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France: The neighbours from hell we just can't escape
The agreement between David Cameron and France's embattled President Nicolas Sarkozy on future nuclear co-operation, and a possible joint unmanned aircraft project underlines the schizoid nature of the relationship between Britain and its infuriating but indispensable next-door neighbour.
For it was only a few short weeks ago that little Sarko was ostentatiously cutting Dave dead - ignoring his proffered handshake when they met at the Brussels EU summit in December after Dave exercised his veto - (which turned out not to be a veto after all). The French leader and his ministers followed up with a series of attacks and jibes at the City of London's premier position in Europe's financial markets, and scarcely veiled threats to undermine it.
Yet now it's all smiles and jolly bonhomie as Dave shakes Sarko's hand (rather than his throat) and signs up to a deal that will bind the two nations' nuclear destinies together for decades to come. So what on earth is going on? France and the French - do we love 'em or hate 'em? And how do they really feel about us?
In fact both the latest Anglo-French deal, and the animosity that preceded it, fit a recurrent historical pattern. France and Britain - or better said, England - have always been the neighbours from hell, the sweet enemies doomed, like an old married couple who have long since fallen out of love but cannot agree to sell the family home, to live together in embittered amity - forever.
Going right back to the Norman Conquest, and perhaps earlier, the two sides of the Channel have been locked in this curious love-hate relationship, dictated by geography and the ties that bind even the most incompatible of neighbours. From 1066 until the Entente Cordiale - a loose and wary understanding rather than a formal alliance signed in 1904 with the encouragement of the Francophile King Edward VII - France and England were in a constant state of conflict. The Hundred Years' War; Henry VIII's wars; the Duke of Marlborough's campaigns against Louis XIV; the Seven Years War; the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars culminating in the twin victories of Nelson and Wellington at Trafalgar and Waterloo - these marked the melancholy milestones of the Anglo-French relationship.
And yet it was not all hatred and violence between the two neighbours. Throughout it all, visits were exchanged, trade flourished, Royal marriage alliances were made. England offered a welcoming home to French rulers booted out by their own people - the Bourbon Kings, Louis Philippe and Napoleon III among them. The French occasionally followed suit - as with the deposed Stuart dynasty - but usually with the aim of making trouble for perfidious Albion.
The founder of France's current Fifth Republic, General Charles De Gaulle, owed his rise from obscurity entirely to the fact that the Francophile Winston Churchill backed him and his Free French movement and offered them a London base after France had fallen to the Nazis in 1940. De Gaulle repaid the hospitality with an embittered hatred thereafter, excluding Britain from membership of the embryonic EU until it had become an entirely French-run project, and the source of our continuing unease with a club whose rules we had no hand in devising.
Nor has the cross-fertilisation been an entirely one-way chemin. While Britain benefitted from the mass migration of the hard-working and enterprising French Protestants, the Huguenots, after Louis XIV foolishly expelled them in the late 17th century, France has also sent us its cuisine, its fashion, its sophisticated manners, its elegant culture and a relaxed sexual morality in which characters as different as Edward VII, Edward VIII and Oscar Wilde all delighted..
In contemporary times, our adoration of all things Gallic has taken on the lines of a semi-religious cult, with the English romantically populating whole swathes of pretty but uneconomical French farms in the countryside of la France profonde, and Eurostar making a journey to the heart of Paris quicker and easier for most Britons than a trip to the centre of London.
Many of us, probably with a French dinner and a bottle or two of fine Bordeaux under our belts, have experienced transcendent moments - I know that I have - at an Anglo-French rural wedding; or a joint burial of an unknown soldier on the Somme when the playing of the Marseillaise brought tears to my eyes, - when Churchill's desperate plan at the war's darkest moment in 1940 to forge a united nation from the two old rivals looked both desirable and even realisable.
But then, in the cold light of dawn, we awake to grim reality and I remember that Churchill's sentimental unity proposal was almost immediately followed by his cold destruction of the French fleet to keep it out of Nazi hands.
Despite all the co-operation, the construction of the Concorde, the joint military adventures like Suez and Libya, the thousands of French workers in the City seeking a respite from their own restrictive practices, and Dave's deal with Sarko today, we remain, in our heads rather than our hearts, two very different peoples.
Not for nothing do the French call us 'Anglo-Saxons' or 'Rosbifs'. And we return the insult with interest, dubbing them 'Frogs' or 'Cheese-eating surrender monkeys'. Our individualistic, free-spirited, self-deprecating heritage - political, cultural, and yes, racial too - remains profoundly different from that of France.
Any visitor to that country - and I have just returned from ever-enchanting Paris, - knows that despite the ubiquity of the EU flag, the French remain a deeply patriotic, even spikily nationalistic people, who put their interests first and last. A united Europe? Mais Oui! - but only so long as it is led by France. If only our flabby Foreign Office mandarins were equally resolved to wave the Union Flag as vigorously as the French sport the tricolour. And so: Vive la France - but also Vive la Difference!
By Nigel Jones