U.K. archive documents say France proposed merger with Britain in 1956

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Would France have been better off under Queen Elizabeth II?

The revelation that the French government proposed a union of Britain and France in 1956 — even offering to accept the sovereignty of the British queen — has left scholars on both sides of the Channel puzzled.

Newly discovered documents in Britain’s National Archives show that former French Prime Minister Guy Mollet discussed the possibility of a merger between the two countries with British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden.

“I completely fell off my seat,” said Richard Vinen, an expert in French history at King’s College in London. “It’s such a bizarre thing to propose.”

Eden rejected the idea of a union but was more favorable to a French proposal to join the Commonwealth, according to the documents. One document added that Mollet “had not thought there need be difficulty over France accepting the headship of her Majesty (Queen Elizabeth II).”

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Jeff Vanke - 1/17/2007

This is old news, and an over-eager interpretation of it.

Frances Lynch discussed this in her 1996 book, _France and the International Economy_, and possibly in an article before that.

Mollet was not proposing to make France into a British province. He was making a last-gasp effort at the decade-long French preference for European integration with Britain as a counterweight to, or instead of, Germany. Mollet had been an English teacher, then a wartime prisoner of the Germans, and he was something of a germanophobe (though in plenty of company in 1950s France in that regard).

At this time, France was deep into the negotiations for the Common Market, the core of today's European Union. Britain wasn't interested in joining the Common Market until later (1961 onward). In precisely the same month, September 1956, Mollet resigned himself to the Common Market with Germany. He stopped telling the Germans "not yet," and started saying, "under these conditions."

Also that month, France and Britain were secretly preparing to retake the Suez Canal from Egypt -- a venture they started in November, but which the British halted a few days later (without consulting France!) after markets crushed the British pound, and the Americans refused to help financially, because Eisenhower was furious about the Suez invasion.

Mollet's interest in Suez was to stop Egyptians supplies to the Algerian independent fighters. So his offer of an abstract "union" might be seen not only in terms of trying to avoid Franco-German integration that excluded Britain. Mollet was also hoping for support, even secondary support, for his passionate war against Algerian independence. (Some one million white Frenchmen and -women made their homes in Algeria.)

The Anglo-French "union" offer was abstract and hypothetical. If Mollet told someone on the phone that France might accept Queen Elizabeth -- a claim documented only afterwards in a memo of a phone conversation -- that can be regarded as an off-the-cuff remark.

If the French government really wants to explore Mollet's nonetheless bizarre overture, it should pursue not only its official archives, but also the memories and papers still in the possession of Mollet's closest staff (French: "cabinet") collaborators.