Dunkirk 1947: a forgotten Franco-British Treaty

On 4 March 1947 representatives of the British and French governments signed a treaty of mutual alliance against any future aggression from Germany. Coming a year after Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain speech” in Fulton, Missouri, and a few days before President Truman’s declaration to the United States Congress outlining his Containment Doctrine, the Dunkirk Treaty now seems little more than a footnote in the broader story of the development of the Cold War. Given that Germany at this time was under military occupation and its industry largely in ruins, the hypothetical invasion and war envisaged in the treaty text seems quaint to the say the least.

But the Dunkirk Treaty merits closer scrutiny as it cuts across the narrative of a crudely bisected and bipolar Europe, and reminds us that France’s Foreign Policy at this time was shaped as much by its turbulent domestic politics, and by the memory of three wars with Germany, as by any future hypothetical conflict with the USSR.  It also helps us to understand the crucial roles played by individuals in Britain and France who strove to find common ground in a relationship that had suffered damage from the debacle of 1940 and the Petainist years, on-going imperial rivalries, and contrasting visions for East-West relations as well as for the future organisation of Europe.

A year earlier, at 6:25pm on 20 January 1946, Alfred Duff Cooper, British Ambassador in Paris since the liberation, had telegrammed the Foreign Office to report rumours of the resignation of Charles de Gaulle from the leadership of the Provisional Government.[1] The relationship between De Gaulle and his American and British wartime allies had long been fractured along several lines, including the future of France’s Levantine colonies, the question of Germany’s Western Boundaries, and the General’s belief that he could hold the balance between the Anglo-Saxon World and the USSR, thereby saving Europe from domination by either.[2]  Duff Cooper’s haste in communicating this news was due to a belief he shared with Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin that the General had represented an immovable obstacle to the conclusion of a long-overdue Franco-British treaty. But the removal of De Gaulle itself brought new uncertainties, due to the endless games of ministerial musical-chairs that came to characterize the Provisional Government (1944-6) and its successor, the Fourth Republic (1947-1958).[3]

Georges Bidault flanked on his left by Maurice Thorez and on his right by Felix Gouin

The most striking electoral feature of immediate post-war French politics was the success of the Communist Party, which appealed not only to working class disillusionment against the recent collaborationism in the bourgeoisie and the leaders of industry, but also to longer-term social tensions pre-dating the war, as well as to more recent preoccupations such as spiralling inflation. In the October 1945 legislative elections the Communists of Maurice Thorez became the single largest party, gaining 159 deputies from 26.2% of the vote, and seats in government alongside the centrist Mouvement Républicain Populaire (MRP) of Georges Bidault and the Socialists of Félix Gouin. While this coalition did achieve some significant social reforms, the threat of disintegration was never far away, in part due to bitter clashes over foreign policy.

In March 1946 Bidault glumly confided in Duff Cooper his fears that Britain saw France as “a lost country.”[4] The Gaullist vision of France emerging as an independent broker of relations between East and West had found expression in the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Alliance that Bidault had signed with the USSR in Moscow in December 1944. However, France’s exclusion from the February 1945 Yalta Summit, and the post-war Anglo-American focus on the reconstruction and subsequent merger of their German occupational zones, entailed a harsh brake one these ambitions, for the time being at least.

Annexation of German territory remained a cherished goal in France, no less than it had been in the years immediately following the First World War.  The French Government’s demands were in part a re-hashing of what President Raymond Poincaré and Marshal Ferdinand Foch had demanded of President Wilson more than twenty five years earlier – an independent Rhineland, a Saarland protectorate and international control over the Ruhr coalfields.[5] While the Saarland was declared a French-controlled Protectorate in 1946 (and would remain so until 1957), with its own flag and currency, negotiations regarding the Ruhr would drag on until 1949, finally culminating in the declaration of an International High Authority – out of which Robert Schuman’s plan for a European Coal and Steel Community (one of the progenitors of the present E.U.) would emerge in 1950-1.[6] French ambitions for some form of quasi-autonomous Rhineland republic foundered against British and American determination for the new West German State to be an economically viable unit, with a territorial integrity that preserved the essentials of what had emerged during Bismarck’s wars of 1864-1871.

Amid France’s diplomatic disappointments of 1946, the possibility of a British military guarantee of French sovereignty was back on the agenda. Now better remembered for his marriage to the renowned society beauty Lady Diana Manners, and for his colourful private life, the strongly Francophile Duff Cooper was in fact a significant voice in support of a comprehensive French treaty encompassing trade and defence. During the years of the Churchill wartime government, Cooper’s arguments had gained little traction with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, whose scepticism about exclusively European projects would remain a constant in his diplomatic outlook.[7]  Remaining in Paris under the Attlee government, in many respects Cooper had a better working relationship with Ernest Bevin than with his predecessor as Foreign Secretary.[8]

Cooper’s despatches to London across the year 1946 reveal his understanding of the linkage in French government thinking between a possible Franco-British mutual military guarantee, and the possibility of their acceptance of an International High Authority for the Ruhr. In early April 1946 Oliver Harvey (Deputy Under Secretary in the Foreign Office) joined Cooper in Paris to negotiate over the future of the Ruhr, and to initiate general treaty discussions. While Bidault firmly re-asserted French determination to secure the Ruhr, his position was undermined by a growing split within his coalition. Rejecting Bidault’s intransigence as too a high price to pay for the loss of a treaty with Britain, Félix Gouin and his Socialists walked out of the cabinet.[9]

Sensing an opportunity, Cooper and Harvey pushed to Bidault the idea of decoupling the Ruhr issue from the Anglo-French treaty. Although Bidault refused to fundamentally change his position, Ambassador Massigli was already in conversation with Cooper, exploring alternative models for how the Ruhr might fit in a new West German state, and its relationship to France and the rest of Europe. Furthermore, in his conversations with Massigli and Finance Minister Robert Schuman, Cooper had implanted a key idea. Seeking to calm their fears that French failure to detach the Ruhr would jeopardise relations with the USSR, Cooper argued than a Franco-British military alliance could be framed in terms of a precaution against a resurgence of German nationalism. This appealed particularly to Schuman, who had only just emerged from a “tense” Cabinet meeting that included the Deputy Prime Minister, the Stalinist Maurice Thorez.  Notwithstanding major gaps remaining between the two countries, on 9 April 1946 the existence of the preliminary Franco-British talks was made public (America and the USSR having been informed four days earlier).

In Whitehall, the imperative of blocking the rise of the French Communists was felt just as keenly. In a memorandum dated 24 March 1946, Horace Rumbold had reported an approach to Cooper by General Pierre Billotte, the Assistant Army Chief of Staff with close links to De Gaulle, requesting funds and noting that “the right wing people tell us once the Communists get into power nothing will get them out again, that we would then have the Soviet Union twenty miles from our doorstep and would be driven in our own interests to support a French resistance against the occupier.”[10] Rumbold’s memorandum quickly dismissed as fanciful the notion of British intervention in the event of a Communist take-over, but recognising the urgency of the situation he recommended immediate action, including the emergency provision of 10,000 tons of cooking fat as an interim measure to extricate Bidault’s government from a food shortages crisis, combined with maximum publicity for such assistance, and the downplaying of British opposition to the annexation of the Ruhr. The winter of 1945-1946 had seen severe food shortages across France, worse in many respects than in the years of occupation, and repeated calls were made to Britain for wheat and flour, most of which were declined due to even more pressing demands in the British occupational zone of Germany.[11]  Food became a significant propaganda tool as the USSR announced an offer of 500,000 tons of wheat to France (in return for payment in US dollars!) in April 1946.[12]

French industrial production in key categories, 1938 and 1946

For the remainder of 1946 the journey to an Anglo-French Treaty was beset with false-starts and breakdowns, exacerbated by a series of crises in India, Greece and the Middle East that absorbed the attention of Bevin.[13] Matters inside France remained as complicated as ever. A key consideration was the French electoral calendar, and on 31 May, two days before France went to the polls, Cooper communicated his fears to Harvey that De Gaulle’s ally, the information minister and novelist André Malraux might resort to violence to lever his master back into the presidency.[14] In the event, Bidault’s MRP gained seats at the expense of the Communists and the Socialists, and the three-party coalition soldiered on.

Franco-British meetings in September 1946 resolved many economic aspects of the arrangement, including export and import terms for specific products, and a rescheduling of France’s £100 million debt to Britain for final repayment by 1962. In mid-October 1946 Bidault met with Bevin and dusted off the Gaullist notion of a European third force but further progress was limited by the imminence of the French elections. Cooper’s view was that the respective commitments of Bidault to the Russians and Bevin to the Americans left little room for a reconfiguration of a grand strategy.[15]

The election of 10 November 1946, brought the Communists 182 seats from 28% of the vote, and made them once more the single largest party.[16] In the final months of transition to the new Fourth Republic, the new Prime Minister was Léon Blum, the veteran socialist and former Popular Front leader from the 1930s, who was also something of an Anglophile. Cooper now seized his moment, and on 26 December he secured a personal meeting Blum and pushed for completion of the treaty. On 1 January 1947, as France lay in the grip of a freezing winter, Blum wrote to Clement Attlee, broaching the possibility of a supply of 1-2 million tons of British coal per month as part of a broader accommodation.  Although Attlee’s response ducked the coal issue, Blum was invited to London on 13 January, and negotiations on specific treaty terms formally opened the following day.[17] This diplomatic push owed much to the initiative of two men – Cooper himself and the new Under Secretary of State at the Quai d’Orsay, Pierre-Olivier Lapie.

Over the following three months many of the obstacles that had hitherto obstructed progress seemed to dissolve or diminish in importance.  Negotiations continued under the premiership of Paul Ramadier, and French momentum was maintained by several factors, including the dire economic situation, and a series of pessimistic internal reports from its own General Staff, suggesting that the country had little capacity to defend itself alone, in the event of a European war. British Army reservations over any binding commitments were assuaged by the general phrasing of the promised terms of assistance; intelligence sharing would be limited, and obligations would not extend to the defence of overseas territories; and pre-existing commitments to the USA would be prioritised.[18]  Cooper had hoped for an expansive treaty that would herald a general Franco-British Entente but both governments were nervous at the anticipated Soviet reaction, and therefore the terms provisionally reached on 25 February were heavily derivative of both countries’ wartime alliances with the USSR.[19]

In the Cabinet on 27 February 1947 Attlee expressed concern that Britain could now be tied to backing a French military occupation of the Ruhr, or some other nationalist provocation, but Bevin reassured him that the United Nations Charter could still be invoked in such instances, and that no automatic military trigger was in place.[20] For France a crucial priority was getting the signatures of both governments on the Treaty prior to the Moscow Foreign Ministers’ summit on 10 March, as anything less than a fait accompli was feared as a possible invitation to Soviet meddling.[21]

The bleakness of Dunkirk in early March was magnified by the enduring devastation from the German siege of May 1940, and by the driving rain that welcomed Bevin, Cooper, Bidault and Massigli to the sub-prefecture – one of the few intact buildings. Bidault claimed that the venue had been his idea, to exorcise the memories of 1940, but Jean Chauvel, Secretary General at the Quai d’Orsay, credited the British with a location that in French eyes was associated more with a failed alliance than with the miracle of escape. Bidault and Bevin spoke not a word of each other’s language, and small talk was therefore impossible to fill the delay caused by the breakdown of the car delivering the treaty texts. Amid the gloom Chauvel noted the vision of Lady Diana Cooper, turned out in a suitably non-committal gris clair.[22]

The Dunkirk Treaty stands at an intersection between the on-off entente and mésentente of Anglo-French relations, and the vast and complex efforts to re-order the political, military and economic structures of post-war Europe.  It showed that Britain and France still had common ground, and recognised an element of mutual dependence at a time when their empires were faltering, and international relations were being increasingly shaped by superpower rivalry. In helping France to accommodate itself to a new West German state, and to accept a compromise on the future of the Ruhr industrial complex that represented the abandonment annexationist aims, Dunkirk contributed to preparing the ground for the economic and political structures that led to the Rome Treaty a decade later, and the E.E.C. While the conduct of Foreign Policy under Bevin has been characterised as privileging Anglo-American relations, Dunkirk showed that Foreign Office thinking was enthusiastic to repair the damage done in the years of De Gaulle’s predominance. The nimble footwork of a Francophile British Conservative ambassador in building bridges with a temporary Socialist French Government confirms the importance of personal chemistry and the contingencies of domestic political bouleversements as much as fixed strategies. Seventy years on from The Dunkirk Treaty, the human element in Franco-British diplomacy seems more important than ever as Britain plans its withdrawal from some of the supranational structures that had their origins in this period.

[1] NA: PRO FO 371/59956.

[2] S. Berstein, Histoire du Gaullisme (Perrin, 2002), p. 306.

[3] R. Gildea, France since 1945 (Oxford, 2002), p. 41.

[4] FO 371/59952 (55803).

[5] For a general discussion of French territorial aims, see A. S. Milward, The Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1945-1951 (California, 1984), pp. 128-9.

[6] The Origins and Development of European Integration, ed. P. M. R. Stirk and D. Weigall (Pinter, London, 1999), p. 63.

[7] FO 371/59952 (55803), Cooper to Bevin, 19 Mar. 1946, citing correspondence of 30 May 1944 and 11 Mar. 1945.

[8] P. M. H. Bell, France and Britain, 1940-1994: The Long Separation (Routledge, 2007), p. 75.

[9]  FO 371/59952 (55803), Cooper to Foreign Office, 5 Apr. 1946.

[10] NA: PRO FO 371/59953.

[11] Bell, France and Britain, 1940-1994, p. 75.

[12] FO 371/59953, Sir Orme Sargent to Bevin, 3 Apr. 1946.

[13] J. W. Young, Britain, France the Unity of Europe, 1945-1951 (Leicester, 1984), p. 44.

[14] FO 371/59953, Cooper to Harvey, 31 May 1946.

[15] FO 371/59954, Duff Cooper to the Foreign Office, 15 Oct. 1946.

[16] R. Kedward, La Vie en Bleu, France and the French Since 1900  (Penguin, 2005), p. 356

[17] E. du Reau, ‘Les origins et la portée du traité de Dunkerque vers une nouvelle “entente cordiale?” (4 Mars 1947) in Matériaux pour l’histoire de nos temps, no, 18, 1990. La mésentente cordiale: les relations franco-britanniques, 1945-1957, p. 24.

[18] Ibid., p. 25.

[19] Young, Britain, France the Unity of Europe, p. 49.

[20] NA: PRO CAB 195/5  C.M. 25 (47).

[21] Du Reau, ‘Les origins et la portée du traité de Dunkerque …’ 25.

[22] G. Bidault, D’une Résistance à l’autre (Les Presses du Siecle, 1965) p. 145; J. Chauvel, Commentaire: d’Alger à Berne, 1944-1952 (Fayard, 1972), p. 193.

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