Britain and France: the best of enemies

Histories of Anglo-French relations in the 18th and 19th centuries are usually dominated by conflict. But, say Renaud Morieux and Fabrice Bensimon, the two peoples had more in common than the bloodletting of the Napoleonic Wars would suggest...

Addington and Napoleon facing each other across a narrow channel, from a caricature by James Gillray. Illustration from the magazine ‘The Graphic’, 9 July 1881. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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Are we too fixated on the idea that the French and the British were permanently at each other’s throats in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Fabrice Bensimon: War did play a crucial role in France and Britain’s relationship. But it’s important not to forget all the other types of interaction between the nations, such as migration, trade, intellectual exchanges and the circulation of political ideas.

Renaud Morieux: Although war may have set Britain and France at odds with one another across the two centuries, at the same time it was also a productive means of cultural exchange. There are plenty of examples of prisoners of war engaging peacefully with their ‘enemies’, including lots of stories of French soldiers in England marrying English women, and the reverse happening across the Channel.

So French and British people wouldn’t have just encountered each other on the battlefield?

FB: They’d have worked together in all kinds of ways – and the port of Calais is a good example of how they did so. Today, Calais is a site of great tension, based around the fact that some migrants see it as a potential place of entry into Britain. In the 19th century, things were very different. Calais was a place of entry, but into France for British workers, aristocrats and members of the middle class.

The town also had a strong community of lace workers from Nottinghamshire. Thousands of them settled there to avoid paying duties (or smuggling costs) to sell their goods on the French market. As a result, a significant proportion of Calais’ population was British. British migrants were key to France’s industrial evolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although their role is seldom acknowledged in France’s grand national narratives, they had a significant impact on the development of the country.

RM: As well as long-term migrants, a lot of people regularly travelled back and forth between the two countries. Many were crossing the Channel daily, such as fishermen, or packet boat operators transporting mail, horses and travellers. After studying official trade statistics, many historians have concluded that France and Britain were not major trading partners in this period. But if you look at all the illegal smuggling that was taking place under the radar, then you discover a whole range of exchanges that were going on for centuries.

How did nationalism affect the two nations’ relationship?

RM: For a lot of ordinary people in the 18th century, allegiance to your own country wasn’t necessarily that important – the idea of nationalism arguably hadn’t been invented yet. For many people at this time, what really mattered was not their ‘nation’ but their locality. The term ‘foreigner’ was commonly used to refer to someone who lived outside the parish, rather than in another country.

Whether people defined themselves as ‘French’ or ‘English’ depended on context. There were privateers from the Channel Islands who had family on both coasts and spoke both languages. They were very shrewd and able to play this dual nationality to their advantage. If they met an English warship, they would display an English licence, while if they came across a French customs and revenues ship they would quickly produce a French passport. So national identity wasn’t necessarily a deeply felt sentiment.

Sometimes cross-national alliances proved more important. Fishermen from Dieppe were often at odds with their competitors from Dunkirk, so preferred to align themselves with those from Harwich or Dover. In petitions to the state they would downplay their nationality, emphasising their common interests with their friends across the Channel, and calling their fellow French subjects “pirates” or “worse than Turks”.

FB: French and British workers were also some of the first to rally together across national borders. The International Workingmen’s Association, founded in London in 1864, partly began as an association between French and British workers who wanted to organise together, above all, to prevent employers importing foreign workers to break strikes. They felt that their governments and employers were placing them in opposition to one another, while in reality they had shared interests.

So French workers felt a degree of solidarity with their British counterparts. Was this sentiment shared by the elites?

RM: The elites of pre-Revolutionary France viewed Britain – and, in particular, England – as a riotous country which, sooner or later, would be consumed by revolution. They believed that the 1688 Glorious Revolution, in which James II (and VII) was deposed, had left England’s institutions unstable. Eruptions of unrest and rioting over the following century supported this idea.

FB: This view of British instability continued well into the 19th century – and was, in the eyes of Britain’s French critics, confirmed by the Swing Riots of 1830 [in response to land enclosure and the mechanisation of agricultural practices]; the Reform Act crisis [early 1830s], when attempts to suppress electoral reform triggered lethal riots; and the violent opposition to the introduction of the 1834 ‘New Poor Law’ [widely associated with the emergence of the workhouse].

Around this time, the French historian and political writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited Britain and Ireland. In his diary of those travels, Tocqueville concluded that revolution was inevitable, as the country could no longer sustain such volatility.

Britain’s French critics also used Ireland as an example of British disrespect for liberty. The Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell was popular in 1830s and 1840s France, both with royalist Catholics and republicans, who saw him as opposing an oppressive state.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1850s, when Britain emerged relatively unscathed from the 1848 revolutions that swept many European nations, and was beginning to enjoy the fruits of the industrial revolution, that this view changed. But, even then, France didn’t see Britain as a model of economic prosperity, but rather regarded the transformation of its towns, workers and factories as the vision of a dehumanising future.

And what was the British elite’s view of France?

FB: Before the French Revolution, many people in the British establishment sought to define themselves against what they regarded as the nationalist, expansionist and absolutist instincts of the French system.

Following the Revolution, the British began to regard their neighbours across the Channel as the French viewed them – chaotic and volatile. By contrasting France’s litany of regimes and revolutions with what they saw as their own more stable constitution, British elites tried to argue that their system was superior. They offered France up as a model of what could go wrong when the establishment ceded ground to those demanding reform – whether they were democrats, Chartists or, later, socialists.

What part did the Channel play in Anglo-French relations during the 18th and 19th centuries?

RM: From at least as far back as the 17th century, there has been a notion in Britain that the water itself belongs to the British domain. Hence the British call it the ‘English Channel’. For a time, the French monarchy contested this idea, and Louis XIV even referred to it as ‘La Manche de France’. Yet during the 18th century, French claims on the Channel disappeared. Both states implicitly agreed that the border between England and France begins on the French coast.

From a British perspective, this was based on a number of arguments. One was that England was the sovereign of the seas. Another was that the Channel Islands were part of the duchy of Normandy and the Duke of Normandy was the king of England, making the Channel simply an English river between English possessions.

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What’s the value of studying Anglo-French history from the perspective of both nations, rather than one?

RM: Looking at a ‘foreign’ country alongside your own allows you to distance yourself from inherited national narratives, such as the idea that your nation’s history is particularly unique. In Britain that would be the ‘our island’ story, while in France it’s ‘l’Hexagone’, the notion that the French territory forms a perfect six-sided shape. I think that escaping these national narratives is a very healthy way of thinking.