British versus the French; A Rivalry That Defined the Modern Age

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 11, 2007 | Go to article overview

British versus the French; A Rivalry That Defined the Modern Age


Byline: William Anthony Hay, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The legal philosopher Carl Schmitt argued that the distinction between friend and enemy marked the fundamental point underpinning politics. An extensive academic literature explores how cultures define themselves against "the other" a rival fundamentally different from themselves and captures a reality about human relationships evident from literature and ordinary interaction.

The 20th century world wars cast Germany as the natural enemy of the English-speaking peoples, with the Soviet Union taking its place during the Cold War. Indeed, Britain and the United States also viewed each other warily from the Revolutionary War through a gradual rapprochement in the 1890s. The two Anglophone nations served as a mirror through which each country saw itself by examining the other.

Anglo-French rivalry since the late-17th century, however, casts other such relationships into the shade. Robert and Isabelle Tombs make an impressive case in "That Sweet Enemy: The French and British from the Sun King to the Present" that Anglo-French rivalry dominates, and in many ways defined, the modern age.

Interaction between the two great nations set much of the agenda for European and global politics after 1688 while shaping culture with them. Conflict from 1688 through Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo marked a chapter followed by wary coexistence during the 19th century and a new understanding after 1904.

Self-criticism, emulation and even admiration played as great a part in Anglo-French relations as the old story of antagonism. Viewing history from the perspective of Anglo-French interaction presents familiar developments in a revealing light.

Europe invaded England with the coup d'etat William of Orange staged against his father-in-law James II in 1688. Fears that James might side with France rather than the Dutch-led coalition against Louis XIV helped detonate the Glorious Revolution as much as events within England.

The new involvement in continental affairs to block French ambitions under Louis XIV marked a departure from both the past preoccupation with internal divisions and overseas ambitions under Cromwell and James II. France and Britain became determined rivals, even when alliance during the 1720s followed a peace of exhaustion that ended Louis XIV's wars.

Emigres from both sides French Protestants and British Jacobites became conduits for intellectual traffic. Despite renewed war in the 1740s, both sides looked to the other as a guide. Conflict, however, made the French and British each define themselves in contrast to their rival.

France had double the territory and three times the population of Britain, and twice its gross domestic product even in 1788, but institutions forged after 1688 enabled the British state to raise far more money than the French. From the mid-18th century, the French sent more official and semi-official observers to Britain in hopes of bringing back the secret to creating wealth.

France, too, had attractions that made Paris a prime tourist destination. If London offered the commercial world of modernity, France provided grandeur and aristocratic salons that became the forcing house of the European enlightenment. Where Britain pioneered technology, France took the lead in science. Military prowess marked a counterpoint to Britain's maritime preoccupation, and British army officers, including the future Duke of Wellington, learned their profession at French academies despite the 18th-century wars.

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