Earlier this week, three young Englishmen wrote to President de Gaulle renouncing their distribution agency for French state-built Renault cars as a protest against his recent “remarks and general antipathy towards Britain.” They have even announced their intention to give up French wines though on this point they are not quite as categorical. One of them has been reported as saying, “I think I will give up French wines – but it depends on what I am eating.”
The story is frivolous. Since President de Gaulle has not yet taken over as Chairman of the Renault Corporation the letter to him is irrelevant and the “patriotic” gesture might not cost the gallant young men anything at all. The report is however, noteworthy because it illustrates the intense Francophobia that is sweeping this country. The other day a British colleague was advised by a salesman in a Westend store not to buy a French refrigerator for the same “patriotic” reason. Xenophobia is not an Asian or African monopoly.
The focal point of this anti-French outburst is inevitably President de Gaulle himself. He has been described as being generally glum, pompous and vinegary, a megalomaniac suffering from folies de grandeur and an emperor in Embryo. He has been compared with Canute and called Carlus Magnus*. Even the historic Franco-German treaty of co-operation has been unwelcome because it is at least partly his handiwork. One paper has gone so far as to say that the Franco-German rapprochement has come “at last disguised as a curse” which Britain and the other four members of the European Economic Community “have strong motives for disrupting.”
Fortunately Francophobia is not universal. The Labour party and its supporters appear to be generally free from this malaise. The left-wing in the party could well be feeling beholden to President de Gaulle since he is facilitating its task of preventing Britain’s entry into the Common Market. In fact the closer a person is to the Government the more furious he is at President de Gaulle and France. For them the familiar statement, “you cannot trust the Germans” has been replaced by “the French have always been so ungrateful.” So great is their feeling of self-righteousness that the distortion of historical facts comes naturally to them. They have even convinced themselves that they have been consistent champions of European unity since the end of World War II. They have Sir Winston Churchill’s speeches if not his actions as Prime Minister to quote.
In the midst of perfervid writings and statements, some of the cartoons provide the necessary relief and balance. One of the aptest appeared in Punch this week. Four Englishmen are shown playing cards and looking extremely worried. One of them says: “But if President de Gaulle keeps us out we will think for ourselves, make our own decisions, do our own planning and have no one else to blame when things go wrong. I tell you, it does not bear thinking about.”
The best indications of the government’s difficulties is that The Times, itself almost part of the Establishment, should be challenging the basic assumption of the government’s policy on such important matters as defence and economic expansion. The Times is opposed to an independent nuclear deterrent for Britain. The absence of a clear-cut policy was graphically described last Sunday by the political correspondent of The Observer who wrote: “There is a certain passing affinity at the moment between the Conservatives and the legendary platoon of soldiers being marched by their inexperienced and tongue-tied commander towards the edge of beach-head. Waiting loyally for the order to halt, one of them cried in pardonable anguish: ‘For god’s sake say something, sir, even if it is only goodbye’.”
Mr Macmillan is far from being an inexperienced commander of the Conservatives. He is not tongue-tied either. Only last Monday he engaged himself in a slanging match with President de Gaulle and found it possible to blame the Labour party for his government’s failure to promote economic expansion. Goodbye is the last thing he is likely to say at the moment, either to his platoon or to President de Gaulle. But to give clear and precise order does not appear to be his weakness. In 1956 and 1957 he performed the miracle of convincing the electorate that the Conservatives never had a leader known as Mr Anthony Eden and the Suez never happened. One wonders if he can obliterate President de Gaulle and Brussels from the minds of the British people with the same finesse this time. Mr Gaitskell’s death might have reduced the odds against him but the odds remain heavy.
Two alternative courses were open to the Conservative Government last week when President de Gaulle came out publicly in opposition to Britain’s admission to the Common Market and his Foreign Minister, Mr Couve de Murville, demanded indefinite suspension of the Brussels negotiations. It could have blamed President de Gaulle for the failure to get into Europe and returned to the old Conservative championship of special relations with America and the Commonwealth ties. The Conservatives have always been the “patriotic” party. This would win considerable applause at home. The other alternative was to continue the efforts to join the Common Market whatever the cost and the risks. It has apparently made the second choice with the support of other members.
This choice involves a number of grave consequences. Since President de Gaulle is not likely to give up his basic opposition to Britain’s entry, the present tension between the two countries would continue. The European Economic Community itself has been exposed to severe strain at least for the time being in view of the divergence of opinion between France and her partners. The larger Western alliance itself has been thrown into a state of disarray. For Britain, the period of uncertainty which is adversely affecting investment in renovation and expansion of industry has been prolonged and, what is worse, in the end admission might again be denied or offered on totally unacceptable terms.
There has been so much speculation regarding the French position that it is difficult to make a firm judgment. All the same it seems reasonable to believe that the French Government could go some way in accepting the German suggestion that the European Commission headed by Professor Hallstein be asked to prepare an inventory of items already settled and those that still remain to be settled and that it should suggest possible solutions to the latter items. The British Government has placed itself in a situation that it cannot reject this proposal. Its acceptance can mean getting trapped.
It is not clear whether the solutions proposed by the Commission would be subject to further negotiations between Britain and the Six. Even if they are, it is extremely unlikely that the Six would agree to modify them. This point is relevant for three reasons. First, for the British government to accept this proposal is to abdicate its responsibility of negotiating a proper settlement. It amounts to signing a blank cheque. The issues still to be settled are major ones. Secondly, since the Commission is principally interested in the preservation of the existing Community, the solutions proposed by it would favour the maintenance of the status quo which would be wholly contrary to the interests of Britain and her Commonwealth partners. Thirdly, the question of other EFTA countries would not even figure in the Commission’s proposals.
With due apologies to British statesmanship, one finds it difficult to escape the conclusion that the British have landed themselves in an unenviable position. All available evidence points in one direction: President de Gaulle retains the power to exclude Britain from the Community. This is not to deny that by asserting his country’s hegemony over the Community in an almost brutal manner he has caused deep resentment among his partners including West Germany, with whom it has been his policy since 1945 to build everlasting co-operation and friendship. Much depends on Germany and America. The Americans are angry with President de Gaulle but that must pass. They cannot possibly jeopardise the future of the Atlantic Alliance for the sake of the unborn Atlantic community. The Germans have even less reason to endanger the prospects of co-operation with France.
* Charlemagne, also Charles the Great
The Times of India, 26 January 1963