A BBC radio documentary revealed the unlikely news that in 1956 the then French Prime Minister Guy Mollet came cap in hand to the British government seeking a merger between the two countries. When that didn’t happen he asked to become part of the British Commonwealth, assuring his counterpart Sir Anthony Eden that there would be no difficulty accepting the Queen as head of state!
Preposterous as it might seem today, the idea was perhaps not so crazy 50 years ago. France turned to its ancient enemy, which had also been an ally in two recent world wars, when the pressure of economic difficulties and an escalating crisis in Suez combined with a bloody war in Algeria became too much. French confidence was likely uncharacteristically weak after its inglorious actions in the Second World War. Desperate times require desperate measures and a union was first suggested by Winston Churchill in June 1940 to stave off French capitulation to the Nazis.
British newspapers had great fun imagining what such a world could have been like. The Guardian fantasised about better food and trains that run on time whilst raising concerns whether you’d be able to afford either, given France’s current employment problems. In France, the idea didn’t go down well. ‘I had a good opinion of Mr Mollet before. I think I am going to revise that opinion,’ said Jacques Myard, the short and portly UMP lawmaker.
British cabinet papers show that the proposal was eventually rejected and a year later France signed the Treaty of Rome with Germany and the four other founding members of what was to become the European Union. Indeed Jean Monnet, the Frenchman credited with creating the EU along with Robert Schuman, was one of the authors of Churchill’s offer of union. So perhaps it wasn’t all about peace and healing the wounds of two world wars. Could it be that the EU was a way of getting one up on Britain after she spurned poor old France. Could it be that Chirac and the French establishment are so sniffy about the English language due to the near reality that had Mollet had his way the corridors of power could have been resonating with the language of Shakespeare?