LONDON - Would France have been better off under Queen Elizabeth II?
The revelation that the French government proposed a union of Britain and France in 1956 - even offering to accept the sovereignty of the British queen - has puzzled scholars on both sides of the Channel.
Newly discovered documents in Britain's National Archives show that former French Premier Guy Mollet discussed the possibility of a merger between the two countries with Sir Anthony Eden, who was Britain's prime minister.
"I completely fell off my seat," said Richard Vinen, an expert in French history at King's College in London. "It's such a bizarre thing to propose."
Eden rejected the idea of a union but was more favorable to a French proposal to join the Commonwealth, according to the documents. One document added that Mollet "had not thought there need be difficulty over France accepting the headship of her Majesty."
While the two nations - separated by a thin body of water - have been bitter rivals since the Middle Ages, the two EU partners now concentrate on trading tourists rather than arrows. What animosity remains has been relegated to culinary name-calling, with the French and British reduced to froggies and rosbifs (roast beef), respectively.
Threatened by an Arab revolt in French Algeria and hobbled by instability at home, France was desperate to maintain its independence from both the Soviet Union and the United States, said Kevin Ruane, a historian at Canterbury Christ Church University, England.
Eden, who fought in France during World War I and spoke the language fluently, might have seemed particularly approachable to Mollet, a former English teacher.
Even under the circumstances, the suggestion that France accept the British queen struck historians as bizarre.
Mollet was a Socialist, and left-wing Frenchmen looked to the execution of French King Louis XVI as one of the crowning achievements of the French Revolution.
The former French leader's memoirs showed nothing about the proposal, said Francois Lafon, a history professor at the Sorbonne in Paris and a Mollet biographer.
A year after Britain turned down France's proposed merger, the French joined the Common Market, the European Union's predecessor. When Britain tried to join seven years later, the tables had turned.
Charles De Gaulle had brought new order to French political life and largely revived its international standing, even as Britain's economy stagnated. De Gaulle vetoed Britain's attempts to join the European Economic Community - twice.
"In retrospect, the irony of this was that the losers were the British," Vinen said. "Maybe we'd be in a better position being ruled by Charles de Gaulle in 1965 than Harold Wilson."
Jose-Alain Fralon, author of Help, the English Are Invading!, called the British "our most dear enemies" and said "we would lose all of the saltiness in our relationship" had the two countries merged.
Still, he said, the two peoples complement each other.