The two agreements struck by Britain and France on defence co-operation this week have not brought citizens out on the streets of Paris. There were worries – expressions of anger even – about Sarkozy’s decision to take France back into Nato’s integrated command structure last year, but this is different. The fresh-faced Cameron and the embattled, less rosy-cheeked Sarkozy are like two sons whose parents have frittered away their family fortunes: they must now find common cause and drastic economies, which means moving in together if they wish to remain in the ritzy part of town reserved for big military spenders.
Budget arguments will be minimal: there will be shared baths and no fussing about the eat-by date on the sandwich spread (‘you signed the treaties, Nico, so eat it up!’). The ‘South Atlantic question’, on the other hand, is very much in, but only for the British press: this is not a crucial issue in French eyes and with the Falklands war as remote from us as Crécy, perhaps there is a bigger ‘mid-Atlantic question’. This is the one that arises when the French wake up to find they’ve embarked on a military/nuclear alliance with a droid outfit and that we’re suddenly trying to blag an aircraft carrier because we’re under pressure from the US to deploy. A dispute at that point would be between two presidents, rather than a PM and a president, and the case would slide irresistibly into Nato’s jurisdiction. The ‘North Atlantic question’ is of no interest to the British, whose military commitments are tabled in Washington. But it matters to the French: reintegration with Nato still raises eyebrows in France, where the Gaullist ideal of a sovereign defence policy is not yet extinct.
What’s intriguing about the new realism is that none of these questions outweighs the financial nightmare, for both signatories, of running a full dress ‘great power’ military machine. There is, too, the ghost of an idea in the air: never mind Atlantic drag, imagine a common defence contingency to which the US couldn’t or wouldn’t rally. In a different register, the Daily Mail worries that some time post-2020 Britain may ‘have to plead with a Socialist government’ – yikes – ‘for the use of an aircraft carrier to defend our interests’ and Colonel Tim Collins (Mail again) laments: ‘The truth is that for years, the French have punched below their weight.’ But then they have some good clobber we can borrow, if they let us, especially when it comes to air power.
No advance, for now, on a shared maritime deterrent, even if the entente frugale may make it easier to avoid another accident involving French and British submarines equipped with nuclear warheads. Oh, and state-of-the-art detection systems, which should have averted the collision in 2009 between Le Triomphant and HMS Vanguard. That’s one for Sarkozy and Cameron to explore again on joint manoeuvres at bath time, after an online visit to Kelly Toys, where they’ll be able to procure two wind-up submarines – ‘ideal bath toy for all ages’ – and a couple of bicycle klaxons.