That Sweet Enemy: the French and the British from the Sun King to the Present, by Robert & Isabelle Tombs

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The Independent Culture

"I have not always in my dealings with General de Gaulle," Harold Wilson once said, "found quotations from Trafalgar and Waterloo necessarily productive, and he has been very tactful about the Battle of Hastings." In their epic, instructive and engaging book on several centuries of dangerous liaisons between France and Britain, Robert and Isabelle Tombs have not been in the least tactful. Our two nations have a long history of mutual violence and many times would gladly have deleted the other from the map.

Which, on the whole, would have been a pity, because each has defined and constructed itself by reference to this antagonism. Britain exists in order to be not-France. We call French people "frogs" not just because they eat them, but because we don't. Conversely, France has always had the exotic and erotic lure of being our nearest faraway place, full of the most foreign of foreigners.

The husband and wife authorial team (he English, she French) provide an exemplary incarnation of entente cordiale or adversarial co-existence. A Beaubourg among books, That Sweet Enemy brazenly exposes what others prefer to conceal and allows the duellists to battle it out in a series of prickly, passionate debates. Isabelle ("IT") tends to emphasise British aggression, Francophobia, anti-Catholic hysteria; Robert ("RT"), on the other hands, draws attention to French aggression, Anglophobia and Napoleon. But IT and RT agree that all our troubles are essentially the fault of the people on the opposite side of the Channel (or La Manche?). It may not be Agincourt, but I imagine that rapier-sharp conversation is never lacking in the Tombs household.

The so-called Hundred Years War was an absurd underestimation: a thousand would be more like it. Even when not gouging chunks out of one another, sinking the other side's entire fleet, or just blowing up peaceful eco-ships, most of our "diplomacy" has aimed - in both directions - at subverting the opposition and bending them to our will.

The rivalry between two empires, in many ways trivial and parochial, has always been played out on a global scale. We took Canada; they took Tahiti (and pointed out that it was way more fun there). They cheered on the revolting American colonies. We sent in a cricket team to quell the Revolution, while Coleridge burned "equality" and "liberty" into the Cambridge lawns of St John's and Trinity. Napoleon remained fond of les Anglais and planned to start again as an English country squire after Waterloo. He got the shock of his life when perfidious Albion imprisoned him on Saint Helena.

The French navy was always plotting to invade, but its best shot was an occasional landing in Ireland. They once tried to engage our ships in the Channel with a plan to conquer Cornwall, but we cunningly lay low and they beat a retreat, decimated by typhus, cholera and the lack of lemons. In retaliation, we sent fanatical would-be second homeowners into Provence and set about subverting the French language.

The Haut Comité de la Langue Française hit back by prohibiting "Let" (and especially "Love") at the French Open. Anthony Steen MP returned fire with his French Words (Prohibition) Bill: "You will not be able to shower your fiancée with bouquets or meet her at a secret rendezvous. Or buy her haute couture clothes. There will be great difficulties having a ménage-a-trois. Crime passionnel is out of the question."

Five Minutes Conversation with Young Ladies, the Tommy's trenchant phrase book of the First World War, started with "Voulez vous accepter l'apéritif?" and progressed with remarkable rapidity to "Notre bonheur sera de courte durée". My father's generation took over ça ne fait rien and mangled it into "san fairy ann". Is it any wonder that Churchill and de Gaulle fell out? It is a miracle they ever fell in. Sinking the French fleet (yet again!) at Mers-el-Kébir didn't help. Given that the Americans seriously considered collaborating with Vichy, it is no surprise that de Gaulle should have arranged his force de frappe (so it was rumoured) to point in both directions.

Is there a significant difference, beyond tabloid headlines, between France and Britain? The first Gulf War provides a handy barometer. Britain's classic narrative came from SAS soldier Andy McNab in Bravo Two Zero, a tale of heroic failure and a world of pain. The French riposte came from Jean Baudrillard, the pope of postmodernism, who never left the boulevard Saint Germain and wrote The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (it was a "virtual" war). Here the real is still taken seriously; there it is overshadowed by the symbolic and the imaginary.

The Tombs are closer to McNab than Baudrillard. That Sweet Enemy is the War and Peace of Franco-British relations, but stronger on war than on peace. And despite the twin authorship, it is a very English perspective, resolutely empirical, deeply anti-theory. Napoleon said that a revolution was an idea that had acquired some bayonets. This book is big on bayonets, short on ideas.

Edmund Burke denounced France for its "metaphysical abstraction". There is a sense, reading this book, of No Metaphysics Please, We're British. No semiotics, either. The phenomenon of the maîtres à penser - Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan, Barthes, Derrida - is given very short shrift, as is Brigitte Bardot. Even setting aside the small matter of the football World Cup of 1998, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was to the 20th century what Voltaire was to the 18th, is a major omission. His existential analysis of l'être-pour-autrui is indispensable. All human relations, he argues, come down to sadism and masochism; the only "third way" is a combination of both. His acid one-liner, "Hell is other people", summarises the relationship between France and Britain rather well, providing we add, "and heaven too".

One small correction. The Tombs are under the impression that Groucho Marx - invoked in relation to Harold Macmillan struggling to get Britain into the Common Market and getting a Gaullist "Non" - wanted to become a member of a club that would not have him. Whereas the joke, which would fit our mentalité now better, was the opposite: he refused to have any truck with a club that would have him as a member.

Andy Martin teaches French at Cambridge University; his books include 'Napoleon the Novelist'