France and Britain – colonial rivals, or co-imperialists?

Martin Thomas and Richard Toye
University of Exeter

‘The struggle of races and of peoples has from now on the whole globe as its theatre; each advances towards the conquest of unoccupied territories.’ Tempting as it might be to ascribe such inflated rhetoric to Friedrich Nietzsche or Adolf Hitler, its originator was Gabriel Charmes, a disciple of leading late nineteenth-century French republican, Léon Gambetta.

In September 1882, Charmes was trying to persuade his fellow parliamentarians that France’s recent seizure of Tunisia was ethically imperative. Similar rhetoric could be found across the political spectrum, in Britain as well as in France. In 1888, the Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury described small imperial wars as ‘merely the surf that marks the edge of the advancing wave of civilisation’. But if Britain and France both claimed to be the spearhead of civilizing influences, what happened when their interests clashed, and what new arguments emerged to rationalize the struggle for power between rival ‘civilized’ nations?

That is one theme of our new book, Arguing About Empire, but in order to answer the question we need equally to ask what happened when Anglo-French interests appeared to coincide. How did the two countries’ respective elites justify their mutual collaboration in the face of challenges from other powers and, increasingly as time went on, from domestic anti-colonial critics and local nationalist opponents too?

An unspoken assumption of Franco-British imperial rivalry, often overlooked in discussion of colonial dispute, is that neither party found it convenient to expel the other entirely. They were, in fact, co-imperialists, co-imperialism being defined as ‘the exercise of imperialism as a collaborative project between multiple imperial states; the movement of personnel and translation of expertise between imperial systems; and the geopolitical and environmental circumstances that have invited this phenomenon’.

To put this in concrete terms, for all their divisions Britain and France increasingly faced much the same local, international, and transnational threats to their colonial hegemony. As a consequence, each feared the prospect of international isolation—before local opponents or in the court of international opinion—more than the inconvenient presence of their imperial neighbour. After 1945, this international opinion found a new institutional setting within the United Nations organization and gained a new salience in the context of the Cold War, placing new demands on the rhetoric of empire. As past and present imperial relationships were recast in the language of partnership, metropolitan governments expended more energy denying that their policies were ‘colonialist’ or ‘imperialistic’. Imperialism, still in evidence certainly, dared not speak its own name.

We argue that the Chanak crisis of 1922 was a watershed in the development of the rhetoric of Anglo-Trench co-imperialism. In the autumn of that year a dispute over the presence of Allied troops in a neutral zone on the banks of the Dardanelles Straits near Constantinople threatened to pitch France and, even more so, Britain into war with a resurgent, nationalist Turkey. Played out against the backdrop of impending Turkish victory in a devastating war with Greece, Chanak was the sternest test of co-imperialism in the years between the 1904 signature of the Entente Cordiale and the Suez crisis of 1956. Britain’s coalition government and, above all, its premier, David Lloyd George, were widely seen as pro-Greek; their French partners, largely for reasons of strategic interest, as pro-Turk. But Chanak, for each of them, was primarily an imperial crisis—an argument about empires.

Such were the mutual recriminations between London and Paris in the final months of 1922 that it is arguable that Chanak, rather than other, better-known imperial flashpoints in Western Asia-in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, did more to shape the bitter rhetorical invective that would characterize French and British relations in the Middle East during the interwar years and beyond. For his part, Lord Curzon’s vituperative negotiations with French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré at the height of the crisis in late September 1922 marked the most acrimonious high-level talks between British and French politicians of the entire interwar period. Curzon knew from intelligence decrypts of French diplomatic traffic that his negotiating partners were not only deal-making with the Turkish nationalists but were secretly arming them as well.10 Yet it was Poincaré who confronted the British foreign secretary with the more uncomfortable truths about Britain’s unpopularity, its precarious isolation in the Near East, and French resolve to make their peace with Turkish nationalism. This verbal lashing, combined with Poincaré’s mulish stubbornness, was enough to reduce Curzon to tearful, but impotent fury.

Colourfully undiplomatic, these exchanges took place behind closed doors at the Quai d’Orsay. Ultimately, the tensions they exposed proved surmountable because, for all its endemic friction, Anglo-French co-imperialism in the Middle East was precisely that: a joint venture that, while rhetorically depicted by each partner as nationally distinct, was actually part of a larger, joint enterprise of Anglo-French dominion in the Arab world.

There were also legacies for the future. In today’s Syria, for example, Britain and France are relatively minor players in a crisis that involves multiple powers. But arguably they – as well as Russia, the USA, Turkey, and others – are involved in a new form of co-imperialism, that is to say a form of struggle and rivalry from which all hope to benefit and simultaneously all hope to see contained.

4 thoughts on “France and Britain – colonial rivals, or co-imperialists?

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