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Celebrating a Cordial Century

Thursday marks the official start of celebrations of the 100th anniversary for the Entente Cordiale, the agreement signed by France and Britain to end centuries of bloody rivalry.

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That's cordial enough: Elizabeth II and French Premier Raffarin.

Queen Elizabeth II walks towards a crowd of cheering Parisians on a sunny but chilly French morning. The British flag flutters in the breeze barely a kilometer away on the Champs Elysées. The British Prime Minister Tony Blair checks his diary to confirm his visit to the French capital next month and while he's at it, flips a couple of pages to see when President Jacques Chirac is due in London this autumn.

Is this a snippet from a tale of fiction or the fevered hallucinations of the lesser-spotted Francophile? Actually it is neither. This is the reality of Franco-British relations in 2004…or, more to the point, one of the many realities of Franco-British relations in 2004.

This year marks the 100 anniversary of the entente cordiale, a colonial-era deal between Britain and France that ended centuries of military hostility. It is a reason for celebration; a reason for dignitaries from both sides of the channel to smile and embrace their neighbours, joyous in the fact that in the past century, the two bitter rivals have not gone to war with each other.

Königin Elizabeth II. in Frankreich Jacques Chirac

Queen Elizabeth II is greeted by French President Jacques Chirac on the Champs Elysees.

Queen Elizabeth has been enjoying French hospitality this week as the celebrations get under way officially on Thursday. Her Majesty visited Toulouse on Wednesday on the final day of her three day tour, visiting the site of the last battle to be fought by the two countries.

Smiles will be in evidence throughout the events that mark the hundred years since Edward VII, the queen's great-grandfather, and Théophile Delcassé, the French foreign minister of the time, resolved their two countries' long-running territorial disputes in 1904. But given the notorious distrust and often forced cordiality between France and Britain, these smiles may just be displays of gritted teeth.

Agreement born from concerns about Germany

Hundreds of years of war and colonial competition could not possibly be wiped out from the psyche of two proud nations by a single act of rapprochement. Indeed, the entente cordiale, for all its genuine attempts at healing deeply historical wounds, was born not out of a common desire to love thy neighbour but from a fear of a powerful third party. In fact, the reason that France and Britain papered over centuries of rivalry and mutual suspicion was the rise of Germany and the concern over its military and naval strength.

Since aligning themselves with each other out of necessity during the two world wars, Britain and France have maintained solid diplomatic ties but have often found themselves at odds over policy within Europe and have at times endured prolonged personal spats over topics such as trade. As a result, there are still generations of British who do not buy French apples and many in France who will go nowhere near meat exported from across the channel.

In more recent times, the entente cordiale has been put to even sterner tests. After World War II, when the power of Germany had been crushed and the former enemy pacified, Britain looked across the Atlantic for the source of its post-war rehabilitation. The countries of the mainland continent began work in rebuilding themselves from the smouldering ashes of Europe while Britain looked increasingly to the emerging dominance of the United States for support and guidance.

Anglo-American ties define current EU relationship

Treffen Bush und Blair in Belfast, Nordirland

U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The effects of over 50 years of this "special" transatlantic relationship between Britain and the U.S. have become increasingly evident in the directions France and Britain have taken in the European Union and in the dispute over Iraq.

In European terms, Britain has found itself replaced as France's main partner by Germany. The two countries share an economic outlook and a vision for a two-speed Europe where the EU powerhouses can forge policy at a faster rate than "lesser" members. In contrast, Britain finds itself cut adrift from the Franco-German power axis within the EU due to its more Atlanticist leanings and, as a result, finds itself more often than not in opposition.

The odd couple

The co-operation between Germany and France are astounding, even by modern standards. French and German politicians and officials enjoy regular contact across the Rhine. The adviser on Germany for Jean-Pierre Raffarin, French prime minister, is a German diplomat. Hundreds of Germans have graduated from France's Ecole Nationale d'Administration, its elite civil-service college. This year, for the first time, three are joining the French civil service.

Informelles Treffen, Schröder Chirac in Berlin

Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac.

On a personal level, the differences between the leaders are also evidently split along the same lines. Even at their most friendly, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac's relationship pales into insignificance compared with that of the French president and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Chirac was even asked by Schröder to stand in for him at an EU summit when the chancellor had more pressing issues at home.

The British prime minister and the French president rarely hit such cosy heights. Chirac famously called off an Anglo-French summit in 2002 after accusing Blair of speaking to him rudely while Blair has been quoted as calling Chirac a "demagogue."

Iraq showed extent of division

The real evidence of the divide came with the Iraq war with Britain siding with the United States and France joining with Germany in the vociferous anti-war camp. At the height of the dispute before combat operations began, the entente was far from cordiale.

The sometimes rocky personal relationship between Blair and Chirac was tested once more during this time when the president asked the prime minister how he would be able to look his baby son Leo in the eye in the years to come if he took Britain into an illegal war. Blair was far from pleased.

Both countries accept they need each other

When it comes to le crunch, the French know that, when forced to choose, Britain believes that its interests are best served by aligning with America. This is always going to make it an uncertain European partner. But on the other hand, the exertion of French power in an expanded Europe cannot rely on the help of Germany alone. Britain also knows that if it intends to continue its balancing act with the U.S. and Europe, the powerful French will have to be onside from time to time.

Blair und Chirac in Le Touquet

Blair and Chirac

So, in much the same circumstances that brought about the entente cordiale in 1904, France and Britain must continue to work together to get what they want -- a small price to pay for the forced smiles and limp handshakes.

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