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The European union that never was

The revelation that the French government proposed a union of Britain and France in 1956 — even offering to accept the sovereignty of the British queen — has left scholars on both sides of the Channel puzzled.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Would France have been better off under Queen Elizabeth II?

The revelation that the French government proposed a union of Britain and France in 1956 — even offering to accept the sovereignty of the British queen — has left scholars on both sides of the Channel puzzled.

Newly discovered documents in Britain’s National Archives show that former French Prime Minister Guy Mollet discussed the possibility of a merger between the two countries with British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden.

“I completely fell off my seat,” said Richard Vinen, an expert in French history at King’s College in London. “It’s such a bizarre thing to propose.”

Eden rejected the idea of a union but was more favorable to a French proposal to join the Commonwealth, according to the documents. One document added that Mollet “had not thought there need be difficulty over France accepting the headship of her Majesty (Queen Elizabeth II).”

Hands across the Channel
While the two nations — separated by a thin body of water, the English Channel — have been bitter rivals since the Middle Ages, the two EU partners now concentrate on trading tourists rather than arrows. What animosity remains has been relegated to world culinary name-calling, with the French and British reduced to froggies and rosbifs (roast beef) respectively.

Proposals for Anglo-French unity are not necessarily new. English royalty claimed the title of “King (or Queen) of France” into the 19th century.

Winston Churchill, in a last-ditch attempt to keep France on the side of the Allies in World War II, appealed for a full union of the two nations in June of 1940.

After the war, Ernest Bevin, Britain’s foreign secretary, also toyed with the idea of a “Western Union,” a European and African bloc led by Britain and France.

The proposals all shared an element of desperation, said Kevin Ruane, a historian at Canterbury Christ Church University, England. “It’s so impracticable an idea that it has only been raised in extreme situations,” he said.

Threatened by an Arab revolt in French Algeria and hobbled by instability at home, France was desperate to maintain its independence from both the Soviet Union and the United States, Ruane said. Eden, who fought in France during World War I and spoke the language fluently, might have seemed particularly approachable to Mollet, a former English teacher.

France under the queen’s rule? Comment bizarre!
But even under the circumstances, the suggestion that France accept the British queen struck historians as bizarre.

Mollet was a Socialist, and left-wing Frenchmen looked to the execution of French King Louis XVI as one of the crowning achievements of the French Revolution. They would have been unlikely to welcome a foreign monarch with open arms. “It must have been some kind of eccentric gesture,” Vinen said.

The former French leader’s memoirs showed nothing about the proposal, said Francois Lafon, a history professor at La Sorbonne in Paris and a Mollet biographer. Lafon suggested it was probably a political tactic to pressure the British to firm up their role for the imminent attack on Egypt.

A year after Britain turned down France’s proposed merger, the French joined the Common Market, the European Union’s predecessor. By the time Britain tried to join seven years later, the tables had turned.

Charles de Gaulle had brought a new order to French political life and largely revived its international standing, even as Britain’s economy continued to stagnate. De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s attempts to join the European Economic Community — twice.

“In retrospect, the irony of this was that the losers were the British,” Vinen said. “Maybe we’d be in a better position being ruled by Charles de Gaulle in 1965 than Harold Wilson.”

Not all Frenchmen were so sure.

Roast beef and frog legs
“Can you imagine?” said Jose-Alain Fralon, author of “Help, the English are invading!” “What would the English tabloids do if they could no longer tell stories about the froggies, and what about those French who blame everything on the English?”

The British, he added, are “our most dear enemies” and “we would lose all of the saltiness in our relationship” had the two countries merged.

Still, he said, the two peoples complement each other marvelously.

“Roast beef and frogs don’t go together in the same dish. But frogs’ legs as a starter and a good roast beef as the main dish — c’est merveilleux,” he said.

The documents, which have been declassified for more than 20 years, were found by a BBC producer late last month.