Tuesday, January 16, 2007

My God, what a close shave!

At the time I was born, in September 1940, boy babies in the United Kingdom and the British Empire incurred the risk of being named Winston. I believe that my Protestant great-aunt Henrietta Kennedy [1881-1952] made an attempt to impose this choice upon my parents, but I escaped narrowly thanks to the weighty presence among my paternal ancestors of two great-grandfathers named William. The eldest Beatle wasn't as lucky as me. Born on 9 October 1940 at the maternity hospital in Liverpool, he was named John Winston Lennon.

When I was a youth in Grafton, I remember hearing the funny-sounding names of French politicians on the radio news. The Fourth Republic was regularly falling apart and then getting patched up for a short period, before collapsing yet again. Surnames that amused me were Queuille and Pflimlin (which—I've since learned—was barely pronounceable even for the French). An individual who was often mentioned on the news was Guy Mollet, general secretary of the political organization that would later be transformed into the party that is now backing presidential candidate Ségolène Royal. Just for the record: Back in those days, sitting on a kitchen chair in Grafton with my feet up alongside the warm stove and listening to accounts of events in faraway France, I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would meet up personally, one day in France (while working for French TV), with two statesmen who were often mentioned on the news: Jules Moch [1893-1985] and Pierre Mendès-France [1907-1982].

Every now and again, people in the UK get a kick out of reminding the French of a mind-boggling secret diplomatic mission carried out by France in 1956. [Last night, in the UK, there was a radio broadcast on this affair.] At that time, Guy Mollet was the French prime minister, and his British counterpart was Anthony Eden. Well, according to a record in British state archives unearthed by the BBC, Mollet took the initiative on 10 September 1956 of crossing the Channel, turning up on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, and suggesting to a flabbergasted Eden that... maybe England and France should look into the possibility of joining hands and becoming a single nation!

Sure, it's easy to appreciate retrospectively, today, the bee in Mollet's bonnet, and why it got transformed in this spontaneous and spectacular fashion into a fly in Eden's ointment. [Excuse the mixed metaphors.] In Egypt, Nasser had just nationalized the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, England's friend Jordan and France's friend Israel were on the point of coming to blows, and anti-French tensions were mounting in Algeria. Fortunately, Eden had enough good old British phlegm and common sense to calm down his French visitor, and pack him off back to Paris. And there's no reason to suppose that Mollet's crazy idea might have prevented the dramatic events that ensued in the Suez Canal...

Can you imagine, today, a European nation called Frangland, with the Channel running right down the middle of it? My God, what a frightening thought! Gentlemen in bowler hats scurrying down the Champs-Elysées, gendarmes marching along the Mall and changing the guard at Buckingham Palace...

One of the rare entities of a combined French/British nature that has endured for any length of time is a student residence in Paris known as the Collège franco-britannique. Over forty years ago, within those hallowed walls, I met up with a splendid French girl who was studying at the Sorbonne. We decided to get married, and we even ended up having two marvelous children. Admittedly, our marriage didn't last too long, but we have remained good friends, even though the waters of a Channel flow between our respective lives. I would even claim that there's nothing better than a Channel to delimit the territories of very different people who are intent upon remaining friends.

I really can't figure out what Guy Mollet had in kind when he set out for London in 1956. Who knows? Maybe he just dropped across there on a regular shopping trip, like countless French people, to pick up a few odds and ends at Harrod's or Marks and Spencer's. Then he got carried away while having a few pints with the boys in a nice pub, eating warm pork pies and chatting up charming young London birds. Inevitably, thoughts of union started to germinate in Mollet's mind. Besides, he wasn't used to drinking warm beer. He suddenly banged his fist on the bar of pub, startling the drinkers, and yelled out a cry of joy like Archimedes jumping out of his bath: "Jesus, man, I love this place. I love the people. And I'm the prime minister of France. Why don't we get married?" Before the folk in the pub could stop him, Mollet dashed off to Downing Street, to spring his idea upon the father of the future bride...

No, it probably didn't happen like that. In any case, I'm convinced that it's better for England and France to carry on living side by side in sin, with the Channel running down the middle of their big bed.

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