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On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the signature of the Franco-British treaty which was the beginning of the Entente Cordiale, Lord Vansittart, former permanent Head for Foreign Affairs, spoke to the British listeners of the BBC on the night of the 11th of April, just after the nine o’clock news bulletin.
We reproduce below, in French, the complete text of his address:
Just forty years ago was signed the historic Anglo-French agreement: and, as I was intimately concerned with its course from beginning to end, I’ve been asked to give some account of it. It was high time for understanding. The two countries were usually bickering about some wishbone of contention and behaving rather like naughty children in the naughty nineties. On both sides of the Channel there were vague and tenacious memories of the centuries during which we had fought each other. Of course, the old battles were so out of date that they ought to have been out of mind; but they weren’t because most people aren’t particular about dates. So we still talked of the French as frogs, while they talked of us as rosbifs. The British stage Frenchman was an amorous gesticulating chatterbox, and the Briton of French caricature and comedy was a figure of unfriendly fun with long teeth and drooping red whiskers. Our common enemies were only too anxious that this state of things should continue.
I’d grown used to this chilly atmosphere, when in 1903 I was sent as an attaché to our Embassy in Paris. Then in 1904 came the great change. France and Britain actually agreed about something, indeed quite a lot of things; the world seemed suddenly to have gone sane . It felt so normal to have drawn closer to our closest neighbour, and so silly not to have done it sooner. I’ve never forgotten that Spring in Paris. One doesn’t usually notice Springs enough when one’s young.
The political differences between the two countries seemed supremely unimportant to me: one has something better than international affairs to think about at that time of life. The differences never seemed quite serious even when I was older. There were moreover very serious reasons why we should be friends. Here were two peoples next door to each other, with splendid records and tranquil desires. Between them they had contributed more to civilisation than any other two countries. Why shouldn’t they combine to guarantee, peace on which civilisation depends? One didn’t need to be old or clever to see how much we had both done for the art of living, and that’s an enormous bond. What else are we here for after all?
There were naturally temperamental differences, but they didn’t seem quite serious either; besides if one waits for identity one will never have a friend. I felt then exactly what I wrote when France fell in 1940:
“So we were mingled, destined side by side
To face a world we could not face alone.”
Alone we couldn’t face what was coming, and came in 1914; but in 1904 it did seem possible that the new friendship might change the face of the world. There’s something wrong with those who aren’t optimists at twenty.
The Treaty didn’t look anything remarkable. We cleared away some troubles, and undertook some diplomatic obligations - that was all. But the Germans didn’t like it for two main reasons. They wanted to show France that she mustn’t do anything important without German permission, and they wanted to keep us isolated. So in the next year they tried to break the agreement, and the French were forced to discard their Minister of Foreign Affairs, who had negotiated it. I remember saying timidly to a French politician: “I hope you’re going to keep him”. And he replied: “What exactly can you or will you do to help us?” Of course I couldn’t answer. That was frequently the dilemma.
So the start was shaky; but agreement grew, mainly because it was the natural course for us both, but partly because the German threat forced it into its second stage - the Entente. We wouldn’t go as far as an Alliance. We were afraid of becoming a European power, though we weren’t far enough from Europe to avoid that destiny. I think everyone realises that now, but in those days the Channel still looked broad, and we used expressions like “I’d no more dream of doing this or that than flying.”
It’s arguable that the first World War might have been avoided if our relations with France had been more clearly defined. I’m personally convinced of this. As it was, we might have been fools enough to leave France to her fate when the long-expected war did come, if the Germans hadn’t been greater fools still and forced us to respect our moral obligations by tearing up theirs and marching into Belgium. In 1914 the Entente was at last welded into an Alliance by the most pregnant act of perfidy in all the long German tradition.
Four years of war, sacrifice and victory should have drawn the Alliance closer, but we were both tired and irritable after the great effort. France was completely exhausted; she had lost more than twice as many men as we, though her population was smaller. We both began thinking too much with our heads and not enough with our hearts. The real trouble began when we and the Americans persuaded France to renounce her plan for security on the Rhine in return for an Anglo-American guarantee, which the Americans failed to ratify. We foolishly followed their example. Thereafter French policy was governed by fear, which turned out to be only too well founded. The French were still afraid of the Germans, and we were still afraid of becoming a European power. So the Allies began to fall out, and German propaganda leaped into the breach. The ill-humours of the naughty nineties began to creep in again.
The breach widened when the French went into the Ruhr. The action was unwise but not unnatural, because the Germans were deliberately bilking on reparations. We were entitled to stand aside, but not to cry out almost as loudly as the Germans. Again German propaganda exploited the opportunity. The face of the world wasn’t changing after all; indeed the old wrinkles and crows’ - feet were reappearing. I sometimes fancied that Anglo-French relations might even go into reverse and, having progressed from Agreement through Entente to Alliance, regress from Alliance through Entente to Agreement-and not even enough of that.
Outwardly there seemed no change in the relationship, but inwardly it was deteriorating. To be a whole-hearted Francophile in those days was to be a member of a criticised minority. The same process was at work on the other side on the Channel. My opposite number, the head of the French Foreign Office, once said to me: “We could count on our fingers those who are really keeping the Entente together.” That Spring day of 1904 was passing to midsummer madness.
The two democracies had their pacifism in common, and both failed to note or to check Germany’s growing preparations for her Second World War. When the danger began to loom, we should both have done better to realise that criticism, like charity, should begin at home. I needn’t touch upon the contentious events of 1938 and 1939. It may simply be said that we lost faith in each other, and that France lost faith in herself.
There will be historic interest but no political advantage in arguing who failed whom and why. If the argument is begun in my time, I shall have something to say, but not tonight. It will be enough to recall that we were saved from the fate of France by those twenty miles of sea that seemed so broad in 1904 and so narrow in 1940.
Let’s rather look to the future. France has suffered immeasurably for shortcomings that we shared; but where there are no graves there are no resurrections, and we shall see in France not only a resurrection of the body politic but of the spirit that makes alive. To that spirit the men of the Maquis are already bearing witness. When the art of living has triumphed over the science of killing, I shall look forward to our old unity, though it will henceforth be part of a wider unity. No narrow friendship can now ensure our common prospects; that is where we were too optimistic forty years ago.
But there’s an IF in all this. If we really mean to recover lost ground in more than the geographical sense, we must both avoid recrimination. The failure of an ideal does not affect its validity - thank God; and I’ve only touched on the weaknesses of the Entente because I want to revive it without them. We must remember when all is said and done - and preferably earlier - that together we did break the first attempt of the new barbarians to enslave mankind; and mankind might have been more lastingly grateful to us both had we been more lastingly grateful to each other. We must remember too that, if the French were infected by German propaganda in the inter-war years, so were we. That propaganda has been intensified during the occupation. It hasn’t checked the overwhelming hatred of the Germans, but it has been industrious to sow distrust of the Allies. If we are to defeat the Germans in that field too, we must resist all tendency or temptation to interfere, or direct, let alone dictate. Only the other day General de Gaulle said that France “declines to take lessons from abroad”, and France may be a test case. It will be both foolish and fatal to treat liberated countries as if they couldn’t manage their own affairs.
May I give you one example? The peoples of the occupied countries are naturally not going to forgive the quislings who betrayed them. They will cleanse their own house as they choose. Do please let us mind our own business. There are unhappy tendencies in this country and the United States to barge into other peoples’ domestic affairs. We must understand in advance that the liberated peoples will be sensitive. They will be grateful for release, but we shall revive neither this nor any other entents except by the cordial of tact.
The story of the Entente contains a further lesson for us. One cannot have a policy without a very simple principle: never shake the confidence of friends by listening to foes. To ignore that rule is not diplomacy but lunacy. I’m still optimist enough to believe that in this respect at least the coming generation will be wiser and therefore happier than my own.