Best enemies and worst allies on so many occasions from the Hundred Years War to the Suez expedition and beyond, Britain and France, and their complex and tumultuous relationship, have fuelled endless debates and controversies on both sides of the Channel. So could the current French ambassador to the Court of St James add something new to our views of the bilateral relations between these two traditional powerhouses of Western Europe, who have been seemingly facing unstoppable decline since the Second World War?
Invited to contribute to the Vice Chancellor's Distinguished Lecture series, Sylvie Bermann has offered a highly relevant plaidoyer in favour of Franco-British partnership within a functioning Europe in the post-Paris-attacks context: 'France, as Ambassador Bermann stated, needs a strong UK in the EU'.
Her talk combined the elegance of diplomatic speech and breadth and depth of views on what make bilateral relations between these often uneasy neighbours so special – perhaps not as unique as the 'special relationship' with the US, but quite close to it. Ambassador Bermann saw in Franco-British military cooperation, which comes second only to the UK-US partnership, a good proof of this exceptional status.
What was initially conceived as a French reflection on Britain's place in Europe has become, as a result of recent developments, a wider analysis of current European and international affairs from the lens of the Franco-British relationship, with the added benefit of Bermann's role as French ambassador to China before taking up her current position in London. The talk stressed the benefits of cross-Channel cooperation in a series of crucial areas such as trade, security, defence, climate change, diplomacy and culture (to quote just a few of the examples cited), recognizing that the two countries had often been competitors but also allies, and that partnership was clearly the way forward.
Bilateral partnership, but above all continental cooperation is the answer to today's global challenges, argues Bermann. In her view, the future of International Relations lies in 'continent-countries', as perceived from world giants like China for whom only a united Europe can be heard effectively by the likes of the USA, India or China itself. Such arguments may sound overly theoretical, but they are key to understanding what Europe has managed to achieve in the last half-century: to allow the falling stars of the international community to retain some form of relevance on the constantly changing international stage.
Whilst the talk was understandably about current hot topics such as terrorism, the fight against the Islamic State or the migrant crisis, it also reflected more broadly on what Europe stands for, stressing that the European project is more about common values and shared goals than about bureaucracy, as it is so often portrayed. Examples of areas where fruitful cooperation could bear fruit included common efforts to implement effective border control, to detect (and fight) terrorist activities within Europe and beyond, and also to speak a united voice – with Franco-British cooperation at the UN Security Council hailed as an example to emulate.
It is often reported that the Foreign Office's unofficial motto is to 'manage decline'. Whilst Ambassador Bermann's talk did not deny this stark reality, it did offer a salutary glimpse of hope, based on effective cooperation and mutual understandings within the framework of an international partnership.
Following the wave of solidarity with France which has swept the UK in the wake of the Paris attacks, and which the French ambassador acknowledged gratefully in her opening statement, there may be a genuine opportunity to make this existing relationship, forged by centuries of competition and decades of collaboration, a more meaningful project as both countries face similar challenges. Let us hope that both the public and decision-makers in the two countries will hear this welcome call. This might be the greatest challenge, for which the speaker, unfortunately, could not offer any magic recipe.
Berny Sèbe is Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies in the Department of Modern Languages (French Studies section)