Jack Straw – 2004 Speech on French-British Relations


Below is the text of the speech made by the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in Paris on 12th January 2004.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The relationship between France and Britain reminds me of a family. Families are not optional, and they are not always easy. When there are rows they are often all the more intense. But family members know they have a special bond.

The Kings and Queens of England from 1066 until the fifteenth century spoke French and spent most of their time in what is now France – and many are still buried here. When in the 19th century Queen Victoria asked for the remains of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart to be ‘returned’ from the crypt at Fontevrault, the then Préfet of Maine-et-Loire declined, on the basis that the Plantagenets were ‘French citizens who had long since returned home’. While English and French kings – often linked by family ties – fought for the throne of France in the Hundred Years War, Scotland forged the Auld Alliance. Later the Huguenots who arrived in the seventeenth century greatly enriched British life.

The next time that you in France worry about the spread of the English language, you can comfort yourselves by thinking of the legacy French has left on my side of the channel. Our royal motto is ‘Dieu et mon droit’ – and if you object to that, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’. Indeed the English language is a hybrid of Anglo-Saxon and the Norman French which William brought with him in 1066, which means there are often two words for the same thing. We rear swine, bulls or sheep, good Saxon words; but we eat pork (porc), beef (boeuf) and mutton (mouton).

Our history has always been close; but it has often featured rivalry and conflict. No Frenchman who takes the Eurostar to Waterloo station and walks across the Thames to Trafalgar square can forget that – nor can a Briton visiting one of France’s many monuments or museums dedicated to Joan of Arc.

But in fact we have not fought each other seriously since 1815 and today, thankfully, our most passionate rivalry is confined to the sports field. England and France will open their Euro 2004 campaigns in Portugal this summer against each other – and let’s hope the same two teams meet in the final.

Although we had fought no wars against each other since 1815, by the end of the 19th century Britain and France, as the world’s two pre-eminent colonial powers, were vying for influence in Africa, Asia and beyond. The great achievement of the Entente Cordiale of 1904 was to temper that rivalry and mark the beginning of a new, closer relationship which has now endured 100 years of troubled European history. The Entente laid the basis for our military alliance through the last century, including in the two World Wars.


No Foreign Secretary can forget the importance of our alliance against Nazism. During the second world war, my official Residence in London was the home of General de Gaulle. His portrait hangs to this day on the wall, his statue opposite – constant reminders of the bond forged between our countries during Europe’s darkest hour. Together, our two countries helped free Europe from the grip of Nazi terror. This year we have another chance to remember that when we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

Despite our shared goal and our shared victory, Britain’s and France’s experiences of the second world war were profoundly different. Britain’s memories are of lonely and dogged resistance of 1940, and of the support of the Empire and of the United States in winning final victory. France remembers not just the contribution of the Resistance and French forces to the eventual defeat of Nazism, but also the horrors of invasion and occupation.

Inevitably, our approaches to Europe in the decades after the war were shaped by these experiences. France’s overwhelming priority was to build a framework where war with Germany, which it had suffered three times in seventy years, would be made impossible. And General de Gaulle was determined to recover French national pride through leadership in Europe. Britain’s first reaction to European integration was to treat it as something which did not concern us; only later did we decide to be part of it. Our experience during the war convinced us deeply that keeping the strongest possible relationship between Europe and the US was the cornerstone of our security and prosperity.

These differences of history are important, and they are still visible today. Any relationship, especially one of neighbours with more than a thousand years of interlinked history, is bound to be complex and involve differences and disagreements. But our differences can too easily be exaggerated. This year’s Entente Cordiale celebrations are a chance to remind ourselves that what unites us is much more than what divides us.

Most obviously, we share today a commitment to Europe and a conception of how the European Union should work.

Britain and France are both strong and proud nations with firmly-entrenched national traditions of democracy and political debate. At the same time, however, we both recognise that no nation can deal alone with the threats which confront it. Nor can we alone make the most of the opportunities of today’s world. We are stronger when we pool some of our sovereignty in order to achieve objectives we could not achieve on our own.

Neither of us wants a federal European superstate. It would not work; and our citizens would not be comfortable with it. Both of us want a Europe of nations – and a Europe which works.

The negotiations on a new constitutional treaty for the EU have been living proof that the EU is an organisation of sovereign member states who have to reach agreements among themselves for the work of the Union to go forward.


We need time to build consensus on EU institutions; but we cannot let this be a time of inaction in Europe. All the recent focus on institutions, necessary as it has been, has I am afraid done little for public approval of the EU. According to a recent poll by Eurobarometer, fewer than half of people across the EU thought their country’s membership of the Union was a good thing.

We have to remember that institutions are only a means to an end. What people want is a Europe which delivers security and prosperity to its citizens.

Britain and France are well placed to help deliver this.

The European single market – the largest in the world – was a huge, historic achievement which enhanced the prosperity of all of us. Today we need to keep the EU focussed on delivering reforms which will create more jobs and higher growth. Together we can meet the challenges of a globalised and fiercely competitive world – but we cannot do so by standing still.

France and Britain are also committed to helping the EU develop a stronger, more coherent voice in foreign affairs commensurate with its economic standing as the world’s largest trading bloc. Again, we are well placed to do so. Our history as colonial powers left us with networks of friendship, culture and language – and also ties of obligation and responsibility – which cover almost every region of the world. We are members of more international organisations than any other countries in the world. We are both natural multilateralists. When we work together, it increases our influence and that of Europe as a whole.

I visited Iran last October with my French and German colleagues, Dominique de Villepin and Joschka Fischer. All three of us went as foreign ministers of sovereign nation states. But together, acting on the basis of an EU consensus, we got commitments from Iran on its nuclear activities which are now being turned into concrete action as Iran co-operates with the IAEA. And we are following this through by continued engagement with this dossier.


As permanent members of the Security Council and with our effective armed forces, Britain and France have also led efforts to develop an effective European Security and Defence Policy. This enables Europe to act on its own to protect and advance its interests, to act with NATO support, or indeed better to support NATO through stronger military capabilities. France played the key role in both of the first two operations – in Macedonia and in the Bunia province of the DRC. We are now working to plan for an EU-led force to replace NATO in Bosnia.

Behind our foreign policy is our shared and profound interest in maintaining the authority and centrality of the rules-based, multilateral international system. We both, rightly, attach great importance to our permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Despite our differences on Iraq, on almost every other UN issue our views are very close. When we agree between us, our influence with other members of the Council is persuasive.

But our influence in New York is only as strong as the UN itself. That means we have a strong common interest in keeping the US and others fully engaged in the multilateral system, and in making that system as effective as possible.

Our differences over Iraq were, in essence, differences over how best to maintain the authority of international rules. I respect the position which France took, and it is a matter of regret to me that we were divided over it. But Britain went to war in Iraq, as a last resort, because Saddam Hussein was still defying the international community after 12 years of discussion and 17 UN resolutions. We felt that international law without enforcement would become a dead letter. If we had failed to live up to the tough words of the unanimous Resolution 1441 and its many predecessors, we would have not only been left with the continuing threat from Iraq: our ability to persuade others to respect international standards would also have been much diminished.

Whatever our differences over military action in Iraq, today we share a commitment to bringing security, prosperity and representative government to the Iraqi people. Under the plan proposed by the Governing Council and endorsed by the UN, power will be fully handed over to a provisional Iraqi government by July. For the first time in more than a generation, the Iraqis have the chance to build the kind of country they deserve.

France has much to contribute to this by way of expertise – in policing, in constitutional development, in reconstruction. Tragically, two French civilian experts lost their lives last Monday while working on that reconstruction, and our thoughts are with their families and friends.

Their deaths are another reminder of how important it is to defeat the terrorists, who want to stop Iraq becoming the free, stable and prosperous country its people want. The Multi-National Force in Iraq is committed to stay as long as the Iraqis want and as mandated by the UN Security Council, to help the people of Iraq create the secure environment they need.

France’s and Britain’s commitment to an effective, rules-based international system does not just apply to relations between states. We are also well placed to lead efforts to promote better governance, the rule of law and human rights within states around the world.

Between us we have produced many of the greatest thinkers on the rights of man and the good governance of public business: Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Paine, Mill, to name just a few. We both have long and entrenched traditions of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in our own countries. So we are uniquely placed to advance these values in less fortunate parts of the world, including Africa, to which our history gives us a special shared commitment. We have increasingly come to recognise that without promoting these values, and the sustainable development which they can help facilitate, we cannot hope to create the more stable and prosperous world we both want.


We shall mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale with a State visit by HM the Queen to France in April, and a return visit by the President of the Republic to Britain in the Autumn. But the celebrations are not just about big official occasions. We also want them to be the chance for people to get to know each other better, to celebrate the links they have and to build on them further; and to break down the stereotypes which are there on each side of La Manche. Many events will be designed for young people, and occasions such as friendly sports matches will raise money for our joint fight against the ravages of cancer.

Ties between people across the Channel are already very strong. A quarter of a million French people live in the UK today. In the other direction, at least 100,000 Britons have homes in France, the largest settlement since the Hundred Years War, bringing cricket and cream teas to the Dordogne and Normandy. These are not only people retiring to enjoy France’s climate and quality of life. We have farmers, carpenters, teachers – younger people from all walks of life settling and working in France without difficulty. This is Europe at work. Meanwhile, France gets 12 million visits a year from Britons – and 3 million French visit the UK.

Each of our countries sells 10% of its exports to the other – that’s €60 billion of trade every year. 1 300 French companies have invested in the UK; 1 800 British companies have done so in France. Four and a half centuries ago Mary Tudor lost Calais; in 2001, the Conseil Général of Seine-Maritime bought the English port of Newhaven in order to maintain the ferry service to Dieppe. More French students study in Britain than anywhere else abroad. 1270 UK towns are twinned with partners in France – more than in any other country. My own constituency of Blackburn was the first town ever to twin with a partner abroad. It did so formally in 1926, and informally before that, with the little town of Péronne in the Département de la Somme, because so much blood had been shed by the young of both towns on the soil there, in a terrible but common endeavour – and because the people of my town wanted to help Péronne in its rebuilding.

I don’t believe the talk of cultural rivalry between France and ‘les Anglo-Saxons’. We enjoy the best of both cultures – look at the lasting success of the musical we call ‘Les Miz’ in London. The same is true in sport. French sportspeople such as Thierry Henry at Arsenal, or British ones such as the sailor Ellen MacArthur, have hundreds of thousands of fans on both sides of the Channel. English football and rugby would be less exciting than they are without the many French players in the top clubs – or their French managers.

Whatever field you take, our links are strong. But we still know less about each other than we like to think. In a recent poll conducted in France, 75% of respondents said they didn’t know the UK very well. Though a majority thought the relationship important, most felt it was more between governments than between people.

The challenge for this year’s Entente Cordiale celebrations is to understand each other better and to make our links even stronger than they are. France and Britain share goals and ambitions in everything from creating jobs and safeguarding security at home, to promoting justice and sustainable development abroad. Our economic and social agendas are coming closer to each other. We both want more energetic international action to tackle AIDS and global warming. The list is long.

No-one would expect two great nations like ours to agree on everything. But we can achieve even more together than we already do – and this year gives us a great opportunity to make that a reality.