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When Lord Durham arrived in the Canada after the rebellions of 1837, he wrote that two nations were "warring in the bosom of a single state."

Those two nations were not really nations, but fragments of Britain and France transplanted to Upper and Lower Canada and joined awkwardly together.

Almost 170 years later, these fragments have matured and changed, and they remain together, although not necessarily harmoniously, in one of the world's oldest federations. And the "mother countries" are joined, in a manner of speaking, in the European Union, where they co-operate and differ in roughly equal measure.

'Twas always thus between Britain and France. Their relationship has always been one of intense complication, rivalry, violence and partnership that did more to shape the world than any other.

Those with a love of history - and, in this instance, a desire to know more about ourselves - will thus devour a masterpiece that chronicles this relationship, That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present, by the Franco-British couple Isabelle and Robert Tombs. Isabelle is French, Robert is British, and they don't miss a thing, including illuminating sections when each gives a separate summation of what they have just described, she from a French perspective, he from a British.

They pick up the tale at Britain's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, after which Britain and France fought six wars from 1689 to Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, including, of course, the Seven Years' War that determined the fate of what became Canada. These wars, coupled with imperial expansions, took the British-French rivalry to every continent - sometimes violent, sometimes peaceful, but always intense.

In peace and war, francophobia and francophilia ran through British thought, just as anglophobia and anglophilia coloured French attitudes toward Britain. Each country compared itself to the other, despairingly or admiringly. The British travelled more to France than vice versa, and found Paris more agreeable than the French found London. There were times, even at moments of state conflict, when things British were all the rage in Paris, and vice versa.

Britain won the wars, on the continent and overseas, and it remained (except from the 1970s to the 1990s) richer, more industrial and politically stable. These advantages caused the French to resent the British even more. In reaction, the French asserted the virtues of agriculture, community, family, "civilization" and, of course, the beauty of the French language and culture.

In the 19th century, the two found a kind of modus vivendi, especially after German unification shifted France's fears from Britain to the emerging powerhouse with which it fought three wars between 1870 and 1945, two with Britain as an indispensable but difficult ally.

The two countries fought together in two wars, all right, but each suspected the other of not giving enough. Dunkirk for the British was a brilliant rescue; Dunkirk for the French was about their troops dying to cover the British retreat. The scuttling of the French fleet was a military necessity for the British and a dastardly deed for the French.

Charles de Gaulle's attitude toward Britain and the "Anglo-Saxons," and his determination to make France emerge as a "victor" after the Second World War, is a saga of arrogance, vanity and vision the likes of which this conflictual relationship has seldom seen.

Gen. de Gaulle later vetoed British membership in the European Community. Today, Britain and France have different visions of Europe. Britain prefers a loose federation of states. French elites, until recently, pushed for stronger integration.

That Sweet Enemy is about high politics, geopolitical strategy, great leaders and wars, but some of its best passages are about how ideas and culture from one influenced the other. Two very different societies kept a wary but often admiring eye on the other's culture. Britain and France fought and co-operated, and looked at the world in different ways, and discovered they could not live without the other.

The authors write: "Each, it can safely be predicted, will continue to find the other a necessary help and a perpetual hindrance, fluctuating between profuse expressions of friendship and traditional abuse."

Could this not be said, too, of their fragments in Canada?

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