THE HISTORY of Anglo-French relations has long been a popular source of discussion and research for geographers. One hundred and six years after the formal signing of l’Entente Cordiale between the French Republic and the United Kingdom, positive relations between the two leading European powers continues to develop, albeit in a fitful manner. The importance of this bilateral relationship was underscored this week when the Prime Minister and French President Nicolas Sarcozy signed a comprehensive defence cooperation treaty. When activated, the treaty will establish a defence arrangement that is much closer to Anglo-American military arrangements than previous Anglo-French initiatives. In a deal involving the creation of a joint rapid-reaction force and collaborative nuclear weapons testing, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that the two leaders “inked out two treaties in London which they say will allow both nations to remain global players while cutting defence budgets following the financial crisis’. Time will tell whether British and French foreign policy will become closer aligned than in past diplomatic efforts.
As is generally known, relations between Britain and France before the twentieth-century were hostile at best; long periods of icy respect punctuated by global wars for imperial hegemony. What were the catalysts for change? One answer, appropriately enough, lies in imperial geography. In the 1890s, the British and French imperial frontiers met along the Nile and White Nile rivers in central Sudan. Strategically vital for control of the region, French and British military commanders warily watched each other’s movements. the historical geographic importance of the region piqued the interest of the Royal Geographical Society, resulting in the publication of a series of travel accounts and historical narratives of the Sudan (for an example, see bibliography below). From 1894, the French aggressively pursued negotiations with local tribes to increase their regional influence. An early 1898 report in The Geographical Journal reported that French officials were in
preparations were set on foot for occupying not only the countries of the Azande, or Nyamnyam chiefs, within the basin of the Congo, but also to extend French influence beyond the watershed, to the old Egyptian province of Bahr-el-ghazal and the upper Nile. The scheme proposed seems to have been of a most ambitious nature, if the French Press can be looked upon as the exponent of the actual intentions of the French Government.
Several French commanders led expeditions into the Nile River Valley and near Khalifa-held Fashoda. Their exercises brought the ire of British officers, who were determined to maintain the Sudan as a pro-British buffer between their Egyptian and East African possessions. This stance was reiterated in the Royal Geographical Society’s 1898 Address; the Society’s president argued that ‘Fashoda has been a station of the Egyptian [and hence the British] Government for thirty years’. Both sides sent expeditionary forces to Fashoda, resulting in a tenuous stalemate. Negotiations between London and Paris finally resolved the dispute, largely in Britain’s favour. But the broader consequences of the ‘Fashoda Crisis’ were not readily apparent for some years. Brian W Blouet (William & Mary) acknowledged in a 2004 article that both Britain and France increasingly feared common threats, including Germany in particular. The Fashoda Crisis highlighted the classical concept of balancing – either maintain a cautiously hostile stance (as dictated current Anglo-French bilateral relations), or bandwagon together to secure their respective imperial domains and check the rising power of the German Empire. Preferring to avoid a repeat of the 1898 debacle, London and Paris wisely chose to foster a political alliance – l’Entente Cordiale – in 1904.
Alice Ritchie, ‘Britain, France Sign Landmark Defence Pact‘, Agence France-Presse, 2 November 2010.
See W Junker, ‘Explorations in Central Africa‘, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography 9 no. 7 (Jul., 1887): pp. 399-420.
‘The Upper Nile‘, The Geographical Journal 11 no. 2 (Feb., 1898): p. 169.
‘The President’s Opening Address, Session 1898-99‘, The Geographical Journal 13 no. 1 (Jan., 1899): pp. 1-12.
Brian W Blouet, ‘The Imperial Vision of Halford Mackinder‘, The Geographical Journal 170 no. 4 Halford Mackinder and the ‘Geographical Pivot of History’ (Dec., 2004): pp. 322-329.