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The real special relationship | Financial Times

Two men in suits standing under an umbrella
French president Emmanuel Macron and British prime minister Rishi Sunak in March © Getty Images

He is the son of public-sector professionals. He worked in finance before running the country. He was born around the turn of the 1980s. (A cohort of men to be honoured for their fine minds and astonishing looks, I think.) He turned against his political patron en route to the top. He “presents” as metropolitan but grew up some way from the capital. His marriage attracts attention.

Behold, then, Rishi Macron. And Emmanuel Sunak. No wonder they get on.

Still, there has to be more to Anglo-French relations than personal rapport between two individuals from the meritocratic overclass. I am ever more certain there is.

Britain and France have much more in common than either does with a third country. You will cite the Anglo-American or Franco-German counter-examples here. But those are well-tended relationships. That does not mean each side resembles the other in their internal characteristics. It quite often means the opposite.

The “special relationship” and the “motor of Europe” are so worked-on, so fussed-over, precisely out of fear that the natural state between the two parties is divergence (or worse). Britain remembers with a shiver America’s abstention from the first phase of both world wars. The French dread of a too-strong Germany goes back to 1870 at least. Never again, etc.

It follows that Anglo-French bickering goes on, in part, because both sides are relaxed about their underlying compatibility. To an eerie degree, France and Britain are alike in population (67mn) and output ($3tn). Manufacturing is the same 9 per cent share of their economies.

Their armed forces are comparable. Both built and lost extra-European empires and now have about the same weight in world affairs. One joined the European project from the start, one tarried and ultimately quit, but neither believed the nation state and hard power were forms of Oldthink. (Look at their nuclear arsenals.)

The parallels multiply as you go back in time. England and France became single entities the best part of a millennium before, say, Italy did. Each was central to the Enlightenment, even if the British put the stress on empiricism and the French on reason. Each had more or less coeval revolutions: one literal, one industrial. Each evolved a non-ethnic idea of citizenship, so that you could become British or French.

The British elite turned to France for cultural clues: in visual art, in manners. The French elite, including Voltaire and Montesquieu, turned to Britain as respite from absolutism.

And even this — their co-authorship of much of liberal modernity — doesn’t capture the one practical fact that marks Britain and France out from their peers.

Each nation has a monstrously dominant capital. Politics, media, finance and culture are concentrated in one city. No European nation of comparable size — not Spain, not Italy, not Germany — does that. Nor does the US, Australia or Canada. Nor, really, does Japan, given the cultural weight of Kyoto. Strip out countries below 20mn, and France and Britain are exceptional in the rich world in their top-heaviness. (Seoul’s clout within South Korea comes somewhere close.) Île-de-France accounts for about 30 per cent of national output.

The result is two similarly distorted countries. Lots of democracies have angry hinterlands but in few is the populist rage so focused against one place. The vastness of their capitals also gives Britain and France a false picture of their geopolitical heft. Britain has one-fifth of America’s 330mn people, but the capital, where its elites live, is as populous as the largest US city. When you struggle to explain British delusion, remember that.

Last week, I passed an evening in American, French and British company, on American soil. Why, given the language factor, was it no harder to connect with the French than with my fellow Anglophones? Football as a point in common? Or self-selection? (It was a finance crowd, so almost post-national.) Or, given the French presence in London, and the British colonisation of the south of France, a world of shared references?

All of these things. But also, I think, an implicit sense that we were in the same boat: citizens of middling and perhaps fading powers on the grounds of the world colossus. It makes for a certain wryness. To be British or French is to hear often enough that your best days are ahead of you, and to pardon the lie.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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