The Entente Cordiale: bad history but good politics

  • Themes: Europe, France, Great Britain, History

A popular feature of any discussion of Anglo-French relations, talk of an entente cordiale obscures a complex, often challenging history – but it remains an effective political tool.

Poster for the Franco-British Exhibition.
Poster for the Franco-British Exhibition. Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

Charles III has won many plaudits for the quiet dignity, understated eloquence and genuine warmth with which he conducted his recent state visit to France. As so often when dealing with royal diplomacy and/or Anglo-French relations, it did not take long for commentators to reach for the handy label of an entente, possibly even an entente cordiale. Half-remembered history, snatches of school lessons dimly recalled and fused with supposed insights from the past have congealed into a mythologised version of past Anglo-French relations that obscures a more complex history and is now projected on to the future to create a sense of direction and meaning. And yet, it might actually be rather good politics.

It hardly needs stressing that friction has been a more common feature of cross-Channel relations than cordiality. Beginning with the Hundred Years War, fighting each other was part of the political and cultural background, part of a growing sense of nationality, in both countries. The Anglo-French antagonism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, culminating in the wars against Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, entrenched such sentiments. It is not difficult to detect an undercurrent of these older animosities in more recent events. In President De Gaulle’s Non to Britain’s two attempts in the 1960s to join what was then the European Economic Community, realpolitik calculations were infused with a deep mistrust, rooted in centuries of Anglo-French rivalry. More gratuitously, by suggesting, in the summer of 2022, that ‘the jury is still out’ as to whether the current French president was ‘a friend or foe’ the then leadership-hopeful Liz Truss sought to mine a rich seam of (English) anti-French prejudice.

As for the entente, the historically informed might well ask which one the commentariat had in mind. Quite possibly not that of the 1840s, fostered by Lord Aberdeen, then foreign secretary and later the hapless prime minister who presided over Britain’s descent into the Crimean War, and François Guizot, his French counterpart, an admirer of the British constitution. Their bonne entente (or ‘good understanding’) helped to stabilise relations between the two countries. It was a fragile arrangement, however. A number of irritations, none of the highest order but each capable of poisoning relations between London and Paris, complicated matters. French ambitions in North Africa, Britain’s sustained campaign to suppress the slave trade – a sort of ‘ethical foreign policy’ avant la lettre – and, finally, the row over the ‘Spanish Marriages’ disrupted the bonne entente.

More likely, commentators had in view the 1904 entente when they tried to locate King Charles’s French sojourn historically. After all, the official visit to Paris by Edward VII in 1903 is still often thought to have broken the ice between the two countries. Yet, here, too, the parallel is far from exact. Talks for une entente (an understanding) had been in train for some time. In its essence, the arrangement concluded by the foreign secretary Lord Lansdowne and his French colleague Théophile Delcassé on 8 April the following year, was not an alliance but an attempt to settle various and often quite involved colonial or imperial disputes that had embittered Anglo-French relations for some time. Some of them had been a persistent, if low-level, nuisance since the early eighteenth century; for instance, the question of the Newfoundland fisheries. Others had the potential to flare up without much provocation and push the two countries to the brink of war, most notably the dispute over the control of Egypt. Ever since the Gladstone government had sleepwalked into the occupation of that country in 1882, thwarting French ambitions in the region, la question égyptienne had been a festering sore in Anglo-French relations, the cause of at least one nearly-war and always easily exploited by other powers. At the heart of the 1904 understanding was a form of imperial barter that recognised British overlordship of Egypt in return for a free hand for France in Morocco.

The removal of these complications was an attractive proposition in its own right. What made their settlement more pressing still was the imminent clash between Japan, with whom Britain had been allied since 1902, and France’s ally Russia. The outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war in February 1904 helped to expedite the conclusion of the Anglo-French understanding, and so helped to prevent the war from spilling over. The entente nevertheless had unintended consequences. At a time when the two European power blocs, the Franco-Russian and the Austro-German(-Italian) alliances, kept each other in check, settling long-standing colonial disputes with France was meant to make Britain more aloof from European affairs. For that reason, Lansdowne had also signalled to the Kaiser a ‘desire for an “entente cordiale” with him on all subjects which are of importance to both countries’. In practice, the reverse now occurred. Following its surprise defeat in Asia, Russian power reached its nadir so much so that there was no functioning balance of power in Europe. In consequence, during the Franco-German tensions of 1905-6 and afterwards, British diplomacy gravitated towards the French side, without however agreeing to a fully-fledged alliance. ‘[A] promise in advance committing this country to take part in a continental war is… a very serious [matter]’, noted Lansdowne’s successor, Sir Edward Grey, in early 1906: ‘it changes the Entente into an Alliance – and Alliances, especially continental Alliances, are not in accordance with our traditions’. In broad terms, British policy stuck to this line until it became redundant in the summer of 1914.

Historical imagery is infinitely malleable, and the images conjured up by the notion of the Anglo-French entente cordiale explain its attraction to commentators on current affairs. The historian may well baulk at this. In contrast to 1903-4, after all, the bonds between Britain and France are not in doubt. The task before King Charles was not that which his great-great grandfather faced one hundred and twenty years ago. But the soft power of royal diplomacy helped to underline what the two nations have in common in an increasingly hostile world. And it is here that what may be bad history may have its political uses.

The royal visit came against the backdrop of a noticeable improvement in relations between London and Paris over the past year. After the turmoil of the May government, the chaos of the Johnson premiership and the needle pricks of Ms Truss, trust was at a low ebb. Persistent squabbles over fisheries, migrants and borders added to this Anglo-French (and Anglo-European) cacophony. No doubt, there were faults on both sides. No doubt also, both sides have moved on since then. A few days before hosting the king, President Emmanuel Macron received the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, who may well prove to be the principal political beneficiary of the rapprochement that is under way. The importance of the meeting should not be exaggerated. Throughout his presidency, Macron has welcomed aspiring foreign leaders, such as Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019 and Olaf Scholz in 2021.

The Macron-Starmer meeting was an opportunity for both to get the measure of each other. Both hail from the centre-left and both have a background outside politics, in law and finance respectively. For Starmer, getting to know Macron was important to gauge the scope for his plans of negotiating improved terms for Boris Johnson’s not quite ‘oven-ready’ treaty in the context of the review process of the Brexit arrangements scheduled for 2025-6. For Macron, there is an obvious appeal to work with the likely next prime minister, who voted against Brexit and who has openly stated his intention to re-engage with the European Union in a more sustained and structured manner.

French policy has already moved on from the turbulence of the Brexit years. Cooperation with the government of Rishi Sunak is largely free of the friction that characterised Anglo-French relations after 2016. The optics have also improved. In March 2023, the first Franco-British governmental summit in many years was held in Paris, at the end of which the two leaders ‘reaffirmed our longstanding friendship and partnership… based on shared memory, common values, respect, and mutual interest, and a shared vision for our bilateral future’. Anyone who is familiar with French and European opinion will have heard frequent laments at the absence of a strategic dimension that British diplomats tended to bring to European policy-making. French diplomacy itself has sought to advance a series of ambitious new foreign policy priorities in recent months, with particular focus on EU enlargement, relations with Central and Eastern Europe, and an overhaul of Europe’s security infrastructure. Following Macron’s Bratislava speech in May, there has been a greater emphasis on asserting French interests in Europe, notably the president’s vision of ‘European Strategic Autonomy’ to counter a more aggressive Russia and to address the growing Sino-American rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere.

On the British side, too, there has been movement, suggesting a – for the moment, tacit – rapprochement with the EU. The Windsor Framework of February 2023 set the tone for a more pragmatic relationship, focused on solutions and common interests. It was telling, perhaps, that in the domestic brouhaha that followed Sunak’s recent decision to postpone the previously declared ban on carbon fuel cars from 2030 to 2035 an important detail was missed. Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of the decision, and whatever the prime minister’s motivations, he has tacitly realigned British climate policy with that of the EU – a tactic that can be discerned in other areas of policy as well.

There has been a corresponding shift in especially French and German attitudes towards Britain. The recent semi-official Franco-German paper on reforming the institutions and inner workings of the EU proposed a new type of associate membership. It opens up the prospect of the United Kingdom realigning with the EU below the threshold of full membership and the obligations that come with it. As things stand, such a step would come at the price of an independent UK international trade policy. Even so, not least because of its quasi-official imprimatur, the paper creates the necessary political space for a debate on future relations between the UK and the EU. That such a debate ought to take place is underlined by the catalogue of possible and necessary agreements produced by the House of Lords in April 2023, most notably in the areas of foreign and security policy, climate change and freedom of movement/migration. The UK government’s response was measured and, in substance, positive: ‘We are committed to a mature, constructive relationship with all our international partners’, affirmed Baroness Neville-Rolfe for the government, ‘includ[ing] the European Union. … [W]e intend to realise fully the potential of the trade and co-operation agreement, including in a range of crucial areas such as energy, trade, security and AI.’ Ministers are noticeably reluctant to establish a new institutional framework for cooperation, reflecting a traditional preference for informal methods: ‘[T]he frequency of meetings should not be seen as a measure of success. What matters is outcomes.’

Outcomes do matter, of course, and institutional frameworks per se do not guarantee them, let alone good ones. Franco-German relations, the core relationship in the EU, are encased in a range of bilateral institutions and treaties, and yet they are out of joint. The 2020 Treaty of Aachen, renewing the Elysée Treaty of 1963, stipulates that both countries define joint Franco-German objectives, but this has yet to happen. Berlin’s reluctance to supply Ukraine with ‘Taurus’ cruise missiles while Paris has already sent ‘Scalp’ missiles – the French version of the British ‘Storm Chaser’ system – speaks to a disjuncture between French and German defence and security policies. Military assistance to Ukraine is a pressing matter, but underneath this dispute there are serious disagreements about the ‘Sky Shield Initiative’ air defence programme, the ‘Tiger’ attack helicopter, a planned maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and the Franco-German ‘Main Ground Combat System’ tank project, the latter not entirely resolved by the recent meeting between the two defence ministers at Evreux in September. Elsewhere there are bitter disputes about the civilian use of nuclear energy, reforms of the EU’s energy market and migration policy.

All of this has implications for British foreign and security policy, and for the UK’s relations with the EU and its two largest powers. Franco-German disagreements are nothing new, but prior to Britain’s decision to leave the EU the UK often acted as a hinge between Bonn and now Berlin and Paris. Brexit affected that core relationship, and in turn this affects British interests – something largely ignored on this side of the Channel. In an increasingly hostile international environment, no British interests are served by EU paralysis. In France there is the only other European nuclear-armed power, comparable in size to the UK and with a similar global strategic tradition and outlook. Germany meanwhile shares many of the UK’s misgivings about French dirigisme, and economic and energy ties between the two countries remain strong – hence also the German finance minister’s recent invitation to the UK to take ‘new steps’ on trade relations with the EU. Defence relations with Germany are strong, and cooperation under the NATO umbrella in the Baltic States is close, and the planned significant enlargement of German military capabilities will offer further opportunities for cooperation. All three countries have broadly acted in unison in supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression, occasional Franco-German disputes about weapons systems notwithstanding, and Britain and Germany have moved swiftly to support Israel militarily in the current crisis. Defence and intelligence capabilities will remain vital components of Britain’s ability to leverage influence. The budget implications of this are obvious, and they are a matter of strategic judgment over national spending priorities at a time of economic contraction. Any increase must also include a significant upgrade of Britain’s diplomatic network, much neglected and curtailed since 2010.

The ‘Aukus’ arrangement in the Indo-Pacific and the ‘Atlantic Declaration’ of June 2023 suggest that the liberal order can reconstitute itself through ‘minilateral’ deals, in which different constellations of powers act together over different issues. But the history of the twentieth century also suggests that loose alliances without a proper infrastructure, though nimble in responding to specific challenges, are fragile and can easily decay. In a similar vein, it is time now to think about a new framework of co-existence and co-evolution within which Britain and the EU can identify complementary interests and develop strategies to secure them. The further development of the embryonic European Political Community, inaugurated in the autumn of 2022, including the establishment of a secretariat with a planning and coordinating staff, is also in Britain’s interest. This is the more important given the more uncertain state of American politics and the concomitant risk of a more uncertain US commitment to European security.

There is thus a basis for closer cooperation with Europe’s leading powers to further common interests in a range of policy areas, most notably in the field of foreign and security policy. Historical insights can be helpful here, not least in deepening an understanding that – as Eyre Crowe pointed out nearly one hundred and twenty years ago – to attain its objectives British policy had to be ‘so directed as to harmonise with the general desires and ideals common to all mankind’. This will entail some form of institutional framework, and here British policy can draw on a long historical tradition of creating such frameworks in a pragmatic, outcomes-oriented manner, reaching back to Lord Castlereagh, Sir Edward Grey, Sir Austen Chamberlain and Ernest Bevin. And royal diplomacy can play here, too. It is one of the ‘strategic muscles’ that British policy needs to start exercising again – but it is only one.

Memories of the 1904 entente will always frame discussions of contemporary Anglo-French relations. The precise nature between memory and history remains contested. As the French historian Pierre Nora has observed, ‘critical history’, by which he meant the professional academic discipline, is the enemy of memory. Of course, it cannot suppress or destroy it, no matter how much it chips away at it. In the case of the entente that may not be such a bad thing.

In their classic book Thinking in Time (1986) Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May tried to show how history might be of use to political decision-makers. Their conclusion was sobering. The most that history can be expected to teach political leaders is the need for prudence and caution. And in today’s world that, too, may not be a bad thing.

If you enjoyed this essay by T.G. Otte, listen in through the link below to find him in conversation with EI’s senior editor, Paul Lay:


T.G. Otte