- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

LONDON — Could France have been better off as subjects of 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 scholars on both sides of the channel astonished — and a lot of Frenchmen spluttering with disbelief and indignation.

Newly discovered documents in Britain’s National Archives reveal that 50 years ago Prime Minister Guy Mollet discussed the possibility of a merger between the two nations with British Prime Minister Anthony Eden.

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

Mr. Eden rejected the idea of a union but liked the French proposal to join the British Commonwealth. One document says that Mr. Mollet “had not thought there need be difficulty over France accepting the headship of Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II].”

While the two nations — separated by a narrow body of water called by different names in France and England — have been bitter rivals since the Middle Ages, the two EU partners now trade tourists rather than prisoners. What animosity remains has been relegated to world culinary name-calling, with the French and British reduced to calling each other froggies and “rosbifs” (or roast beefs).

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 1940.

The proposals all shared an element of desperation, says Kevin Ruane, a historian at Canterbury Christ Church University in England.

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, Mr. Ruane says. Mr. Eden, who fought in France during World War I and spoke the language well enough that the French were not notably offended by his accent, might have seemed particularly approachable to Mr. Mollet, a onetime English teacher.

But even under all those circumstances, the suggestion that France accept the British queen strikes historians as bizarre, and Frenchmen as unspeakable.

Mr. Mollet was a socialist, and Frenchmen usually regard the execution of 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, though not necessarily the guillotine.

The Mollet memoirs show nothing about the proposal, says Francois Lafon, a history professor at La Sorbonne in Paris and a Mollet biographer.

A year after Britain turned down France’s proposal, 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 improved its international standing, even as Britain’s economy stagnated. Mr. de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s attempts to join the European Economic Community — twice.

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

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