THAT SWEET ENEMY:
THE FRENCH AND THE BRITISH FROM THE SUN KING TO THE PRESENT
By Robert and Isabelle Tombs
Knopf, $40, 782 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY WILLIAM ANTHONY HAY
The legal philosopher Carl Schmitt argued that the distinction between friend and enemy marked the fundamental point underpinning politics. An extensive academic literature explores how cultures define themselves against “the other” — a rival fundamentally different from themselves — and captures a reality about human relationships evident from literature and ordinary interaction.
The 20th century world wars cast Germany as the natural enemy of the English-speaking peoples, with the Soviet Union taking its place during the Cold War. Indeed, Britain and the United States also viewed each other warily from the Revolutionary War through a gradual rapprochement in the 1890s. The two Anglophone nations served as a mirror through which each country saw itself by examining the other.
Anglo-French rivalry since the late-17th century, however, casts other such relationships into the shade. Robert and Isabelle Tombs make an impressive case in “That Sweet Enemy: The French and British from the Sun King to the Present” that Anglo-French rivalry dominates, and in many ways defined, the modern age.
Interaction between the two great nations set much of the agenda for European and global politics after 1688 while shaping culture with them. Conflict from 1688 through Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo marked a chapter followed by wary coexistence during the 19th century and a new understanding after 1904.
Self-criticism, emulation and even admiration played as great a part in Anglo-French relations as the old story of antagonism. Viewing history from the perspective of Anglo-French interaction presents familiar developments in a revealing light.
Europe invaded England with the coup d’etat William of Orange staged against his father-in-law James II in 1688. Fears that James might side with France rather than the Dutch-led coalition against Louis XIV helped detonate the Glorious Revolution as much as events within England.
The new involvement in continental affairs to block French ambitions under Louis XIV marked a departure from both the past preoccupation with internal divisions and overseas ambitions under Cromwell and James II. France and Britain became determined rivals, even when alliance during the 1720s followed a peace of exhaustion that ended Louis XIV’s wars.
Emigres from both sides — French Protestants and British Jacobites — became conduits for intellectual traffic. Despite renewed war in the 1740s, both sides looked to the other as a guide. Conflict, however, made the French and British each define themselves in contrast to their rival.
France had double the territory and three times the population of Britain, and twice its gross domestic product even in 1788, but institutions forged after 1688 enabled the British state to raise far more money than the French. From the mid-18th century, the French sent more official and semi-official observers to Britain in hopes of bringing back the secret to creating wealth.
France, too, had attractions that made Paris a prime tourist destination. If London offered the commercial world of modernity, France provided grandeur and aristocratic salons that became the forcing house of the European enlightenment. Where Britain pioneered technology, France took the lead in science. Military prowess marked a counterpoint to Britain’s maritime preoccupation, and British army officers, including the future Duke of Wellington, learned their profession at French academies despite the 18th-century wars.
Intervention in Britain’s war with its American colonies brought the climactic wars of the French Revolution when France spent itself into insolvency. Financial crisis — and failure of institutions to resolve it — produced domestic upheaval followed by European war.
Voltaire, Montesquieu and other French intellectuals had been fascinated by British institutions, often misinterpreting them. Some saw George Washington and America as a guide, while others looked ominously to Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. The French Revolution attracted British radicals including Tom Paine and Mary Wollestonecraft, many of whom returned home disillusioned.
France offered one version of liberty, while Britain defended a very different version. Edmund Burke had no illusions about the revolutiuon, and his view shaped British attitudes through the ideological struggle that lasted until Napoleon’s defeat.
Peace in 1815 set a different tone, and the age of the political juste milieu brought a meeting of minds among British and French liberals. A turning point came with the second republic in 1848, when French leaders ruled out war with Britain. Thereafter, despite a few scares as late as the 1890s, competition was confined to cultural and economic spheres.
Stereotypes formed in the 18th century shaped later views confirmed by patterns of economic consumption. France produced luxury goods that set the standard for taste, while Britain provided cheap goods and efficient services. Robert and Isabelle Tombs sketch the cultural dynamic of 19th century Anglo-French perceptions with verve.
Victorians saw Paris as the capital of vice, with France as a land of decadence and debauchery. The excitability of its people, with their tendency to periodic revolution, marked another theme in British views of France. Gray skies and the landscape created by the industrial revolution shaped French impressions of Britain, as well as experience with nave and prudish tourists crossing the channel. Perceptions, despite their inaccuracy, followed a standard pattern.
Relations changed after the Franco-Prussian War, when France became in British eyes a victim rather than a villain. Protestant Germany turned from a model of progress and culture to the epicenter of militarism. French attitudes also shifted as Germany became the natural enemy, and both politics and popular culture reflected a change the two world wars solidified.
Service in France created the biggest single experience of “abroad” for British men, and Britain’s efforts during Germany’s wartime occupation gave French opinion a voice. World War II left different impressions on both countries, but it was a largely shared experience. Britain and France responded differently to the challenges of Cold War, decolonization and globalization, but they occupied a similar niche as major powers with a strong national identity.
Indeed, as the Tombs show, far from becoming member states of a new Europe, Britain and France retained their independence along with a lingering rivalry that illustrates the thin line between love and hate.
William Anthony Hay, an historian at Mississippi State University and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is author of “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.”