In Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate the English?, everyone’s favourite Pub Landlord is out to unravel the reasons for England being such an irritant to its closest neighbours. This naturally includes a visit to France, where he delves into subjects like the Hundred Years’ War (it’s never a good indication of love and respect between nations when there’s something literally called the “Hundred Years’ War” in their mutual history) and a certain troublesome chap called Napoleon (and his similarity, or not, to a toy hamster).
Most surprisingly, he also discovers that not even World War Two, and the existential threat of Adolf Hitler, was enough to forge much of an 'entente cordiale' between the English and the French. Take Dunkirk, for example. To many in France, this wasn’t a 'miracle of deliverance', as Churchill put it, but a miracle of cowardice and betrayal. According to this view of the whole debacle, the English basically scarpered from the continent, leaving France to be engulfed by the Reich.
It’s not exactly fair, though. Had the Dunkirk evacuation not taken place, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops would have been killed or taken prisoner, crippling the war effort and perhaps even leading to the UK’s eventual submission. Plus, plenty of Frenchmen were among those evacuated.
Even so, the unease over Dunkirk was a real thing. And even worse was the awesome, truly epic-scale irritation that existed between Churchill and the great hero of France, Charles de Gaulle. 'He thinks he’s Joan of Arc,' Churchill said of his supposed ally. 'But I can’t get my bloody bishops to burn him.'
As for de Gaulle, one of his closest advisors noted that he 'must constantly be reminded that our main enemy is Germany. If he would follow his own inclination, it would be England.'
Prior to the conflict with Hitler, de Gaulle had already been a distinguished member of the French power structure. He’d fought bravely in World War One – even getting impaled on a bayonet didn’t dampen his enthusiasm – and later became a politician. A tall, aloof and haughty fellow, he was described by an early friend as standing out from the crowd, 'not so much because of his size but because of his ego, which glowed from afar.'
When the Germans invaded France in 1940 – a move that eventually led to the creation of the Nazi-flavoured Vichy government – de Gaulle abruptly became the leader and icon of the Free France movement. He also became a thorn in the side of his host, Winston Churchill, who quickly tired of having a very large, very sulky Frenchman hanging around London, making speeches and demanding attention.
'When I am right, I get angry. Churchill gets angry when he is wrong,' de Gaulle said. 'We are angry at each other much of the time.' It wasn’t just about personal antagonism either. De Gaulle felt sidelined by the Allies, and was suspicious about Britain’s potentially imperialistic intentions towards France, even going so far as to tell a reporter that 'Britain is exploiting Vichy in the same way as Germany'.
Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt actually wanted to replace de Gaulle as leader of Free France, with Churchill putting it very bluntly: “He hates England”. De Gaulle’s domineering, king-like demeanour even had some suspecting him of being a Fascist-in-waiting. But de Gaulle’s important to the French Resistance meant he had to be tolerated. Churchill grudgingly admitted he didn’t want to upset the Resistance forces “for the sake of a Frenchman who is a bitter foe of Britain and may well bring civil war upon France.”
The liberation of France seemed to bring a thawing in their frosty relationship, with de Gaulle even praising their “gallant ally England” for helping kick out the Nazis. But his old antipathy towards “les rosbifs” would resurface with a vengeance many years later.
Despite his towering importance during WW2, de Gaulle – much like Churchill – didn’t adjust well to peacetime. He left frontline politics, only to return in the late 1950s to utterly re-shape the French government and usher in a new era, known as the Fifth Republic. Despite his frustrations (he once famous asking 'How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?'), de Gaulle became the defining figure of 20th Century France. And he certainly used his clout on the European stage to put the UK in its place.
In the 1960s, he vetoed Britain’s application to join the EEC, the forerunner of the European Union. 'England is insular,' he said firmly, basically suggesting that the UK’s 'maritime”' culture as an island nation meant it wasn’t REALLY European and would never fit properly into the great European project. He also thought that, were the UK to join the EEC, it would be little more than a Trojan Horse for the influence of the United States. De Gaulle deeply distrusted the 'special relationship' between the UK and the US – perhaps partly because of how Churchill and Roosevelt had conspired against him during the war.
It was only after de Gaulle had safely left office that the UK was able to join the EEC. His rocky relationship with the English is one which is still reflected in the mutual unease and tension unfolding across the Channel today. Indeed, if he was still alive today in the post-Brexit universe, he would likely have had only four words on the matter: 'I told you so.'