Exocets from a third source, as no less a person than the Defence Secretary at the time Sir John Nott pointed out. Why was the misleading version given such free rein?
This not to deny that the modern relationship is not a tangled one, born of the fact, as I see it, that the UK and France are two countries who often reach the same destinations by different routes.
“The French have become pragmatic, less history-obsessed,” explains the affable Dominique Moïsi, France’s leading geostrategy expert, chief adviser of the IFRI think tank, and a member of the Bilderberg Conference.
“We realise that David Cameron is completely committed to deficit reduction, so that it is not unthinkable that France would find herself the single nuclear power in Europe. That would make for a very uncomfortable position, under pressure from Germany, for instance, to give up on our nuclear deterrent.
“But if France and Britain share the costs of nuclear defence, then the whole concept is preserved. This is well worth an amount of compromise.”
And there you have it. If you’ve ever wondered why the British cling to their bomb, it’s not because the Russians, the Indians and the Pakistanis have it and the Iranians may want it. It’s because the French have it. The British can’t afford surrender the nuclear option becasue they’d lose face. Yesterday showed the feeling is mutual.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London