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A historical turning point for France and Britain?

Mark Urban | 17:39 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Britain and France have tried a few times in the past decade to cooperate more fruitfully on defence.

At times it's seemed to be going well but at others the US gravitational pull - irresistibly attractive to the British and repellent to the likes of former French president Jacques Chirac - have brought it to grief.

My own experience with troops from the two nations in the Balkans or Afghanistan suggests that British and French get on very well together.

They are business-like, often share a sense of humour and the French in particular have made great efforts to overcome the language barrier. Watching soldiers from the two nations dealing with Serb fire on Mount Igman in 1995 or training Afghan soldiers in Camp Shorabak earlier this year, you certainly wonder why commentators or tabloids bother trotting out their John Bull nonsense about Waterloo or Trafalgar on a day like today.

The answer, of course, lies with politics - and it is why the 'can it work' questions are not yet redundant even if they are best framed with reference to the recent past rather than to the days of men in bicorne hats.

Some of the clauses in today's agreement carry forward cooperation in practical areas where it will obviously be mutually beneficial. The two nations are going to pool resources on their tactical air transport fleets, as both countries introduce the new A400 aircraft into service. It will be the RAF's Hercules replacement.

If it's done smartly, joint training and support of an airlift force can save money and survive any political chills. After all, decades have passed since Britain and France produced military aircraft like the Jaguar, Puma or Gazelle together.

However, the new agreement extends cooperation into some new areas: joint scientific programmes to maintain the two countries nuclear weapon stockpiles; running aircraft carrier operations jointly; or jointly fielding a large expeditionary military force.

The 'would a French carrier take our planes to war with Iraq?' question is a perfectly legitimate one, though the two nations hope it would not materialise 75% of the time.

Each country wants to have one carrier with its own aircraft - it's only during refits that one nation could become dependent upon the other.

The really unprecedented area touched upon today is that of nuclear weapons cooperation. UK/US nuclear cooperation was central to the birth of the special relationship - and many at Aldermaston would argue that it's still vital.

But the new British coalition government has shown unmistakeable signs (for example in reducing the planned warhead load for the Trident replacement submarine) that while it loves the political status of having the bomb, it thinks it can cut the bill.

Now the UK and France are seeking to cooperate on nuclear 'stewardship' issues, establishing joint scientific teams and sharing data. This involves sharing information about the construction, maintenance, and development of warheads (much of which in the UK's case has been learned alongside the Americans).

This is undoubtedly new territory and it touches on the intimate secrets of a nuclear weapons power. Since the actual use of such weapons is so unlikely, this is a political matter above all.

The real question in the coming years will be whether the Cameron and Sarkozy governments signed this treaty at an unusual and short lived moment of political harmony - with the British sore about being too close militarily to the Americans and the French under an unusually pro-Anglo Saxon president - or whether they managed to exploit a historical turning point in which rivalries became irrelevant.


  • Comment number 1.


    On the Today Programme this morning on Radio 4, defence secretary Dr Fox justified the new nuclear co-operation with France by saying ( verbatim) "under the nonproliferation treaty we have a responsibility to keep p our nuclear warheads reliable and safe." The Non Proliferation Treaty says nothing of the sort, but Dr Fox wasn't challenged by the Today programme presenter.

    However, any Franco-British military nuclear co-operation would be a violation of the NPT - by both nations. The UK is both a co-author of the 1968 treaty text, and a depositary state for the treaty itself, article one of which reads in full:

    "Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices." (

    Any interpretation of the entente nucleaire must regard it as at least an "indirect" transfer of nuclear weapons knowledge. [The US and UK had an extant 1958 UK-UK mutual defense (defence is spelt with an "s" even in the UK Command document, so you can have one guess at its origin!) agreement on atomic energy matters when they drafted and signed the NPT, so it was an inherited atomic co-operation pact.

    The new joint agreement includes these two literally incredible paragraphs:


    26. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery is among the most serious threats to international peace and security. We will work to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, one of the cornerstones of the international security architecture, and will support ongoing efforts across its three pillars: non-proliferation, the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and disarmament. We call on all countries to adopt robust measures to counter proliferators such as Iran and North Korea.


    27. Iran’s nuclear proliferation activities and its persistent violation of IAEA and UN Security Council Resolutions are of the utmost concern. A choice by Iran’s leaders to respect these Resolutions and to resolve the concerns of the international community would open up a wide range of new opportunities for the Iranian people. We call on Iran to engage in serious dialogue with the Six in order to agree a credible solution, consistent with Security Council Resolutions that would provide a long term guarantee of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. Until such a solution is in place, we call on all countries to follow the EU’s lead by implementing stringent, targeted sanctions

    This new UK-French 'entente atomique' is, rather, a direct affront to the NPT, and shows that while Iran is excoriated for its atomic ambitions and alleged breach of its NPT obligations, UK & France breach their own NPT obligations with apparent impunity.

    In exasperation

    Dr David Lowry
    former director, European Proliferation Information Centre (EPIC)

    PS Any ongoing nuclear warhead testing collaboration with France would also strongly suggest neither nation plans to uphold their obligations to complete nuclear disarmament under NPT article 6, so it is a double treaty violation

    Article VI

    Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.
    Full NPT text at:


    If the new 'entente militaire' with France today is to agree to the sharing of nuclear warhead research capacity - in a pact to last last 50 year plus according to David Cameron in his joint lunch hour press conference- then this makes a mockery of next year's P5 "nuclear disarmament" meeting in Paris next year! Just whose nuclear disarmament are they planning to discuss?

    Hansard, 1 Nov 2010 : Column 575W
    Nuclear Disarmament
    Paul Flynn: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs pursuant to the Prime Minister's oral statement of 19 October 2010, Official Report, columns 805-06, on the Strategic Defence and Security Review, in what forums he expects discussions of the UK's responsibilities for multilateral nuclear disarmament to take place. [20731]

    Alistair Burt: The Government are committed to the long-term vision of a world without nuclear weapons and will press for multilateral progress as the primary means of achieving sustainable global nuclear disarmament.

    The UK continues to take part in regular discussions on multilateral nuclear disarmament in the following international fora: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty preparatory committees and five-yearly review conferences; the UN's Disarmament Commission and First Committee; the preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organisation; and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The Nuclear Weapon States will also discuss nuclear disarmament at a meeting of the P5 in Paris in 2011-following a similar conference hosted by the UK in 2009.

    Not one of the BBC's specialist correspondents mentioned the NPT and it prima facie violation in any of their broadcasts made today. I wonder why not?

  • Comment number 2.

    courage, Mon Ami, at last a real French entente cordialle, now we can get somewhere and forget about Agincourt, Dunkirk 1940, 1066, our closest neighbours should be our blood brothers after we share so much, we go back to plantagenet and we were running around like the stupid Anglo Saxons we were with our wooded compounds and tethered goats and thought we were the big deals when we almost savages then along came the French from Normandy who were really Vikings who pillaged Normandy two hundred years before and decided to call themselves Normans but they had a culture, order and they had chivalry when we didn't know the word existed so after Doomsday we started to get some order instead of the mayhem that had gone before.....

  • Comment number 3.


    Don't alliances between European states tend, historically, to be broken, or do a sudden switch in the field?

    What's the French for 'friendly fire'?

    Lest we forget: 'Petard' is a French name for a dodgy adjunct to war.

    Oh - it's all going awfully bon.

  • Comment number 4.

    A historical turning point for France and Britain, but one to be expected.
    The US gravitional pull is no longer so strong, no longer so capable of pulling other countries down into essentially American quagmires.
    The answer, of course, has always rested on politics; after all, the United States was a super-power; she tended to bully her way.
    Did France bully Britain? Did Britain bully France?
    I hope this brings an end the UK/US nuclear cooperation.
    Now the UK and France are seeking to cooperate on nuclear 'stewardship' issues, establishing joint scientific teams and sharing data. This must be giving the United States of America a political/military fit!
    I'm deeply thankful that Britian has realized that its relationship with the United States has been too close militarily.
    I believe this new relationshiop between France and Britain has made both countries safer.

  • Comment number 5.

    Unfortunately, what post #01 fails to point out, is that France has a strong industrial base of production, and export, of armaments to all French ex-colonies (there are many) and other conflict zones globally.

    France also exports it's products based on a 'wide range' of nuclear 'expertise' to Iran. Germany produces submarines to deliver nuclear weapons.

    Is it not time that post #01 grew up and stopped believing in UN Treaties and instead of quoting these Treaties - read between the lies - I mean lines?!

  • Comment number 6.

    I can't believe for a second the next frenh president will feel bound by this spectacular act of political theatre.
    sarkozy is a right wing politician but from a very specific part of the french right , the one begging to serve the United States no matter what (sarkozy would have obeyed washington in 2003 just like the UK shamefully did...), the chance to have this bunch in power long enough to sell the country down the river is minimal.
    They'll try their best though , have no doubt about that.

  • Comment number 7.

    Post #06. Yes, agree about political theatre...

    That is something the French and British will always have in common.

    However, British theatre, in ALL it's forms, is always more ... humourous as Britain has an innate sense of irony and never takes itself so seriously as the French take themselves?

  • Comment number 8.

    It will end in tears it always does when France is concerned.
    The French believe that it's another step in there long term plan for a Euro Armed Forces controlled by them.
    as for buying equipment, for the french that means buying their equipment, just as happened in the sixties
    one wonders how Washington feels about France having access to their Nuclear Technology?
    despite all the guff about each nation having full control of it's forces. We will come under intense pressure to support France's global adventures particularly in Africa. Yet when we need help your suddenly see French military assets such as it's Aircraftcarrier being denied to us.
    France is a untrustworthy vain-glorious "friend", who will let us down when we need their support.

  • Comment number 9.

    2 deluded states who cannot let go of their imperial past and like drunks now prop each other up in order to keep useless ego trip kit like the carriers.

    the FO should move out of carlton house with its murals of empire.

    as for the carriers apparently we can live without them for 10 years.

    what a shambles they have made of defence. every day we learn a new blunder?

  • Comment number 10.


    As boys, my brother and I were 'daggers drawn'. But we grew up - matured - and became mutually trusting. We saw the folly of enmity.

    The very immaturity that drives desperate and needy individuals to the top of politics, and to the Globopoly table, is the same immaturity that loves military pageantry and eternal, jingoistic recall of slaughtering glory.

    Jauntycyclist says: "the FO should move out of carlton house with its murals of empire." How telling.

    I have said before: Harry Patch? Harry Who?

    Until Britain puts the maturation of her young above posturing and blustering, such inane belief as 'squaddies are the best of British' and 'Trident deters terrorists' will endure. Winston Who?

    I hear alcohol is bad for us. Will Dave close any Westminster bars?

    Oh - it's all going awfully fermented.

  • Comment number 11.

    clusterbombunit : Your subserviency to the american point of view is laughable , classic minion speech but laughable nonetheless.

    No France won't have access to the american nuclear weapon technology just like the UK doesn't have access to it (your nuclear capacity is de facto american's).

    But through their british minions , americans will have a great way to check how the Laser Mégajoule nuclear facility is shaping up.
    Why the only independent european nuclear power would decide to ally with the american outpost in Europe is anybody guess ...

    The Daily Hate crowd are screaming treason about Cameron decision , treason , yeah , I understand the feeling ...

  • Comment number 12.

    "A historical turning point for France and Britain?"

    Yeah, same old, same old. Like two drowning men hanging on to each other for dear life, each telling the other it will all be okay knowing full well that it won't.

  • Comment number 13.


    It makes sense that the ordinary soldier gets on with his own kind. The rules of their game are all too simple. Ironic, really, that these 'natural chums' are required to kill one another - WHEN TOLD TO, and do so readily. Might that devalue the observed closeness a little?

    But farther up the hierarchy, you get AMBITION and UNMET NEED. When the generals begin to squabble, like children (AS children) about who is top, the bonhomie and camaraderie in the ranks does not prevent them from getting slaughtered, through bad strategy.

    Few individuals make any sort of fist of coping with their own life, let alone allying with a second party to 'bring order' to a third.

    What arrogance.

    I notice Mark is 'Diplomatic and DEFENCE Editor. Since Tony and Dubya formulated the 'New Cruelty' of 'attack on a whim as the best defence' isn't it time Mark became 'Attack Editor', and our 'Defence Industry' came clean about weapons? Or must we continue to 'live within the lie'?
    If co-operation is THAT smart and viable, why not co-operate TO RISE ABOVE WAR?

  • Comment number 14.

    Had to port this one over, if true...

    'Have to wonder about our media sometimes. Last night on Newsnight, Kirsty Wark asked Malcolm Rifkind if the language difference between UK and French troops would create practical problems in a theatre of war.'

    As has been noted here before, it's not as if there are not already enough practical problems within the theatre of UK media when it comes to comprehension.

    But good of Kirsty to highlight it.

  • Comment number 15.

    BLOGDOG (#13)

    I would repost but I cannot, for the life of me, detect anything improper. I'll keep trying - might you be less so?

  • Comment number 16.

    BLOGDOG (#13)

    I feel sure you would not be so dishonourable as to DELAY a post, simply to time it out of the public eye and any current relevance. Perish the thought.

  • Comment number 17.

    'A historical turning point for France and Britain?'

    As well as ze new trendy spellings, non? Perhaps to please our special relations over the pond.

  • Comment number 18.

    '16. At 2:43pm on 03 Nov 2010, barriesingleton wrote:
    I feel sure you would not be so dishonourable as to DELAY a post, simply to time it out of the public eye and any current relevance. Perish the thought.

  • Comment number 19.


    "Call the Gendarmerie, the Dog-de-blog has purloined my empostment number 13."


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