By Robert Tombs
Published Jan 2010
From Blenheim and Waterloo to ‘Up Yours, Delors’ and ‘Hop Off You Frogs’, the cross-Channel relationship has been one of rivalry, misapprehension and suspicion, even of loathing. But it has also been a relationship of envy, admiration and affection. Before 1815, France and Britain were traditional enemies, with open warfare between the two a constant occurrence. Yet at the same time, anglophilia was as much a French tradition as Anglophobia, and francophilia as much a British tradition as francophobia. In the nearly two centuries since the final defeat of Napoleon, while France and Britain have not gone to war and have spent much of that time as allies, that alliance has been almost as uneasy, as competitive and as ambivalent as the generations of warfare. Their rivalry, both in peace and war, for good and ill, has shaped the modern world, from North America to India in the eighteenth century, in Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is still shaping Europe today.
This magisterial book, by turns provocative and delightful, always fascinating, tells the rich and complex story of the relationship over three centuries, from the beginning of the great struggle for mastery during the reign of Louis XIV to the second Iraq war and the latest enlargement of the EU. It tells of wars and battles, ententes and alliances, but also of food, fashion, sport, literature, sex and music. Its cast ranges from William and Mary to Tony Blair, from Voltaire to Eric Cantona, its sources from ambassadorial dispatches to police reports, from works for philosophy to tabloid newspapers, from guidebooks to cartoons and films.
That Sweet Enemy is itself a product of Anglo-French co-operation – and occasional inevitable dissension. Robert Tombs and Isabelle Tombs (née Bussy) met as students in Paris and live in Cambridge. Their book brings both British humour and Gallic panache to the story of their two countries, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, in victory and in defeat, in dominance and in decline. The result is a triumph, which will appeal equally to admirers of Voltaire and Peter Mayle, of Dickens and François Truffaut, and fascinate all cross-Channel travellers, whether armchair or actual.