BOOKS: Slice of French Toast ; Friend or Foe: An Anglo-Saxon History of France by Alistair Horne WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON Pounds 25 (428Pp) Pounds 22.50 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897

Article excerpt

It is a century since the Entente Cordiale was signed, but a thousand years since we goddams and rosbifs have been on and off at war with the French, who can be so irritating with their superior airs and self-appointed mission to civilise the world. On the other hand, from the revolt of the American colonists onward, Uncle Sam has had regular cause to smile on the French, who helped give them a constitution and even sent them a statue which proclaimed - impertinently - that Revolution and Liberty were French copyrights.

We Brits still get cross with them (words like Sangatte and Edith Cresson raise hackles), but the spats grow rare and good neighbourliness is breaking out. But France, while acknowledging its debt to American military power in two world wars, has retained a surprising capacity to rile the US, which currently has problems with the French stance on trade, agriculture and the Middle East, not to mention those long-standing charges of economic and cultural imperialism.

Alistair Horne's title seems to suggest that he is about to insert his head into a hornet's nest. But the absence of a question mark removes the obligation to supply an answer and allows a compromise solution.

France is neither friend nor foe, he declares, but a cher ennemi. This is not capitulation but an affectionate acknowledgement that, while Britain and France are separated by the Channel, they have been joined at the hip by centuries of conflict, mutual mistrust and even occasional alliances. If Britain, as Georges Clemenceau remarked, was "a colony which turned out rather badly", large swathes of medieval France were once England's front garden.

When pressed, Horne shows more sympathy for the empirical, practical, libertarian British tradition than for the values which shaped French history: absolutism, authoritarianism and abstract rationalism. But he is fascinated by the way the pursuit of la gloire has produced a steady supply of extraordinary, modernising leaders, from Henri IV through Louis XIV and Napoleon to Charles de Gaulle, who have so aggressively promoted the nation's image and grandeur on the world stage.

Although Horne describes his approach as "highly personal" and "idiosyncratic", he is innocent of bias and guilty only of that love- hate relationship which over the years most France-watchers eventually feel like a nagging, job-induced itch. …