With the French expression Entente cordiale is used to define the agreement signed in London on April 8, 1904 between France and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for the mutual recognition of spheres of colonial influence. Mainly the treaty defined the French influence on Morocco and the English influence on Egypt. It marked the end of centuries of contrasts and conflicts between France and Britain and was an initial response to Germany”s naval rearmament.
The agreement constituted a decisive step towards the Triple Entente that would include, after the Anglo-Russian Agreement for Asia of 1907, in addition to France and Great Britain, also Russia.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the antagonism that had divided France and Great Britain since the Napoleonic era was gradually turning into friendship. The British had in fact begun to fear competition from Germany and the agitation of Emperor William II had ended up opening their eyes to the threatening prosperity of the German Empire and its increasingly powerful fleet. On the other hand, the French Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé, hostile to Germany, with courage and tenacity had managed to weave a plot whose results were beginning to show.
While anti-German sentiment was growing in Britain, francophilia was also on the rise: from King Edward VII on down, involving many influential officials in the Foreign Office. So that, even the government man probably closest to Berlin, the Minister of Colonies Joseph Chamberlain, after failing a diplomatic approach to Germany, began to be convinced that an accommodation with France was needed.
At the end of 1902, a rebellion against the Sultan of Morocco Mulay Abdelaziz IV, provided the opportunity to address the issue of British and French interests in that country. German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow did not appear alarmed by the negotiations that had just begun, which, in fact, proceeded very slowly. The French public opinion was still very Anglophobic and Minister Delcassé made negotiations with the British government quite difficult; but, at the beginning of May, King Edward VII of England visited Paris and soon after French President Émile Loubet reciprocated with a visit to London, which aroused great enthusiasm.
The visits of Edward VII and Loubet
The main merit of the Anglo-French agreement is, in general, attributed to the strong will and shrewdness of King Edward VII of England. Arrived in Paris on May 1, 1903, the king had a rather cold reception but to a British delegation declared that the friendship and admiration of the English for the French nation could be extended and become a feeling of union between the peoples of the two countries. The next day, at the Elysée he said: “Our strong desire is to march side by side with you on the paths of civilization and peace”. These expressions of friendship could not go unnoticed, all the more so because the king had with him a high official of the Foreign Office, Charles Hardinge.
But it was two months later that the agreement took the decisive step, when, on July 6, the President of the French Republic Loubet arrived in the British capital welcomed in the most flattering way. At the Buckingham Palace dinner, King Edward spoke of the affection his fellow citizens felt for France, and in his farewell telegram he expressed his “ardent desire” to see the rapprochement between the two countries achieved as soon as possible.
One of the reasons for London”s interest in the agreement was the weakness of Britain in the Mediterranean. In fact, the British were now aware of the dangers of too large a commitment in North Africa and were looking for a partner with whom to share the burden. This opened the way for a very broad agreement.
If Chancellor Bülow looked at the issue with skepticism and a certain amount of superiority, his emperor, Wilhelm II, used all his means to hinder its development. The Kaiser tried to sow suspicion by reminding the French naval attaché of the Fascioda episode and prophesying the political demise of Chamberlain, who effectively left the colonies ministry in 1903. “The day will come,” the Kaiser assured the French interlocutors, “when Napoleon”s idea of the continental blockade must be revived. He tried to impose it by force; with us it will have to be based on the common interests we have to defend.”
William wrote to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia that the Crimean coalition was about to be reconstituted against Russian interests in the East: “Democratic countries ruled by a parliamentary majority against imperial monarchies”; and as he reviewed the troops at Hanover, he recalled that at Waterloo the Germans had saved the British from defeat.
These clumsy attempts to create discord between nations certainly sowed mistrust and suspicion, not of each other but of Germany. And not even the outbreak in February 1904 of the Russo-Japanese War, which was supposed to create tension between France, Russia”s ally, and Great Britain, Japan”s ally, stopped the diplomats in London and Paris.
It took nine months, from July 1903 to April 1904, to finalize the agreement. The main point of negotiation was Morocco. At first, Minister Delcassé aimed at maintaining the status quo: Great Britain would simply have to disregard Morocco so as to allow France to persuade the Sultan to use its help to suppress the revolts. From there, the step to the protectorate would have been short. The British Foreign Minister Lansdowne was quite willing. But he asked two conditions: that the interests of Spain were also taken into account (otherwise fearing a rapprochement with Germany) and that the coast of Morocco in front of Gibraltar was not fortified. In addition, on Egypt, which France had definitively renounced in 1899, Lansdowne asked for the collaboration of Paris for an economic penetration that would allow Governor Cromer (1841-1917) to realize his plans for financial reconstruction.
To Delcassé, this last request seemed excessive. He tried to postpone the issue, at first trying to avoid it, then proposing that the withdrawal of French activities from Egypt should take place at the same pace as the progress made in Morocco. But Lansdowne remained inflexible and France had to give in. At the same time, the indefatigable Delcassé negotiated with the Spanish ambassador in Paris, Fernando León y Castillo (1842-1918), to define Spain”s rights and interests in Morocco. These rights would be safeguarded in exchange for Spanish recognition of French political supremacy over Morocco. The negotiations were very difficult because the Spanish did not want to admit the end of their historical mission that since the time of the Expulsion of the Moors saw Morocco as their domain. This is what the French Foreign Ministry official Maurice Paléologue wrote: “Ambassador Leon y Castillo, Marquis of Muni, shows remarkable vigor and agility in advocating his cause, which has all the forces of reality against him”.
The historical moment and the spirit of the agreement are outlined in an exemplary way by Paléologue who writes: “Friday, April 8, 1904. Today, our ambassador in London, Paul Cambon, and the Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, Lord Lansdowne, signed the Franco-English agreement, namely: 1st a Declaration concerning Egypt and Morocco; 2nd a Convention concerning Newfoundland and Africa; 3rd a Declaration concerning Siam, Madagascar and the New Hebrides. This great diplomatic act therefore touches on many issues, resolving them in a spirit of fairness; no disagreement, no quarrel remains between the two countries. Among all the stipulations, the most important is the one concerning Egypt and Morocco: we abandon Egypt to England, which for its part abandons Morocco to us. The agreement just concluded opens a new era in Franco-English relations; it is the prelude to a common action in the general politics of Europe. Is it directed against Germany? Explicitly, no. But implicitly, yes: because against the ambitious aims of Germanism, against its confessed designs of preponderance and penetration, it opposes the principle of European equilibrium”.
It should be remembered, however, that the situation of the two powers in the two African countries they were interested in was not the same. Great Britain was already in a dominant position in Egypt (a British protectorate since 1882), while France did not yet have control of Morocco. It was sufficient for Great Britain to maintain the status quo, while France, which had serious intentions of colonization, was faced with a road fraught with diplomatic conflicts, especially with Germany.
Another element of the treaty was the renunciation by France of the exclusive fishing rights held west of the island of Newfoundland. In exchange London ceded to Paris the islands of Los off French Guinea, made a rectification of the boundaries to the right of the Niger River and near Lake Chad, as well as recognizing France an indemnity. There was also an accommodation of the situation in Siam, divided into three zones of influence, and the New Hebrides, in the Pacific Ocean, for which the modalities of a joint administration were fixed. Finally, there followed conventions concerning Madagascar and the area of Gambia and Senegal.
Chancellor Bülow and the Reichstag
Despite the fact that in articles 1 and 2 of the treaty, the two signatory nations undertook not to violate the institutional arrangement in force in Morocco and Egypt, there were many questions to the Reichstag, according to which the agreement put Germany in a painful and humiliating situation for the privileges obtained by France. Chancellor Bülow replied to the German parliament on April 12: “We have no reason to suppose that this agreement is directed against any particular power. It seems to be simply an attempt to make all differences between France and England disappear. From the point of view of German interests, we have no objection to this convention. Morocco, our interests in that country are primarily of an economic nature. So we too have a great interest in order and peace reigning in that country.”
In secrecy, however, Bülow, together with the German ambassador in London Paul Metternich (1853-1934) tried to find out to what extent Britain would engage with France, in the event of war for example. On this point, the “grey eminence” of the German imperial government, the advisor Friedrich von Holstein, even believed that Britain wanted to see France occupied by Germany in order to have a free hand in the world, and that therefore never would the British government take up arms alongside France.
The resignation of William II
Wilhelm II, on a cruise in the Mediterranean, seemed resigned to the defeat, but wanted to meet him, given the circumstance of the visit of the President of the French Republic Émile Loubet to Italy in those days. Bülow barely convinced him not to expose himself, fearing Loubet”s certain refusal, which, given the international situation, would have made him look ridiculous.
Despite Bülow”s behavior at the Reichstag and the resignation of the Emperor, German public opinion did not tolerate the Anglo-French agreement and persisted in seeing it as a loss of prestige for Germany. In nationalist circles, there was hope for a rectification of Bülow”s position by the Emperor. Still cruising, Wilhelm II, however, wrote (on April 19 from Syracuse) to his Chancellor that the French without compromising their alliance with Russia had succeeded in making them pay dearly for their friendship with England; that the agreement considerably reduced the points of friction between the two nations and that the tone of the English press showed that hostility towards Germany was not diminishing.
With the Entente Cordiale those alignments began to take shape which, confirmed and strengthened with the Tangier and Agadir crises, the Algeciras Conference and the Anglo-Russian Agreement for Asia, would later reflect the opposing alliances of the First World War.