HC Deb 08 April 1954 vol 526 cc533-45

3.34 p.m.

Mr. Maurice Edelman (Coventry, North)

I beg to move, That this House, in recognition of the fact that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Entente Cordiale and that for the past half-century the close and friendly relations thus established between France and Great Britain have been loyally maintained and of great mutual value both in war and peace; that Franco-British friendship—of which the Dunkirk Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance is a recent manifestation—is one of the foundation stones on which the post-war policies of France and Great Britain have been built, and is essential for the security and prosperity of Western civilisation; and that it is the common desire of the peoples of our two countries that this close understanding, which has so well withstood the test of time, should be preserved and diligently developed, hereby resolves that a Message of Greeting and Good Will should be conveyed to the Assemblée Nationale to mark the first fifty years of the Entente Cordiale and to give an assurance that the tradition of Anglo-French solidarity which has grown up during this period will continue to be a constant and guiding principle of our foreign policy over future decades. This Motion records that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the signature of the Anglo-French Agreement which marked the foundation of the Entente Cordiale, and it seeks to convey from this House a message of greeting and good will to France on this happy occasion.

"The Times" of 9th April, 1904, wrote with an enthusiasm which went far beyond the conventional flatteries on such occasions, that the agreement was of "historic importance" and "a landmark in the policy of the two nations." Furthermore, it added a warm tribute to "the part played in the furtherance of Anglo-French cordiality" by His Majesty King Edward VII.

Fifty years after those words were written we can endorse both the description and the tribute. Indeed, it seems hard now to imagine that it was possible only 53 years ago for an hon. Member of this House to say that a war with France was inevitable. Without being dogmatic, I think one can say today that since that time the danger of war with France has receded. In fact, the Entente Cordiale today is stronger than it ever has been in any period during the last 50 years.

It is an alliance which has endured the harsh tests of war and occasionally even the harsher tests of peace. Yet whatever the strains, our nations have always triumphantly survived them. The reason is clear. No one can travel through the vast melancholy cemeteries of Northern France where the French and British dead lie side by side without recognising that the Entente Cordiale has been consecrated by our joint sacrifice in the battle against tyranny. Indeed, the geography of France is now part of our own history.

Three hundred thousand Frenchmen died in the first fortnight of the First World War during the first onrush of the enemy, and since then France, despite her terrible wounds, has never lagged in the fight against the enemies of liberty. It is a fight which she is always ready to renew.

Nor should we fail to recall how during the Second World War, at a time when the attack on the spirit of France was even more savage than the attacks of the enemy armies, Frenchmen still cherished their love of Britain; how, during the glorious years of resistance, Frenchmen who fought side by side with us welcomed the liberating armies because of the love of Britain which they cherished, that love which they fought to maintain and for which so many of them finally died. The welcome given by liberated France to the British Armies in 1944 was a demonstration that the Entente Cordiale still lived and nothing that the totalitarians could do would ever destroy it.

How fortunate were our two countries in those post-war years in the Ambassadors who have represented us. Perhaps I may say that if the Entente revived with new vigour after 1945, much of the credit belongs to M. René Massigli, that splendid and devoted Ambassador who will undoubtedly be remembered among the great Ambassadors of France. We too, for our own part, had the incomparable advantage of having Duff Cooper in Paris, a courageous statesman, a distinguished man of letters and a philosopher in his life, whose far too early death we all mourn.

I have spoken of our cordial understanding with France, but let me not appear to suggest that we never have differences of opinion. Monolithic friendships belong to totalitarian countries and rarely last very long. When the French try us beyond endurance, we sometimes reach for strong language and refer to their defects as "engaging" and when we exasperate the French beyond the limits of endurance by our pragmatism they usually sum up the matter by saying, "Ah, les Anglais!"

But our methods of approach are of minor and trivial importance compared with the fundamental unity of purpose which binds our two countries. More vital than treaties, more binding even than citizenship is the fact that we both represent and share in the standards and values of Western civilisation. That is the irrevocable bond which unites us in the Entente Cordiale.

It is my hope and belief that today we are entering upon the second 50 years of the Entente Cordiale. Whatever the uncertain future, we can be sure of one thing—that, come what may, Britain and France will together continue to defend and to represent the high purposes for which the Entente Cordiale has stood for so many years. It is for that reason, as well as because of the record of the tremendous years that have passed, that I ask the House to accept this Motion and to transmit its greetings to the Assembleacute;e Nationale on this notable and auspicious day.

3.41 p.m.

Professor Sir Douglas Savory (Antrim, South)

I beg to second the Motion.

I consider it a very great honour to be allowed to second this Motion. I was in Paris at the time of the visit of His Majesty King Edward VII in 1903. We have recently had a very graphic description given us of that visit by Sir Frederick Ponsonby, who said that on the first day, when King Edward arrived at the Station in the Bois de Boulogne and proceeded in procession down the Champs Elyseacute;es, his reception was very cold. Sir Frederick was himself taking part; he was an equerry and was in full scarlet uniform, and, following the end of the procession, he was the victim of some of the cries of the mob—"Vive Marchland," "Vivent les Boers," "Vive Fashoda" and, more surprising than anything else, "Vive Jeanne d'Arc."

Sir Frederick describes in his wonderful style the amazing transformation brought about in three days by the King's visit. This was due very largely to the very remarkable speech which he made at the Hotel de Ville. The English translation is surely a very striking tribute to France, when he said that he felt at home in Paris, but the original French conveys much more graphically the message, if I may be allowed to read one sentence: Je n'oublierai jamais ma visite à votre charmante ville, et je puis vous assurer que c'est avec le plus grand plaisiir que je reviens à Paris, ou je me trouve toujours comme si jétais chez moi. That very remarkable visit was carried out largely in opposition to the fears of the British Cabinet and even the representations made by the British Ambassador. That visit transformed the whole situation and laid the foundations for the Entente Cordiale in the following year.

Now, what was that Entente Cordiale? We are often inclined to forget today that it was not a treaty of alliance. It consisted simply of three agreements. The first agreement related to that very thorny question, the question of the French shore. What was the French shore? It was the right which the French had for exclusive fishing on the western coasts of Newfoundland. It was an ancient and historic right which went back to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and again re-affirmed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. The French therefore had every possible right on this thorny question, and, as the Foreign Secretary knows, it gave rise to endless disputes, but it was settled in a very natural way. The French received compensation by an indemnity and also by a rectification of the frontier between the British and French Colonies in West Africa.

Then, again, Lord Cromer tells us in his memoirs how difficult his position was made for him by the continued opposition of the French in Egypt. This question, again, was amicably settled. The French agreed that they would not hamper the actions of the British in Egypt—and the beautiful French word was "ne pas entraver." The British agreed that they would allow the French to watch over tranquillity in Morocco—a very beautiful and most tactful expression.

Thirdly, the two Powers recognised their respective zones of influence in Siam, and these questions being completely put out of the way prepared the great alliance which led to the amazing victory after so many unfortunate defeats in the first Great War.

Perhaps the most touching episode in that great victory was the entry of the French troops into Alsace-Lorraine. The dear old ladies took out from the family chest the French flag where it had lain there for more than 40 years. We had a marvellous series of descriptions of that triumphant entry of France into Alsace and Lorraine by that very great and distinguished French writer, Maurice Barrès.

As far as the preparation for the Second World War is concerned, we had nothing with which to reproach ourselves. There was the Treaty of Guarantees, which is so often confused with the Treaty of Versailles but which was entirely distinct and separate from it. It was the guarantee of the French frontiers. That guarantee was unanimously ratified by both Houses of the British Parliament. It is true that there was a preamble which said that it would not come into force unless it was also ratified by the Senate of the United States. It never came before the Senate; it was rejected by the Foreign Affairs Committee. Consequently, the treaty was a dead letter. I think it is important to state that here, in view of the attacks which have been made upon us in a certain section of the foreign Press. Those are the facts, and in his great book "La Paix," M. André Tardieu does us the honour of fully recognising that we had done our duty in every respect.

As for the terrible disaster to French arms in the second Great War, I cannot help thinking that if only the offer conveyed by the Prime Minister, in the name of the whole Cabinet, to bring about French union had been accepted, things would have been very different. I know that the Prime Minister modestly disclaims the exclusive authorship of that document. It was composite. All the different members of the Cabinet had contributed towards it. But when one reads it and when one is familiar with the writings of that great historian, the Prime Minister, the style of the master is unmistakable, and we are perfectly certain that his hand was the master hand which polished it. May I read a sentence from that wonderful document? At this most fateful moment in the history of the modern world the Governments of the United Kingdom and French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union and unyielding resolution in their common defence of justice and freedom against subjection to a system which reduces mankind to a life of robots and slaves. The two Governments declare that France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain. Every British subject will become a citizen of France. Then came the wonderful conclusion: The Union will concentrate its full energy against the power of the enemy, no matter where the battle may be, and thus we shall conquer. The prophecy contained in that wonderful document was fulfilled.

The mover of this Motion has pointed out the wonderful reception given to the Prime Minister and the British troops in Paris in 1944. Fortunately, the late Lord Norwich lived long enough to give us a beautiful account of that welcome. He also told us of the efforts made in 1947 by the late right hon. Ernest Bevin and the French Minister M. Bidault to bring about the Treaty of Dunkirk which was, unlike the Entente Cordiale, a treaty of alliance, and was developed in 1948 into the Brussels Treaty by including Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. One year later, it was again enlarged by the North Atlantic Treaty, to which the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway, and even Turkey and Greece, adhered, making a grand total of 14 States.

I was delighted to find a clause in that Treaty which insists upon the importance of cultural relations, by which I understand the study of the French language and literature. I have never met an Englishman who knew any French at all who was not an admirer of French prose. I admit that the appreciation of French verse requires a certain amount of initiation. I have always held that the acid test was a realization of the beauties of Racine. Once that has been acquired, the whole of French literature is opened up. We must thank again our French Ambassador for bringing over to us last May the Comédie Francaise with its marvellous performance of Racine's "Britannicus." One could not hear it without becoming speechless with emotion. Here was one of the great masterpieces of French literature, a work of absolute perfection, whether one considers the drama, the psychology, the arrangement of the scenes and acts and their continuous flow towards the dénouement, or the superb versification. It is an amazing French literary masterpiece, at least equal to the works of Sophocles or Euripides.

I cannot help thinking that that effort of the French Ambassador in bringing to London the Comédie FranÇaise did a very great deal to cement the Entente Cordiale in this country. While paying this tribute of admiration to French literature, I can only conclude by saying, "Vive la France! Vive l'Entente Cordiale!"

3.56 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Anthony Eden)

I rise to associate Her Majesty's Government and Members on this side of the House with the Motion which has been so happily proposed by the hon. Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) and seconded by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Sir D. Savory), whom I congratulate on his return to robust health.

It is a remarkable fact, which my hon. Friend has well illustrated, that at the time when it was concluded the Entente Cordiale did not represent some great surge of opinion on either side of the Channel. It was, in fact, an instrument of political policy at the time, calculated to attempt to remove the differences which had so long complicated Anglo-French relations in Egypt and Morocco. That was the foundation of the business, which I suppose some people, using language which at one time was popular, would call a form of power politics deal.

However it began, its character over the years has entirely changed, and it is now important not because of the Treaty, not because of the arrangements which my hon. Friend has described to us and some of which I had myself forgotten, but because it is an expression of friendship which has come to mean something truly important to the men and women in both countries, Britain and France.

Since the war, as has been truly stated, we have tried to enshrine our relation- ship again in a number of documents like the Treaty of Dunkirk, but I do not think that they really count for so much in the relations between Britain and France as the fact that the two peoples accept, as something which nobody can ever destroy, their deep feelings of friendship and comradeship, whether the weather be foul or fine.

There is only one other comment I would like to make. It is always difficult to express one's sentiments towards any country without either exaggeration or seeming cold. I remember at this moment a particular incident in 1940 when I went with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Tours at a very bad moment in our fortunes and those of France. As we came flying back we had, for reasons into which I need not enter now, to fly very low, almost hedge-hopping over the French countryside. As we did so, I could not help the thought coming to my mind—we knew well what the immediate military future held— "Will I ever see France again?" Thinking it over since, I am sure that what was in my mind was not the physical features, like the French countryside, beautiful as it is, and all its lovely cities and cathedrals, or even one's French friends; but when we think of France we think of something which is bigger than any of us. It is a fact that France in her own peculiar way expresses to the world the epitome of Western civilisation as we know it. Whatever her problems, internal or external, she holds to that faith. We feel that when we are together the results for both of us are better and that we have each something to contribute to the common effort.

So, looking back on these 50 years, and forward to the work we have still to do together, I should like to endorse what has been said, and I should like to mention two French statesmen of this post-war period, M. Robert Schuman and M. Georges Bidault, both of whom have proved themselves not only great Frenchmen but great Europeans. In that tradition of the Entente we will go on to work together. Much has been said of the common losses on the battlefield, but now there is another very difficult kind of work to do for peace, and our two countries have to do it now in the terms and spirit of this Motion.

4.1 p.m.

Mr. C. R. Attlee (Walthamstow, West)

I rise to support, on behalf of my hon. Friends, the Motion which was moved and seconded so admirably and eloquently by the two hon. Gentlemen. I am more or less of the same generation as the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Sir D. Savory), and I was reminded by the names that came into his rolling periods of the time when relations were extremely bad with France and when foolish people talked about the French being our natural enemies. I remember that at the time we talked mainly about the Dreyfus case and the French talked about the South African war, and we abused each other.

Then there came a change and the building up of the Entente Cordiale. Looking back 50 years, it is worth recalling that the Foreign Secretary of that tune, Lord Lansdowne, was partly French and partly British, and I think he was one of the main architects of this change. I remember that we used then to attribute very great importance to these matters of friction—the Grand Banks Fisheries, the Sudan, and West and East Africa. They all seemed so vital. There seemed to be endless squabbles, but when once the will to agree came they could be settled, and I think that is a lesson to statesmen at the present time. It is so easy to exaggerate the small difficulties and not realise that what is needed is the will to end a quarrel.

I would say one word about our contacts with France. We enjoy French art and literature, but above all, as the right hon. Gentleman has rightly stressed, personal friendships; and I would recall one of this kind with an individual, a very great Frenchman, Leon Blum, a man who in himself epitomises French culture. He was a man who showed the greatest courage in the face of his enemies and strove to unite Frenchmen in those difficult times after the war, and he was a true friend of this country. We on this side believe in the sentiments expressed in this Motion, that French and British may for many many years work together for the good of both and the peace of the world.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

While I agree with what has been said by the Foreign Secretary as to the origin of the Entente Cordiale, nevertheless the signing of the three Agreements between France and this country on 8th April, 1904, set the seal upon a new understanding and a new relationship between the two countries, which have brought, and continue to bring, a rich harvest of mutual benefit to both peoples. Therefore, it is a memorable date in the history of Europe and of the world. It marked the end not merely of recent rivalries but of centuries of bitter rivalry between the two countries, traces of which may be found on scores of battlefields throughout the continent of Europe. It marked the beginning of a remarkable partnership which has grown even closer, stronger and more fruitful throughout the ensuing years.

This partnership is vital for the security of freedom, not only the freedom of the peoples of France and of Britain, but the freedom of man throughout the world. It has stood the test of time and survived the challenge of adversity, and when we look back over the intervening period and recall the tumultuous events and titanic struggles that have torn and convulsed the civilised world, we cannot but wonder at the resilience, the extraordinary resilience, and tenacity of that partnership which has enabled it to stand firm against so many shocks and storms and through so many disasters and vicissitudes.

This partnership is based upon common interests and common objectives. It is embedded in our allegiance to common ideals and common institutions. It is fortified by an awareness of common dangers and common sources of security. We can speak, with justifiable pride, of the debt that Europe owes to Britain, especially for the heroic part she played as saviour and liberator of Europe. But we shall ever remember that Europe and indeed the world owe an immeasurable debt to France for the colossal sacrifice she made in her immortal resistance to German aggression. In the course of that agonising conflict of the 1914–18 war, France lost over 2 million men. The flower of her youth was destroyed. This was a shattering blow to the strength and vitality of the great French nation from which she has not yet been able to recover.

Notwithstanding the immense problems and difficulties, both external and internal, with which she has been confronted since 1945, France has taken the initiative again and again in the endeavour to lead the nations of Europe out of the dark abyss into which they were plunged by the horror and ruin of war. When the great ideal of a united Europe is accomplished, the historians of the future will acknowledge that it was due primarily to the efforts and achievements of France.

So for 50 years France and Britain have been allies. Their sons have fought and fallen side by side in defence of their lands and freedom. The bonds of friendship and understanding that bind them together are unbreakable. They were forged out of tempered steel by the hammer of necessity on the anvil of history. A partnership so formed and founded is indestructible. It has endured for half a century, and therefore we earnestly hope that it will continue to be with us for ever.

4.9 p.m.

Miss Jennie Lee (Cannock)

I wish to associate myself unreservedly with the Motion to be sent by this House to our neighbouring democracy of France. Although I have the honour to represent an English constituency, I belong by birth and upbringing north of the Border and for me to talk about the Entente Cordiale is a very new thing. It is more natural for me to think in terms of the "Auld Alliance"; to think of the generations when Scotland looked towards France as our closest friend and ally, and indeed depended on the friendship and support of France when we had to deal with the English. I do not wish to take up the time of the House with the romantic history of Scotland, nor even to follow the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Sir D. Savory) in the tribute which he has so well paid to French literature and much else which we owe to France.

I did not, like the hon. Gentleman, have the privilege of going to France in 1903, but I was there about three weeks ago, and I was deeply moved, meeting distinguished French men and French women of all political parties who had one thing in common—they all had a distinguished record during the war-time military Resistance in France.

This is not an occasion for party politics. I am presuming to intervene at this moment because I believe that a democracy, whether it is French or British, is in grave danger of being overlaid by the dictatorship Powers. These are always so much tidier than a democracy; there is only one point of view, only one voice. It is easy to mock France on occasions, as it is to mock this country, when there are many discordant voices. I deeply believe, however, that if the world is to recover sanity, if we are to avoid the very real dangers of a third world war, it is France and Britain, and France and Britain together, who must be the deciding voice in making the right decisions for the world.

I was very much struck in France a few weeks ago by how sensitive French people are to our opinion, our many opinions, for, like France, we have different opinions. In Paris, I discussed not only current affairs, not only war-time friendships, but events going back to the years before the war. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition paid special tribute to M. Leon Blum, because countries, like individuals, sometimes make their best effort not when they win but when they are defeated. The France of the pre-war days, under the leadership of M. Blum, was, I believe, more truly democratic than our own country. I believe that if we had accepted the advice of France in the early days of the Spanish Civil War we might, before we faced the full might of Nazi Germany and world Facism, have turned world history in another direction.

I hope and pray that from this time of anxious eager discussion among French men and French women wise decisions will result, and that together we may build not just on past friendships but on long years of future friendships. Even though we talk with many voices, there is an independence and power in democracies that can stand up for genuine democratic rights. We must not allow our countries to be bullied by any other countries or once more to make the tragic concessions to Fascism which we made before the Second World War.

Question put, and agreed to, nemine contradicente.

Resolved, That this House, in recognition of the fact that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Entente Cordiale and that for the past half-century the close and friendly relations thus established between France and Great Britain have been loyally maintained and of great mutual value both in war and peace; that Franco-British friendship—of which the Dunkirk Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance is a recent manifestation—is one of the foundation stones on which the post-war policies of France and Great Britain have been built, and is essential for the security and prosperity of Western civilisation; and that it is the common desire of the peoples of our two countries that this close understanding, which has so well withstood the test of time, should be preserved and diligently developed, hereby resolves that a Message of Greeting and Good Will should be conveyed to the Assemble Nationale to mark the first fifty years of the Entente Cordiale and to give an assurance that the tradition of Anglo-French solidarity which has grown up during this period will continue to be a constant and guiding principle of our foreign policy over future decades.

Mr. Speaker

I shall have pleasure in conveying to the President of the National Assembly of France the Resolution of the House.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.