Earlier this year, the BBC unearthed some startling documents in the British National Archives. The papers, which dated back to the Suez crisis in 1956, documented a proposal by Guy Mollet, France's Socialist Prime Minister of the time, to create a union between France and Great Britain. When his British counterpart, the Conservative Anthony Eden, flatly rejected the idea, Mollet suggested that France could instead become a member of the British Commonwealth.
The idea was quickly dropped, but the discovery of it a half-century later caused a stir on both sides of the English Channel, not least because these days it seems so utterly improbable: quite apart from their distinctive histories and identity, Britain and France in recent years have been on totally different trajectories London up, Paris down and relations between the two leaders of the past decade, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Tony Blair, have been prickly at best. Opposing positions on the war in Iraq and on European farm subsidies have at times degenerated into public shouting matches that have been gleefully reported by the national press of both countries.
But now the two nations are about to get new leaders who may be closer in outlook and personality than any French President and British Prime Minister in living memory. While nobody dreams of reviving the Mollet plan, the two men have an opportunity to put Britain and France back into the same orbit with potentially significant consequences for the rest of Europe and the U.S., which for the first time in years is being cheered rather than jeered by a French leader. Meanwhile, there's a lot the new boys can learn from one another as they pursue their most pressing policy goals.
At first sight, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy would seem to continue the Anglo-French tradition of coming from different planets. Sarkozy, who won an easy victory in the French presidential runoff election on May 6, is the son of a capricious Hungarian émigré aristocrat. A mediocre student who still refers painfully to the "humiliations" of his childhood, he embraced Gaullist conservatism as a young man when most of his contemporaries were reveling in the make-love-not-war spirit of the late '60s. He triumphed in the French vote by painting himself as the candidate of change. "Together we will write a new page in our history," he promised in his victory speech.
By contrast, Brown, who has been anointed to succeed Blair when he steps down this summer, represents continuity: as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he's been Blair's co-architect and co-executor of British government policy for a decade. His roots are quite unlike Sarkozy's, too: the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, Brown so excelled at school that he was accepted into Edinburgh University at the age of 16 and went on to work his way up through the ranks of Britain's Labour Party at a time when it was saddled with socialist dogma.
For all these differences of background and political affiliation, however, there are some striking similarities. On economic policy, questions of national identity and foreign policy, they can sound more or less alike. Both extol the importance of a strong work ethic and advocate free markets, but with caveats. Both have a controversial nationalist bent: while Brown talks about the importance of "Britishness," Sarkozy is seeking to establish clear criteria for those who aspire to become French. Both feel warm about America but cool toward President George W. Bush. Neither gets emotional over the idea of European unity, preferring to see what works and what doesn't. Their natures, too, are similar: both are impatient, often short-tempered and, say their critics, sometimes authoritarian. Yet both have had to bide their time and, to their evident frustration, wait their turn to assume power.
"We now have two leaders who have many things in common, including their temperaments," says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank. He believes Sarkozy, Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel could create a new triumvirate of power at Europe's core. All three, he says, "are Atlanticist, economically liberal more or less and take a pragmatic rather than ideological approach to the European Union and its institutions."
These are early days, of course, and even the biggest euro-optimists aren't yet talking about a new spirit of entente. The two men know one another from Sarkozy's stint as French Finance Minister in 2004; they met regularly at E.U. ministerial meetings in Brussels. Aides say they get on well, at least professionally, and respect one another, but so far that's all. Cozying up to one another is not yet on their agenda; Sarkozy's first trips as President will be to Berlin and Brussels, not London. Moreover, there's no neat fit between their views on at least one critical issue: how to react to globalization. Brown is an ardent advocate of trade and open borders, which he sees as being of major benefit to Britain. He told Time: "You've got to put the case for globalization in the sense that, with open markets and flexibility and free trade, you give people the chance to benefit from a global economy." Sarkozy comes from a French tradition that is far warier of the outside world and more inclined to state intervention. In his victory speech, he urged European leaders "not to remain deaf to the anger of the people who view the European Union not as a protection, but as the Trojan horse for all the threats that are contained in the transformations of the world."
Still, in a country where being called Anglo-Saxon is often an insult, Sarkozy is openly admiring of the ability of Britain and the U.S. to create millions of jobs, and is promising to deregulate France's labor market in an effort to end what he calls the nation's "immobility." In a pre-election debate on May 2, he singled out the U.K., along with Ireland, Sweden and Denmark, lauding them for their success in combatting unemployment. That sort of attitude drew flak, with opponents painting him as an American-style neoconservative, but that didn't stop him winning. "He's as economically liberal as it's possible to be for a French politician," says Grant of the Centre for European Reform.
There's certainly a lot of lost ground to be made up. France has languished economically, even as Britain has caught up and overtaken it. In 2002, according to O.E.C.D. statistics, the U.K.'s national income per capita exceeded France's for the first time, and since then the gap has widened. Brits, long the poorer neighbors, are now on average 10% richer than the French. That's one important factor feeding a deepening mood of pessimism about the future in France a mood that Sarkozy is pledging to change.