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As Others See Us: the view from France

The Auld Alliance isn’t just gone. It’s forgotten.

There might - just might - be one or two misty-eyed romantic Scottish nationalists who think France wants to see its old friend in the north regain its independence.

They’d be wrong.

Don’t let me mislead you: nobody, I am told, is panicking in the Élysée Palace about Scotland’s 2014 referendum. So far, at least. But that is only because nobody thinks the Yes camp can win.

“We have got some concerns,” said one Paris source familiar with French policy. “Since the Entente Cordiale was signed in 1904 we have stood side by side with Britain in two world wars and a cold war.

“The UK is our main strategic partner. We do not wish to see her weakened. The Auld Alliance just doesn’t play a role at all.”

French sources - and I am sorry I can’t say who they are - have been quietly getting their message out on Scottish independence. Their main concern: defence and their country’s long-term strategic interests.

Bluntly, France thinks it can count on the Brits as an ally in a serious scrap. It can’t say the same of some of its other European allies. Only this month it turned to Britain for support in its action in Mali. Would a smaller, weaker, Scotland-less London-based state pack the same punch?

The French worry about Trident too. They don’t think there is any prospect of the submarine-based missiles staying on the Clyde for long after independence. “Scots wouldn’t put up with some kind of Akrotiri or Guantanamo on their territory with nuclear weapons,” said one source referring to, respectively, one of the UK bases in Cyprus and the American outpost in Cuba. Moving the weapons system would cost a fortune.

Could Scottish independence mean France ends up as the only nuclear power in western Europe?

Phillips O’Brien of Glasgow University is familiar with the French outlook on Scotland. He too stresses the strategic consequences for France of the break-up of Britain.

France’s place in the world would come under real pressure if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom,” he said. “In the first place, it could lead to reform of the UN Security Council and the concurrent loss or reduction of French influence in the UN.

“French defence policy today is very much based around the notion of Anglo-French cooperation in terms of both construction and operations.”

The Scottish referendum has hit the headlines in France. But few writers - with polls, so far, predicting a No landslide - have tried to imagine what Scottish independence would mean for France.

French papers and TV stations have been much more interested in nationalist goings-on across the Pyrenees in Spain. After all, their readers and views are far more familiar with the streets of Barcelona or the beaches of the Costa Brava than they are with our own north British outpost.

Dr O’Brien reckons the break-up of the UK would come as something of a shock to the highly centrist French state. He said: “With a significant population of Basque and Catalan nationalists in its own southwest the French would be very worried to see a national division in the European power that is closest to it in population, economic size and military power.”

Could Catalan - or indeed Basque - independence movement cross the Pyrenees? The French are usually pretty confident that their Catalan and Basque citizens would be reluctant to go down that road.

But would Corsicans be inspired by independence movements in Britain or Spain? Maybe.

Why should we care what the French think? Are concerns in Paris relevant to our independence debate? Not yet, certainly.

But if poll numbers change, could French politicians say something, intervene in the Scottish debate? “They would be very cautious,” said a Paris source. “The official line is that this is a domestic matter for the people of Britain and Scotland.”

Could France, for example, threaten to veto Scottish membership of the EU? That, I am told, is unlikely.

One last little wee thought.

Let’s say Scotland does, after all, vote Yes and the UK is wound up, its seat on the UN Security Council up for grabs. That, of course, might lead to reappraisal of which nations or entities should have a place at the big table. France, as our sources suggest, may be a loser. But who would be a winner? India? Brazil? Or - closer to home - the EU? Germany?

Dr O’Brien has looked at that too. Because, he reckons, while Scottish independence may hinder France, it could help Germany.

In a report to the House of Lords, the academic said: “In pure terms of realpolitik, Germany would have the most to gain from Scottish independence and a less powerful United Kingdom.

“As the third largest contributor the United Nations budget and with the largest economy in Europe, the German claim for a seat would be one of the strongest if permanent membership was reformed due to the diminution of the UK.”

Germany, Dr O’Brien told peers, was worried about Scotland not being in Nato. Then a half-German nationalist politician, Angus Robertson, led a campaign to get his party, painfully, to reverse its long-standing opposition to the US-led nuclear bloc.

So the Auld Alliance - the Vieille Alliance - with Paris may be gone. But could Scotland have a New Alliance - of sorts, at least - with Berlin?

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