An unlikely marriage: how France proposed to the UK

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Fifty years ago today (let us say) the French and British parliaments reached their historic decision to merge two proud nations into one. Two declining countries, shaken by world wars, communism, rock 'n' roll and the loss of empire, decided to create a European superpower with the young Queen Elizabeth II of Britain ­ La Reine Elisabeth I of France ­ as head of state.

Britons have, by now, recovered from the shock of being forced to drive on the right ­ a symbolic decision taken in 1963 to cement the two nations and reduce the carnage on the roads. The French have taken less well to cricket, warm beer, fish and chips and sliced bread.

All the same, the United Kingdom of England, France, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ­ or, in French, Le Royaume de Frangleterre ­ is thriving. With a population of 120 million "Even Grander Bretagne" is the second largest economy in the Western world. Unemployment is at 3 per cent. The national currency, the livre, is buoyant. Strikes are uncommon.

The Franco-British movie industry, thanks to national subsidies, rivals Hollywood as a globally influential film-maker. The 40th "Carry On" ("Continuez") movie ­ starring Gerry Depardieu, Cathy Deneuve, Hugues Grant and Stephane Fry ­ has just been released. So has Les Bronzés in Skegness.

Taxes are higher than in, say, the United States, but the National Health Service and the bilingual, state schools are the envy of the world. And the Frangleterre football team has just won the World Cup for the third time in succession, captained by Terry Henry. Although Scotland still insists on maintaining its own team.

A documentary which aired in the BBC Radio 4 Document series last night ­ "A Marriage Cordiale" ­ plucked this idea from the waste-paper basket of history.

In September 1956, the French Prime Minister, Guy Mollet, a Socialist and an Anglophile, proposed to the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, a Conservative and a Francophile, that the two countries should merge. The proposal was never debated publicly. Documents describing the reaction of British civil servants were among secret papers opened to the public 20 years ago but not discovered until now. Sir Anthony Eden appears to have taken the idea reasonably seriously; his civil servants less so. M. Mollet then came back with another idea: that France should join the Commonwealth, accepting the "headship" of the Queen.

Sir Anthony suggested this idea should be given "immediate consideration ". Nothing seems to have come of it. Both men were forced out of power and the discussion was forgotten.

Guy Mollet is best remembered in France as the prime minister who took the French into the Algerian war and the Suez crisis. His motives in proposing some sort of union with Britain may have been to secure British support for his foreign and colonial policy.

French historians, startled to hear about the proposal, suggest that Mollet, who died in 1975, may also have been manoeuvring against the Germans before the negotiations which led to the Common Market the following year.

The fact that the ideas were never floated publicly suggest that they were never taken particularly seriously in either London or Paris. But what if they had been? Could such a marriage, between mutually jealous and perennially quarrelling siblings, ever have worked? Fifty years on, we might have blended the best of France and the best of Britain. On the other hand, we might have shared our faults. France might have had our public transport and health systems. We might have had the ramshackle, French university system. We might have had French rates of unemployment. They might have had the London Tube, instead of the Metro.

We both might have ended up with French TV, British hospital waiting lists, the French police, British estate agents, French trades unions, British school dinners, French plumbers and Scottish joie de vivre.