An idea for a counterfactual essay

Posted by Helen Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Counterfactuals are a lot of fun and, except for people who say rather grandly that they are not interested in alternatives, thus showing themselves to be determinists, of some import. Faced with certain historical developments it is tempting to take them apart and remove one particular aspect to see whether the same conclusion could have been reached. Most times the author of the counterfactual has to admit that history would probably have been quite similar.

There are, of course, some events and some people so crucial to the particular historical development that took place that their absence would, quite literally, have made all the difference in the world. One such event is the arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station in Petrograd in April 1917.

The one I am proposing as a question is considerably less important and less likely to have made any difference.

There has been a great deal of what might be called kerfuffle around the formerly secret documents, now unearthed, that show Guy Mollet, then Prime Minister of France, proposed, firstly, a union between France and Britain and, when that was greeted with pursed lips and raised eyebrows, for France to become part of the Commonwealth.

As it happens, Sir Anthony Eden rejected both suggestions, no doubt with some bemusement and elegantly raised eyebrows. Had he not done so, neither idea could possibly have got through either Westminster or the AssemblĂ©e Nationale. So, that’s really that. The story is of interest only as a possible counterfactual analysis: what if France had become a member of the Commonwealth in 1956?

On the other hand, it might be worth one’s while to speculate a little as to why Mollet came up with such a harebrained and rather desperate scheme. After all, nobody had treated Churchill’s suggestion of an Anglo-French union in 1940 particularly seriously.

Mollet is generally described as an Anglophile though as someone on the left of French politics his Anglophilia remains somewhat questionable. He does seem to have been impressed and grateful for the help Britain had given the French resistance during World War II.

There is the suggestion that he wanted to use the British card in his negotiations with West Germany over the Common Market. Unfortunately, the British card was no longer in the pack, having dropped out in 1955.

A more serious problem in the autumn of 1956 was France’s involvement in North Africa and the Middle East. The Algerian War was beginning to take its toll in political and economic terms and the French suspected rightly that Gamal Nasser, the self-appointed ruler of Egypt was supplying the FLN with arms and ammunition in the name of the anti-colonial struggle.

As a left-winger, Mollet had previously opposed French colonialism in North Africa and welcomed all chances of negotiation with the FLN. As Prime Minister, he announced that the rebels had to be defeated first and negotiated with afterwards. Possibly, as one who had opposed the war previously, he felt anxious to prove his credentials as a strong leader.

France was still a staunch ally of Israel with a left-wing government being particularly strongly supportive. (How times change.)

When Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal in July, France was considerably more gung-ho than Britain in her desire to punish the upstart leader. It was France that pushed the initially reluctant Israelis towards a military plan.

September 1956 was a time when Britain once again seemed to be dragging her feet. British soldiers had left the Suez zone. Initial support for a military solution to the crisis was waning. Israel was worried that she would find herself in the unwelcome position of the fall guy. And the war in Algeria was going on.

Mollet came up with his rather desperate proposal in the hopes that Britain would be tied more firmly into the French struggle to hang on to Algeria and other parts of North Africa, nipping the growing anti-colonial fight led by Egypt, if not precisely in the bud then not too long after early flowering.

The ideas were rejected and the Suez adventure ended badly, not least because of lack of American support. As it happens, the Israelis were successful beyond their wildest dreams in the Sinai but Nasser and other Arab leaders chose to ignore that, concentrating on the humiliation of the two colonial powers, France and Britain.

It was after the Suez debacle that Konrad Adenauer told Mollet that he should make the European Community his revenge for Suez and the negotiations proceeded apace. Britain chose to learn another lesson which, given the much closer cultural links with the United States, made perfect sense: a revival and fostering of the “special relationship”.

The Algerian War went on to its disastrous ending and Nasser’s refusal to accept that Egypt had been militarily defeated in Sinai led almost inexorably to the catastrophe (from the Arab point of view) of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Would any of it have been different if Mollet’s proposals had been taken seriously?


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. You may well be right about France, but I am not altogether sure about Westminster. Have a look at the Expanding Commonwealth pamphlet published in the early 1950s and commanding a good deal of supoort from the right in the Tory party. There was still a good deal of anti Americanism in the Imperialist camp and the notion of linking Europe and the Empire as a counterbalance in the western alliance looked attractive. Eden was of course an Atlanticist, but Butler and Macmillan...?

  3. Helen Says:
  4. There is still a great deal of anti-Americanism in the Conservative Party. However, would they not have had to make a choice between a union with France and the Empire? Even Mollet's idea of France becoming part of the Commonwealth would have been tricky to achieve without that country acquiring a very special position. Perhaps, it would not have mattered to Butler and Macmillan.

  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. Not at all sure they saw this as inevitable. The Crown was still a major link for the older dominions, there was no legislation on nationality, so French could have become subjects of the Queen (after all many earlier monarchs had claimed the French throne cf. their arms which incorporated the fleur-de-lys). Union they might have worried about (cf their rejection of Malta that year) but membership of the Commonwealth was precisely what was preached in The Expanding Commonwealth - although they were looking more to countries like Holland in 1953. I suspect the French would have had more difficulties than the UK at that stage - we were still very much a wartime set of generations (two world wars), quite confident in ourselves and of course pre de Gaulle.

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