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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 November, 2004, 12:46 GMT
Britain and France: 'l'amour violent'
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

President Chirac's description of relations between France and Britain as an "amour violent" reflects the fact that the old rivalry has not ended.

President Chirac and Prime Minister Blair
Chirac and Blair: entente still cordiale?

A hundred years of the Entente Cordiale, an alliance through two world wars and more than 30 years together in the European community has changed a lot but not everything.

The president was speaking on the eve of a two-day visit to Britain to celebrate the Entente which put to rest centuries of warfare without quite putting to rest centuries of suspicion.

His phrase "violent love" does not quite catch the reality of it. It goes over the top a bit.

'Mad with love'

You can see what "L'amour violent" means from the song of the same name by Johnny Halliday, France's only contribution to rock music. Rock and roll is one sphere in which the French have never bothered or been able to compete. Johnny was already going strong when I first went to Paris in 1963.

The rivalry is almost as intense today as it was when General de Gaulle twice vetoed British entry into the European Common Market

In a rough translation his words say: "Violent love is too much happiness. It is like a cry of pain. I laugh, I cry. I feel I am dying. I am mad with love."

Do the British and French feel like that about each other? I think not. The feeling is more like that of rivals for another's hand. There is some mutual respect, there is some mutual distrust. There is both admiration and scorn. There is envy and disdain.

To outsiders, this is rather comic. They can see that both peoples are much the same, if very different. They are opposite sides of the same coin. And the sad fact is that the value of that coin is very much diminished these days.

But the rivalry goes on. Indeed it is almost as intense today as it was when General de Gaulle twice vetoed British entry into the European Common Market in the 1960s.

'Tireless advocate'

It is not only in the small things - sport among them - but in the worldview each nation holds.

Call it a bridge, a two-lane motorway, a pivot or call it a damn high wire - our job is to keep our sights firmly on both sides of the Atlantic
Tony Blair
The transatlantic crisis over Iraq has thrown up all the issues predicted by the old general.

Britain has sided with the United States. France has led the opposition.

And in comments this week, the leaders have both restated positions that are mutually antagonistic, not in the sense of rudeness or hostility, but in the sense of a diverging understanding of how the world, especially the European part of it, should work.

Tony Blair said in his Mansion House speech on Monday: "Britain should be proud of its alliance with America, clear in its role in Europe and a tireless advocate of a strong bond between the two."


And he used the old metaphor of Britain as a bridge, while throwing in a couple more.

"Call it a bridge, a two-lane motorway, a pivot or call it a damn high wire, which is how it often feels - our job is to keep our sights firmly on both sides of the Atlantic."

President Chirac, in an interview with British correspondents before his visit here, repeated his vision of a powerful Europe as a counterbalance to other world centres like the United States.

"We are heading, inevitably, I have said it before, for a multi-polar world, in which there will be an American pole, a Chinese pole, a South American pole, an African pole, I hope, and a European pole."

In a BBC interview he has also challenged one of the bases for the Iraq war, saying that the world was not now a safer place.


British attitudes to the rest of Europe will be tested again in the referendum on the European constitution, probably in 2006 if Mr Blair wins re-election.

But even if that is approved, the fundamental problems will remain. How far will the UK want European institutions to develop in the years ahead? How far will France press for European-only solutions?

In all this, the role of the British monarchy, at least, has been a benign one. Edward VII was cheered by the Paris crowds in 1903. Indeed the Entente was his idea. Elizabeth II is always welcomed in France, especially in the north where wartime memories of the British are favourable.

It is something both sides can applaud while putting their differences aside for the moment. And so it will be on this visit.

Chirac questions US-led Iraq war
17 Nov 04 |  Middle East
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16 Nov 04 |  UK Politics
End Bush 'denial' Blair tells EU
05 Nov 04 |  UK Politics


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