British International History Group 31st Annual Conference: Lancaster, England 5-7 September 2019

In 2019 project investigators Peter Jackson and Rachel Chin presented Weight of the Past research at the British International History Group annual conference in Lancaster, England. Their presentation explored the British-Vichy-Free French relations during 1940-1941. It analysed policy making rhetoric and published images to demonstrate how conceptions of the past influenced Franco-British relations at both an official and popular level.

RUSI Witness Seminar

The Lancaster House Agreements Ten Years On

Ten years ago, on 2 November 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister David Cameron signed the Lancaster House Treaties on Franco-British defence and security cooperation, and on nuclear cooperation.

The Treaties constituted a landmark of recent bilateral cooperation between these two states. They certainly offered a corrective to widely-held impressions of a UK-French relationship predominantly characterised by competition and conflict. The Treaties committed their signatories to improve their collective defence capability by strengthening operational ties between their Armed Forces, sharing and pooling materials and equipment, building joint facilities, facilitating mutual access to defence markets, and increasing industrial and technological cooperation.

The Weight of the Past in Franco-British Relations project team recently held a Witness Seminar at RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute). The seminar brought together four former and current policy practitioners in Franco-British relations to reflect on the Lancaster House Treaties, and on the historical context of Franco-British defence and security cooperation. How influential is history in the contemporary conduct of this particular relationship? And how does it contribute to the establishment and maintenance of close Franco-British relations in the defence and security sphere?

The Witnesses

Sir David Omand GCB: Visiting Professor in the War Studies Department, King’s College London and at PSIA Sciences-Po, Paris. During his career in British government service he held senior posts in security, intelligence, and defence, including UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator in the Cabinet Office, 2002-05; Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, 1997-2000; and before that Director of GCHQ (the UK Signals Intelligence and Cyber Security Agency), and a Deputy Under Secretary of State for Policy in the Ministry of Defence. He served for seven years on the UK Joint Intelligence Committee.

Dame Mariot Leslie: Associate fellow of the Europe Programme at Chatham House. In a distinguished diplomatic career, she served as UK Permanent Representative to NATO, 2010-14; FCO Director General for Defence and Intelligence, 2007-10; HM Ambassador to Norway, 2002-06; and head of the FCO’s Policy Planning Staff. She was a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Her career included a two-year secondment to the French Foreign Ministry at the end of the Cold War (1990-92). She is based in Scotland and is currently a member of the Scottish First Minister’s Standing Council on Europe, and a director of the Scottish American Investment Company.

Rear Admiral Luc Pagès: Defence Attaché, Embassy of France to the UK. He entered the French Naval Academy in 1986 and was commissioned in 1989 aboard FS Jeanne d’Arc. He held three commands at sea, FS Guepard (Brest), FFH Prairial (Tahiti) and DDGH Jean de Vienne (Toulon). While at sea in various capacities, he participated in numerous operations, to include Trident/Allied Force in the Adriatic Sea (1999), Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean Sea, Enduring Freedom in the Indian Ocean and Harmattan/Unified Protector in Libya (2011). Tours ashore included assignments as Seamanship and Navigation instructor, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis; Surface Department Head instructor, French Naval Training Center, Toulon; Staff Officer in charge of Naval Doctrine, French Navy Headquarter, Paris; Coordination officer and Policy desk officer to SACT and DSACT, Allied Command Transformation HQ, in Norfolk; Instructor at the French Ecole de Guerre, Paris; Naval attaché, Embassy of France to the United States; and Head of the Office for Bilateral Military Relations, French Joint Staff, Paris He holds various decorations to include Legion d’honneur (Officer), Ordre national du mérite (Officer) as well as the French Cross for Military Valor and the U.S. Legion of Merit (Officer).

Stephen Willmer: Team Leader responsible for the UK’s defence relationship with France within the UK Ministry of Defence since 2014. He has worked in the MOD since the late 1980s, including in the MOD team conducting the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, 2011 Defence Reform Review and the subsequent Defence Transformation programme; running the secretariat for the Defence Board and Defence Audit Committee; producing prize-winning Defence Annual Reports and Accounts; reviewing the MOD’s assurance arrangements; and working on defence nuclear, biological and chemical arms control policy including representing the MOD in a range of international fora. He attended RCDS in 2009. He has also served as a member of the Diocese of Southwark’s Council of Trustees and chaired its Audit Committee.

Shaped by History?

It is neither unusual, nor inaccurate, to note that centuries of relations between Britain and France have been marked by both conflict and concord. Nonetheless, the two states last found themselves at war against each other at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Two centuries later, at the beginning of the twenty-first, the Lancaster House Treaties, were hailed as ‘historic’ by Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy. We asked our Witnesses for their reflections.

All Witnesses agreed that France and the UK share particular historical connections, and that this historical background has been central to the formalisation of defence and security cooperation in the Lancaster House Treaties. Significantly for the Witnesses, though, the points of historical reference were not those of disagreement, but those of accord.

The post-Cold War world
All Witnesses highlighted consistent cooperation and significant commonality of perspective between the UK and France in the period since the end of the Cold War.

While Paris and London may have articulated ambitions for the post-Cold War world differently, each, for Dame Mariot Leslie, was bounded by similar factors (e.g. population size, economy), and shared a similar strategic outlook, ambitions for international role and perspectives on the capacity to project hard as well as soft power. For Sir David Omand, the crucible of these elements came in response to the collapse of Yugoslavia, where UK-French cooperation was deep and prolonged, and (alongside Germany and the USA) significantly more extensive than its public profile would have suggested. A breakthrough in the UK-French strategic and defence relationship came in 1995, for Sir David, with a Joint Declaration at the Anglo-French summit at Chequers on 30 October. Adm. Pagès also underlined the importance of the 1995 declaration in laying groundwork for subsequent cooperation, up to and beyond the Lancaster House Treaties. And Stephen Willmer highlighted that cooperation on policy formulation as well as operational questions was entrenched across this period, with cumulative positive effects for contemporary developments.

The Suez crisis
While emphasising the positive effects of recent cooperation, all Witnesses took a longer view of this relationship’s history. A further point of reference was the Suez crisis.

As Dame Mariot recalled, the French and British experiences of Suez were inherently similar, but the conclusions drawn were very different. Adm. Pagès particularly highlighted the successful military planning and conduct of the operation, compared with contrasting views of the political and diplomatic outcomes. The episode has been regarded as indicating irreconcilable differences between Paris and London. In terms of defence and security cooperation, however, Adm. Pagès took an alternative view. Despite divergences after Suez, he suggested, the crisis in itself did little to change French and British ways of thinking. They continued to view the world through similar lenses. The ability of both to overcome differences over time was much more important than what separated them.

The Second World War
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the effects of the Second World War were noted. Franco-British relations in these years are widely analysed in academic work. For our practitioner Witnesses too, the wartime experiences, and the legacies of these experiences, naturally affected the substance and context of defence and security relations. For Dame Mariot, the different lessons drawn from the war are salient. On the one hand, she suggested, French perspectives on European construction and peace on the continent juxtaposed with a much less clear British view on its residual world role in the aftermath of conflict. On the other, neither France nor Britain was immune from stereotypical and at times misplaced assumptions about the priorities of the other (particularly with regard to UK-US relations). Inevitably, though, the situation gave rise to a difference of strategic starting points at that stage, which at times subsequently had a significant bearing on their bilateral relations.

The Crimean War
On the contrary, Adm. Pagès emphasised not the impact of the Second World War on Franco-British relations, but that of the Crimean War. This, he pointed out, was the proper starting point of the two states’ cooperation in military and security matters. Stephen Willmer noted that in the context of a consistently competitive relationship, particularly in the nineteenth century, cooperation in Crimea was soon followed by defensive preparations against invasion of Britain by France.

Nonetheless, for Adm. Pagès, a direct line can be drawn from cooperation in Crimea, to military cooperation in the twenty-first century. He particularly referenced the close ties between French and British forces since the Charge of the Light Brigade, pointing to the annual commemorations by the Light Dragoons and the 4e Régiment de Chasseurs, both of which were scheduled for deployment in Mali in European/UN operations in 2019 and 2020. On a similar note, Sir David also pointed to the positive effects of operational deployment in the contemporary period, especially in respect of former Yugoslavia. Stephen Willmer referenced cooperation in East Timor, Zaire, Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. The argument, from all speakers, was that in questions of defence and security the practical cooperation between France and Britain is much more extensive, and much more habitual, than common perceptions admit. And in particular, that the Lancaster House Treaties offer a strong base to build on past successes.


Ten years after the Lancaster House accords, the international security landscape in some ways seems very different from before. Not least the British referendum result in narrow favour of exiting the European Union may place cooperation between the two signatories in a different light. However, as all Witnesses confirmed, defence and security cooperation between the two is not only of long historical standing, but is also a substantial component of UK-French relations in its own right. Anchored by shared strategic perspectives, resting on longstanding consultation and cooperation, and cemented by ongoing operational experience, the prospects for its immediate future seem positive. As Stephen Willmer noted, for many, defence and security cooperation between historical rivals may still seem counterintuitive. That doesn’t make it any less effective.

With sincere thanks to our Witnesses for their insights, and our audience for their stimulating discussions.


1 Ben Hall and James Blitz, ‘France and UK hail accord on defence,’ Financial Times, 3 November 2010.


Society for French Historical Studies 67th Annual Meeting: Charlotte, NC 24-27 March 2022

In March 2022 our team travelled to Charlotte, North Carolina to present project research at the Society for French Historical Studies Annual Meeting. Together, our papers explored nearly 60 years of Franco-British history, covering the interwar years, the Second World War and the early years of British membership in the European Economic Community.

Peter Jackson’s paper, ‘The Role of Historical Understandings in French and British Responses to the Nazi Challenge’, considered the role of representations of the past in shaping British and French foreign and security policies from the advent of the Nazi Party to power in Germany to the outbreak of World War II.

Rachel Chin’s paper, ‘Historical Representations of Franco-British Rivalry and Cooperation during the Second World War’, explored how British, Free French and Vichy French policy makers deployed past examples of rivalry and cooperation to define the Franco-British relationship between 1940 and 1945. These conceptions of history played an important role in each side’s attempt to carve out its place inside or outside of the conflict and to conceptualise its position in the postwar world.

Rachel Utley’s paper, ‘We Have No Option…’, considered relations between Britain and France by the turn of the 1970s/1980s. As the British Foreign Office argued, in the quest to advance relations on multiple fronts, ‘We have no option but to seek closer agreement with France’: moreover, officials believed the resolution of perceived historical slights and grievances to be the principal means to this end. Comparable French archival material shows no such sentiment, and neither did their public statements or wider correspondence. Divergent perspectives on the past continued to feature well into the 1980s. Alongside other challenges to this key relationship, in bilateral and broader contexts, Britain and France seemed divided by history, and by its influence on perceptions of identity and interest.