When Britain and France nearly married

Formerly secret documents unearthed from the National Archives have showed Britain and France considered a “union” in the 1950s.

On 10 September 1956 French Prime Minister Guy Mollet arrived in London for talks with his British counterpart, Anthony Eden.

These were troubled times for Mollet’s France. Egypt’s President Gamel Abdel Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal and, as if that was not enough, he was also busy funding separatists in French Algeria, fuelling a bloody mutiny that was costing the country’s colonial masters dear.

Monsieur Mollet was ready to fight back and he was determined to get Britain’s help to do it.

Formerly secret documents held in Britain’s National Archives in London, which have lain virtually unnoticed since being released two decades ago, reveal the extraordinary proposal Mollet was about to make.

The following is an extract from a British government cabinet paper of the day. It reads:

“When the French Prime Minister, Monsieur Mollet was recently in London he raised with the prime minister the possibility of a union between the United Kingdom and France.”

Mollet was desperate to hit back at Nasser. He was also an Anglophile who admired Britain both for its help in two world wars and its blossoming welfare state.

There was another reason, too, that the French prime minister proposed this radical plan.

Tension was growing at this time along the border between Israel and Jordan. France was an ally of Israel and Britain of Jordan. If events got out of control there, French and British soldiers could soon be fighting each other.

With the Suez issue on the boil Mollet could not let such a disaster happen.

So, when Eden turned down his request for a union between France and Britain the French prime minister came up with another proposal.

This time, while Eden was on a visit to Paris, he requested that France be allowed to join the British Commonwealth.

A secret document from 28 September 1956 records the surprisingly enthusiastic way the British premier responded to the proposal when he discussed it with his Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook.

It says: “Sir Norman Brook asked to see me this morning and told me he had come up from the country consequent on a telephone conversation from the prime minister who is in Wiltshire.

“The PM told him on the telephone that he thought in the light of his talks with the French:

“That we should give immediate consideration to France joining the Commonwealth

“That Monsieur Mollet had not thought there need be difficulty over France accepting the headship of her Majesty

“That the French would welcome a common citizenship arrangement on the Irish basis”
Seeing these words for the first time, Henri Soutou, professor of contemporary history at Paris’s Sorbonne University almost fell off his chair.

Stammering repeatedly he said: “Really I am stuttering because this idea is so preposterous. The idea of joining the Commonwealth and accepting the headship of Her Majesty would not have gone down well. If this had been suggested more recently Mollet might have found himself in court.”

Nationalist MP Jacques Myard was similarly stunned on being shown the papers, saying: “I tell you the truth, when I read that I am quite astonished. I had a good opinion of Mr Mollet before. I think I am going to revise that opinion.

“I am just amazed at reading this because since the days I was learning history as a student I have never heard of this. It is not in the textbooks.”

It seems that the French prime minister decided to quietly forget about his strange proposals.

No record of them seems to exist in the French archives and it is clear that he told few other ministers of the day about them.

This might well be because after Britain decided to pull out of Suez, the battle against President Nasser was lost and all talk of union died too.

Instead, when the EEC was born the following year, France teamed up with Germany while Britain watched on. The rest, it seems, is history.

BBC Last Updated: Monday, 15 January 2007, 02:40 GMT By Mike Thomson

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