Towards a new golden age of Franco-British cooperation ?

By Florian Chevoppe | 18 October 2011

To quote this document: Florian Chevoppe, “Towards a new golden age of Franco-British cooperation ?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 18 October 2011,, displayed on 22 March 2023

Traditionally relying on the United States for equipment, technology and logistical support since 1945, the British government signed a milestone treaty with France on 4 November 2010 that would bind the two countries to an unprecedented extent since the Second World War. Just 8 months after this, the Libyan people decided to put this new partnership to a test. What is this partnership and how did it come to existence ? How was it affected by the Libyan intervention ? Will it succeed or fail to deliver ?

Rule, Britannia !

Britain is a global defence player, but all this comes at a price. According to HM Treasury, British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan cost around £10bn, and £11bn respectively. At the beginning of 2010, newspapers reported Britain's deficit could reach Greece's. So in June 2010, answering calls from the European Union, the newly elected Conservative and Liberal coalition government was quick to introduce an “emergency budget”, planning to bring public borrowing from £149bn in 2010 to £20bn in 2015. I

In May 2010, the coalition government published a new white paper, the "Strategic Defence and Security Review" (SDSR). Reductions in British Army personnel lead some newspapers to say that Britain "can no longer mount military operations like  the Iraq invasion", adding that military personnel "will consist of 30,000 troops – two thirds of the number of British troops that took part in the invasion of Iraq." The House of Commons Defence Committee had already stressed that British forces were "overstretched", and had called for 10,000 extra recruits. British defence policy is evolving has been rapidly changing in the 21st century.

Britain and France are not just two random nations. They are former world powers, covering at their height 17,779,000 sq mi, that is 1/3rd of the land surface of the Earth. And they are no stranger to each other. Whether the Royaume de France, Kingdom of England, République française, Kingdom of Great Britain, l'Empire, or simply the United Kingdom, they have been foes. But things progressively changed during the 19th century. On 8 April 1904, a series of agreement known as the Entente Cordiale were signed, taking both countries out of their isolation in the face of a mighty industrial Germany. Cooperation indeed culminated during the First and Second World Wars with millions of men and women fighting alongside.

A friend in need is a friend indeed

But what history sometimes forgets is that the two came close to being one. In 1940, when defeat was looming, the French and British governments sought to unite to continue to the war. They proposed a complete "Anglo-French Union" whereby "France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union." But Marshal Pétain dropped the ball, and the two remained seperate. In 29 October 1956, France and Britain sparked the Suez Crisis by forcefully retaking the Canal, which had been nationalized by Nasser in July. Under threats of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union and financial attack from America, Prime minister Guy Mollet proposed to form a new country, imagined by Jean Monnet, with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and dual British-French citizenship for all : but it was London who declined this time. A year later, France, now distrustful of Britain, signed the Treaties of Rome and pledged cooperation with the newly reborn West Germany, while Britain signed the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement, allowing the British thermonuclear program to be tied with that of the US.This would keep the two apart for some time.

Fourty years later, in December 1998, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair met at St. Malo in an attempt to start a "new era of British-French military relations" where they declared that the EU needed to be "backed up by credible military forces", endorsing a common European defence. But the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which divided Europe, left Britain and France diplomatically opposed and killed the idea of a common army. From 2007 however, there was an attempt at ushering a new age in Franco-British relations. In March 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy made a higly publicized state visit to the UK. During an address to the British parliament, Sarkozy said "If we want to change Europe, my dear British friends [...] we need you inside Europe to help us do so, not standing on the outside". He added, "I perfectly understand that Britain should wish to keep its special relationship with the US, but that doesn't stop Britain from taking its rightful place in Europe" and called for an "Entente Amicale". Again, during the 70th commemorations of the Appeal of 18 June, some commentators suggested there was a "Cameron-Sarkozy special relationship".

The greatest leap forward yet

In 2004, less than a year after the Iraq War crisis, a joint Guardian-Libération poll showed that only 9% of Brits felt "an affinity" with France, while 24% did so with the US. As for the French, only 15% felt "an affinity" with Britain, while 55% did so with Spain. But on 2 November 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron signed a 50-year "Treaty For Defence and Security Co-Operation". As summarized by the Downing Street declaration, the treaty covers many area that used to be cornerstones of the UK-US special relationship. It aims at strengthening interoperability between the two armies, with joint exercises and exchanges of personnel. More importantly, it calls for cooperation on nuclear weapons stewardship with joint facilities built in France and Britain.

The treaty also allows for a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force available for operations under UN mandate, NATO, or a decided by the two governments. It also allows aircraft carriers to carry French and British planes, and aims at creating a joint British-French carrier force by 2020 where the Charles de Gaulle and the future Queen Elizabeth-class carrier would relay each other to maintain a permanent deterrence at sea. The treaty also calls for the joint development of technologies for a next generation of submarines, hinting a new possibility for the replacement of Britain's aforementioned Trident nuclear deterrence.

This treaty carries a lot of implications. First, nuclear cooperation had always been one of the most precious aspects of the Britain's special relationship with America, and a supreme symbol of national sovereignty for France "given" by de Gaulle. By doing this, both nations have agreed to pool regalias, and the former rivals are now depending on each other. In addition to this, Britain could potentially be in the process of switching from an all-NATO, all Atlantic defence organisation to an integrated Franco-British nucleus. With an increasingly distant America and with recuring signs that the special relationship could soon end, it seems that this treaty marks a detachment of Britain from the US, in particular in the field of nuclear deterrence and technology. Eventually, it also shows that Britain, and more importantly France do not wish to rely on the European Union for their defence anymore : it does not involve the CSDP or European Defence Agency. Whatever the consequences, some of which can't be mesured yet, this cooperation and detachment would even be furthered with in 2011.



Order of battle*


  United States of America People's Republic of China United Kingdom France Russian Federation
Budget (£bn) 400 90 37 36 33.5
Active personnel 1,580,000 2,285,000 176,000 352,000 1,017,000
Air force 5,573 1900-2500 1,450 874 2700
Navy ships 288 over 100 103 81 233, mostly unusable
Aircraft carriers 0 0 1 1 1
Super carriers 15 2 2 0 0
Nuclear warheads 8,500 240 225 300 11,000

In response to the 2011 Libyan civil war, Britain, at first reluctant, joined France in calling for the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya. The two faced resistance from the US and Germany, with some commentators saying that "The Obama administration initially showed almost German levels of reluctance to get involved with any form of military intervention" and that it may have thought participation would tarnish its image in the countries that had recently experienced revolutions. Britain and France quickly took the matter to the United Nations Security Council, being surprisingly backed by the Arab League, but not by the G8 or the EU. Some commentators noted that Britain and France were "alone". At the UN however, France and Britain scored a diplomatic success. Not only did they manage to pass Resolution 1973, but none of the fifteen members of the UNSC voted against it. Intervention in Libya was swift, having lasted roughly 200 days so far and allowed the rebels to take most of the north of the country. The Libyans did indeed show their gratitude during a joint Sarkozy-Cameron visit to Tripoli.



But even with bases in Corsica and Cyprus, Cameron and Sarkozy sought to build a coalition in order to acquire more legitimacy and tactical support - and the intervention almost failed. Again, there was no EU consensus, but some states such as Italy, Spain and Greece participated, coveniently providing bases in Sicily, Sardaigna and Crete. There was no NATO consensus either and the United States relunctantly accepted to coordinate operations, having a larger force deployed in the region. Cameron and Sarkozy further sought allies, and accepted the participation of non-NATO states such as Sweden, or Middle-Eastern states like Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain, the latter still shaken by protests which ended in bloodshed.

There was further embarassement when the US announced they would scale down their involvement, amid reports that the coalition was actually "running out of missiles". NATO was eventually forced to assume command, while some participants were not even members of it, and only half of its actual members were participants. This was of some embarassement to Paris and London, and clearly showed that although they had the political will, the French and the British had no means of acting alone, even if the theatre of operations lies on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Can France and Britain ever have common interests ?

The two are members of the European Union, but they also maintain very strong links with their distinct former colonial empires. France is a member of the International Organisation of the Francophonie, and does retain strong links with some African countries, being often criticized of maintaining a "Françafrique" system. Others have said that its influence there is declining but nevertheless maintains military bases in Dakar, N'Djamena, Djibouti, Abidjan and Libreville. Recently, France has been patrolling the Tchad-Sudan border and intervened in Ivory Coast to remove Laurent Gbagbo. The UK, however, is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations whose head is the British monarch, and does nevertheless maintain a close, historical relation with America, two nations "divided by a common language". Through the monarch, Britain retains even stronger links with the Commonwealth realms. Unlike France however, it does not have major military bases abroad but stations personnel in the Falklands and Diego Garcia amongst others. Britain has recently been more worried by troubles in Northern Ireland and frictions with countries such as Russia or Argentina than countries in Africa.

France and Britain will soon be pulling out of Afghanistan, marking the end of their last major common involvement in a conflict. But some, like the French president, have stressed that "it is unlikely that Britain could face a crisis [...] that would not also affect France". Others have pointed out that "the Falklands war was not in France's national interest, and the country refused to send forces to Iraq". Whether France's and Britain's interests will always match, one can not say. Although there has been no major diplomatic disagreement since 2003, the two maintain distinct interests and relations with third countries.

Concordia res parvae crescunt

Can the pooling of Britain and France, two of the former greatest powers of the planet, deliver and help the two retain their military power ? One can say that it may. The French and the British have means of intervening almost in any sea : in the Atlantic, from Bermuda, Martinique, Saint Lucia and the Falklands ; in the Mediterranean, Red and Persian seas with Gibraltar, Cyprus, coastal France, Djibouti, the UAE ; in the Indian and Pacific oceans with Diego Garcia, French Polynesia and New Caledonia. As seen through the provided figures, when pooled together, the two air forces are particularly powerful and the navy is second only to that of the United States. In terms of personnel, they maintain a good ratio for a combined population of 128,000,000 ; and their nuclear deterrence is more than noticeable. Libya has indeed proved that France and Britain had very limited means, and still relied heavily on NATO and America, but it showed that Paris and London had common geopolitical interests and considerable means of influencing world politics. Besides, and that is all the point and probably reason of this pooling, Britain and France will save a great deal of money by adapting their strategies and focusing on their own historical fields of expertise, with Britain for instance managing the navy and air force, and France coordinating ground personnel and nuclear technology.

gSome may think that this would mean sacrificing the special relationship with America, but one can argue against it. Instead, it could bring France closer to America and help relieve Washington from some of its duties in Europe so it can focus on other hotspots. It could as well fulfill de Gaulle's old dream of a tripartite directorate of an enlarged NATO with at its head the US and the Franco-British, the latter outmatching by far any other member of NATO and being a major world power. What is sure is that this partnership is a result of budget cuts, but also a deep show of trust. The Libyan crisis did point out that Britain was no longer in a master-and-poodle relation with Washington, and that a Franco-British coalition could prove successful on the world stage. It will only succeed to deliver and materialize if the two manage to adapt their pooled resources and policies to today's challenges, and if they can use their numerous geostrategic advantages to independently intervene anywhere.

One can now say that unlike Douglas William Jerrold put it, "The best thing [...] between England and France" is no longer "the sea."


Further reading

On Nouvelle Europe






Budget : US : National Security Strategy - White House website ; China : 2010 Annual Report to Congress Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China ; UK : Defence Select Committee ; France : Secrétariat général pour l'administration (Budget) ; Russia : "The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database" from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Active personnel :  Estimates from the 2010 CIA World Factbook and the 2010 Quadriennal Defence Review from the Center for Strategic and International Resources

Air force : US : United States Air Force Posture Statement ; China : "The Military Balance 2011" by the International Institute for Strategic Studies ; UK : Column 520W (Parliament of the United Kingdom) ; France : Secrétariat général pour l'administration (Budget) ;  ; Russia : "The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database" from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and "" estimates

Navy : US : "Status of the Navy" US Navy ; China : 2010 Annual Report to Congress Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China ; UK : Official Navy Ships, Royal Navy website ; France and Russia : 2010 CIA World Factbook and the 2010 Quadriennal Defence Review from the Center for Strategic and International Resources

Aircraft carriers : 2010 CIA World Factbook

Super carriers (Unofficial descriptive term for aircraft carriers displacing more than 70,000 tons. Including ordered and in construction) : "The Military Balance 2011" by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and 2010 CIA World Factbook (note : It has not yet been decided whether the second nuclear-powered aircraft carrier will be built by the French government)

Nuclear weapons : "Status of World Nuclear Forces" of the Federation of American Scientists



French version / Version française

Credits : The Prime Minister's Office's photostream