Voisins terribles: a short history of Anglo-French rivalry since the dawn of time

One would think an ocean, rather than just a channel, separates the two
No we don't actually hate each other, ok we do.

No we don’t actually hate each other, ok we do.

Forget the Cold War, forget Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, if humanity has ever had a rivalry for the ages it is that between Britain and France. But just when we thought the seeds of discord had been buried in the sands of time, the recent spats between the two countries as a result of the Euro crisis have reminded us that old habits die hard. And I mean really old. As historian Desmond Seward notes in his short but classic account of the Hundred Years War, “Undoubtedly the antagonism between fifteenth-century Englishmen and Frenchmen reflected a genuinely national xenophobia. By Joan of Arc’s day, at least, the French were already using the word Godon – ‘God-damn’ – to describe an Englishman.” Touché.

Admittedly, one must be at least thankful that the rivalry between these two old and proud nations now extends only to the realm of politics, trade and sport. After all, it has taken almost a millennium of savage conflict to realize that differences are better settled on the football or rugby field rather than the battlefield. And one must not deny that behind the veneer of hatred and envy, there is also a less visible feeling of mutual respect and gratitude. After all, how many thousands of Britons did not give their lives in the trenches of the Somme or the hedgerows of Normandy? And how many Frenchmen did not die defending their country from the Kaiser and the Fuhrer so that Britain would not be next? Nevertheless, let’s travel back in time to explore the most noteworthy historical moments of the Anglo-French rivalry since the dawn of time.

Devensian glaciation (10,000 BC)

Many thousands of years ago (and long before the Eurostar reconnected them), there was a time where only a desolate patch of tundra separated Britain from France. But Planet Earth decided that continental Europe was not big enough to have Englishmen and Frenchmen sharing the same landmass. So as the glaciers from the most recent ice age receded and the tundra slowly slipped under the waters, the English Channel was born, turning Great Britain into the island that it is today. Englishmen and Frenchmen, though they did not call themselves such back then, rejoiced at the news and were still said to be a bit hungover from celebrating when the Roman legions came and conquered them both.

The Norman Conquest (1066)

The true countdown begins nearly a millennia ago, when a Duke of Normandy known by the name of William, crossed the channel to claim the English throne. True, the Normans were not technically French (they were Vikings which had comfortably settled south of the Channel), but they did bring with them the language and customs of their adopted homeland as they destroyed the last vestiges of Anglo-Saxon authority and established in its place the first modern English state. Sadly for the English, the Normans did not bring with them their cuisine, condemming England to a thousand years of bad food.

The Hundred Years War (1337-1453)

The Hundred Years War may not have been the first between the two neighbors, but to this date it has been the biggest, baddest, nastiest and most vicious of them all. For over one hundred years, the English pillaged and plundered France almost at will, reigning supreme on the battlefields of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt thanks to their novel use of the longbow. At their peak, the English ruled directly or indirectly over most of France north of the Loire, until a peasant girl with visions from god changed the fortunes of the home team. By 1453, the French had expelled the English who, to add insult to injury, were left bankrupt and in the midst of a civil war. Never again did England attempt a war of conquest in the continent.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714)

Few European kings have had more grandiose dreams of conquest than Louis XIV, the epitome of the absolute monarch. With the excuse of consolidating a dynastic union with Spain (which would have created Europe’s first superpower state), the Sun King set out on a campaign of conquest that nearly brought the continent to its knees. That is, until an Allied army led by the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy dealt him a massive defeat at Blenheim (and later at Ramilles), shattering the myth of French military invincibility. The Allies may not have won the war per se, but by stalemating Louis XIV’s ambitions, they managed to conserve the balance of power in Europe for another generation.

The Seven Years War (1756-1763)

The Seven Years War can lay claim to have been the first truly global war, being fought not only in the battlefields of Europe but across the oceans and in the burgeoning overseas colonies of both England and France. Although England’s involvement in the continental conflict was minimal, the colonial struggle was massive, stretching across the vast expanses of the North American heartland, in the Caribbean, and in Africa and India. With France’s resources tied to its continental commitments, England’s victories overseas were crushing to say the least, and forced the French to surrender most of its empire in North America and India. This, of course, included the crown jewel of the French empire back in the day, Quebec, which to this day is ruled by despotic English-speaking overlords from Ottawa.

The American Revolution (1776-1783)

Americans may be loathe to admit it, but had the French not gotten involved in their revolution against Britain, they’d probably still have Queen Elizabeth’s face on their dollar bill. The French were keen to avenge the drubbing received during the Seven Years War, and this was a fantastic opportunity to do so. French intervention was decisive: the naval victory at the Chesapeake Bay prevented the British from landing reinforcements, and the French army under Lafayette fought side by side with George Washington’s continental army to obtain the victory at Yorktown which led the British to sue for peace. Don’t ever expect this version of history to be told in Fox News (because, you know, it’s true).

At least it makes for good movies

At least it makes for good movies

The Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)

Aside from the Russian winter, the British were the biggest thorn in Napoleon’s side throughout the two decades of conflict which encompassed the Napoleonic Wars. First was the naval victory at the Nile, which put an end to Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (and if you wonder why the Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum and not the Louvre, this is why). Then of course, was Trafalgar, where Nelson destroyed a Franco-Spanish fleet and eliminated the threat of a potential French invasion of England. On land, the Duke of Wellington’s troops were no less successful, achieving victory in the peninsular campaign, and ultimately at Waterloo, where the little Emperor was defeated once and for all. The British celebrated subtly by naming a train station after that battle, and forcing French tourists on the Eurostar to arrive there.

Mers el-Kebir (1940)

By the 20th century, Britain and France had turned from mortal enemies to super best friends in the whole wide world as a response to the rise of Germany, the new bad boy in the block. Like in 1914, the British sent a small army to France in 1940 to help check the German invasion but this time there would be no miracle at the Marne: before anyone could say qu’est-ce qui se passe?, the Wehrmacht was goosestepping through the Champs-Élysées. Concerned that the French fleet would fall into German hands, the British gave them an ultimatum: surrender to us, escape to America, or be destroyed. The French said screw you, and the Royal Navy promptly attacked the fleet now anchored at Mers-el-Kebir in North Africa, sinking or disabling a number of ships. This happened less than a month after their armies had fought together against the Nazis.

Charles de Gaulle’s “non” (1961-1971)

Britain had kept away from initial attempts at European unity yet by the 1960s had decided it too wanted to be a part of the new super chic Euro club. But fearing that the “special relationship” between the UK and US would be a backdoor for further American influence in Europe, the ever Anglo-phobic Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, not once but twice (1961 and 1967). It was only until the fiery General’s death that Britain was allowed in (in 1971). Time will only tell if Britain’s ties to Europe strengthen or whether we’ll be seeing a British membership application to NAFTA instead.

The Global Financial Crisis (2008-)

The global crisis has been the latest opportunity for both countries to have a go at each other as the rest of the world looks on in pathetic amazement. The French struck first, by rightfully boasting that they weathered the post-Lehman meltdown better than the Brits. Score one point for good old fashioned mixed economy against Anglo-Saxon free market fundamentalism. But with the Euro crisis now at the center of attention things suddenly look not so swell for those who bet on the common currency. Score one for Britain and its independent monetary policy. We still don’t know who’s going to win this one, but give props to Sarko for his diplomatic genius by turning Britain into an anti-European pariah by forcing it to veto an ill-conceived fiscal compact it had no business approving. But if the fiscal compact fails in preventing a Eurozone collapse, the Brits could still end up with the last laugh…

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