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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 November 2006, 09:29 GMT
France's own lesson from Suez
The main lesson France drew from the Suez Crisis was that its future lay elsewhere than in a close relationship with America and Britain, Hugh Schofield reports from Paris.

French troops arrive in Port Said 10 November 1956

The French are normally assiduous about remembering military anniversaries - even the nasty ones like Dien Bien Phu, Mers el-Kebir or Trafalgar.

But there is something about the Suez crisis that has inspired collective amnesia. It's not that the French are embarrassed by what happened. It is just that they have forgotten.

While in Britain, the 50 years since the airborne invasion of the canal zone are being marked with reams of hefty analysis and a three-part BBC drama documentary called "A very British crisis", in France the occasion is being passed by in almost total silence.

The prime reason, according to historian Philippe Vial, is that Suez - for France - got buried by the rush of other cataclysmic events:

Suez convinced French leaders... that Europe was the future
Robert Tombs
Cambridge historian

"In Britain, Suez became the symbol of the end of imperial destiny. It had huge resonance. But in France there was too much else going on. The government had just hardened its line against the insurrection in Algeria, and then in January began the battle of Algiers. Suez got squeezed out of the national memory."

On top of that, in 1958 Charles de Gaulle swept to power in the wake of the Algeria crisis. With the new Fifth Republic, events and politicians associated with the discredited ancien regime disappeared from public consciousness. History started all over again.

The irony, says Mr Vial of the Defence Ministry's historical service, is that the French were in fact much more gung-ho than the British were about the co-ordinated plan - with Israel - to retake the recently nationalised canal and if possible topple President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

At the time France was closely allied to Israel, which was fearful of the emerging Egyptian strongman.

Largely thanks to the work of a young emissary called Shimon Peres, Paris had supplied the young state with Mystere IV jets as well as technology for a nuclear bomb.

French muscle

Also, although the government in Paris was a left-wing alliance - including Francois Mitterrand at justice - its views on the Algerian pro-independence movement were now uncompromisingly tough. It believed that doing away with Nasser would help relieve the pressure on its beloved colony.

French soldiers in Port Said 2 November 1956
Some 17,000 French troops were deployed, veterans say

"What we know now is that France got wind of Israeli plans for a pre-emptive strike on Egypt, and said to them 'Hang on, let's see if we can work something out with Britain'," says Mr Vial.

"Britain had its own reasons for wanting to get rid of Nasser, and the government was caught totally by surprise by France's enthusiasm."

France handed to Britain military command of the invasion but it provided 50 naval vessels and several squadrons of aircraft temporarily stationed in Cyprus while French paratroopers, battle-hardened in Indochina, easily outperformed the British who were still traumatised by the Arnhem experience.

According to the French Association of Veterans of Suez and Cyprus, 17,000 servicemen were involved - directly or indirectly - in the invasion, and there is considerable resentment today that they have never been recognised as "war veterans".

Indeed enquires today about Suez at the French veterans' affairs ministry elicit a frosty "On ne sait rien" (trans: We know nothing about it).

"The government says we were only 60 days in the war zone so we don't qualify because the law says you have to be there for 90 days to get social and pension rights as veterans," says association president Andre Painsecq.

"But that is rubbish. Some of us were out there for much longer. The British got far better treatment."

New direction

To mark the anniversary, the defence ministry in Paris is in fact hosting a three-day seminar in the conflict which Vial hopes will challenge some long-held preconceptions.

Charles de Gaulle announces his veto on UK entry in 1963
De Gaulle did not want the UK in the European Economic Community

One of the problems of French neglect of Suez, he says, is that historical interpretation has been almost entirely carried out by "les Anglo-Saxons".

"When you read the literature, you get the impression that this was - to quote the BBC series - a very British crisis.

"But that is not accurate. It was a very French affair too."

Indeed for many historians, the impact of Suez on France and its perception of the world was even greater - if less direct - than on Britain.

The French emerged from the crisis convinced that they had been betrayed and humiliated by the British who - under pressure from the Americans - had simply stopped fighting.

"So there was a complete reassessment of the relationship with the US," says Robert Tombs, Cambridge historian and author of That Sweet Enemy on Franco-British relations.

"The feeling was: We can never trust them again, and we have to find new ways of making ourselves secure.

"At the same time, it affected attitudes to Europe. Famously, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, on learning of the disaster, told the French foreign minister 'Europe will be your revenge'.

"Suez convinced French leaders - and after 1958 that meant de Gaulle - that Europe was the future."

In the 1960s, de Gaulle translated the new policy into action: withdrawing from the military command of Nato in 1966, and twice vetoing British entry into the European Economic Community - mainly out of fears that Britain would adulterate Europe's vocation.

Ambivalence towards "les Anglo-Saxons" of course predated Suez.

But from the late 1950s, suspicion of Britain and the US became semi-official Gaullist policy, as France sought to project an independent voice in the world via Europe. Much followed.


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