France remembers its own lesson from Suez

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The French are normally assiduous about remembering military anniversaries - even the nasty ones like Dien Bien Phu, Mers el-Kebir or Trafalgar. But there is something about the Suez crisis that has inspired collective amnesia. It's not that the French are embarrassed by what happened. It is just that they have forgotten.

While in Britain, the 50 years since the airborne invasion of the canal zone are being marked with reams of hefty analysis and a three-part BBC drama documentary called "A very British crisis", in France the occasion is being passed by in almost total silence.

The prime reason, according to historian Philippe Vial, is that Suez - for France - got buried by the rush of other cataclysmic events:

"In Britain, Suez became the symbol of the end of imperial destiny. It had huge resonance. But in France there was too much else going on. The government had just hardened its line against the insurrection in Algeria, and then in January began the battle of Algiers. Suez got squeezed out of the national memory."

On top of that, in 1958 Charles de Gaulle swept to power in the wake of the Algeria crisis. With the new Fifth Republic, events and politicians associated with the discredited ancien regime disappeared from public consciousness. History started all over again.

The irony, says Mr Vial, is that the French were in fact much more gung-ho than the British were about the co-ordinated plan - with Israel - to retake the recently nationalised canal and if possible topple President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

At the time France was closely allied to Israel, which was fearful of the emerging Egyptian strongman.

Largely thanks to the work of a young emissary called Shimon Peres, Paris had supplied the young state with Mirage jets as well as technology for a nuclear bomb.

To mark the anniversary, the defence ministry in Paris is in fact hosting a three-day seminar in the conflict which Vial hopes will challenge some long-held preconceptions.

One of the problems of French neglect of Suez, he says, is that historical interpretation has been almost entirely carried out by "les Anglo-Saxons".

"When you read the literature, you get the impression that this was - to quote the BBC series - a very British crisis.

"But that is not accurate. It was a very French affair too."

Indeed for many historians, the impact of Suez on France and its perception of the world was even greater - if less direct - than on Britain.

The French emerged from the crisis convinced that they had been betrayed and humiliated by the British who - under pressure from the Americans - had simply stopped fighting.

"So there was a complete reassessment of the relationship with the US," says Robert Tombs, Cambridge historian and author of That Sweet Enemy on Franco-British relations.

"The feeling was: We can never trust them again, and we have to find new ways of making ourselves secure.

"At the same time, it affected attitudes to Europe. Famously, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, on learning of the disaster, told the French foreign minister 'Europe will be your revenge'.

"Suez convinced French leaders - and after 1958 that meant de Gaulle - that Europe was the future."

In the 1960s, de Gaulle translated the new policy into action: withdrawing from the military command of Nato in 1966, and twice vetoing British entry into the European Economic Community - mainly out of fears that Britain would adulterate Europe's vocation.

Ambivalence towards "les Anglo-Saxons" of course predated Suez.

But from the late 1950s, suspicion of Britain and the US became semi-official Gaullist policy, as France sought to project an independent voice in the world via Europe. Much followed.

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