Slap Them, They’re French

Great Britain



Last year an American academic accused me (very politely) of being racist. As someone forged in the multi-cultural stewpot of Central London you can imagine how this went down with me. But – sigh of relief – it turned out that she was talking about Arthur Bryant’s attitude to the French, so that’s alright.

No-one outside of our two countries will ever understand the strange relationship we have with each other. Millennium-old grudges get dragged out in arguments, Republicanism, De Gaulle, Macron, saignant steaks and Napoleon are invoked. We’re neighbours who resent each other while being glad they’re there. If you stand on an English beach in Kent your phone provider switches to a French one – we’re that physically close.

The first thing to understand is that we do it because we secretly love each other. 

But just because Spain and Morocco are almost touching it doesn’t place them in a similar situation. We’re not Moors and Catholics. France and England are – whisper it – really not that different. Richard I might have been known as a great English king but he spent most of his ten year reign in France. There are more French in England than anywhere else except France. The English middle classes spend their middle years restoring French gîtes in the kind of towns where a chicken salad is considered a vegetarian option. We overlook the fact that their national cuisine is trapped in the past and that salade de gésiers is still considered edible by humans. They look away while we squeeze brown sauce on our plates.

To be honest, French cuisine has shamefully stagnated these days, and it was hard to find a special meal in Paris the last time I was there. But there’s also a certain amount of jalousie involved. We wish we hadn’t got rid of all our traditional restaurants and marvel that the French can away with rude service and serving potatoes like bullets because they have nice tiled floors and half-curtains on brass rails. They gravitate to our pubs because traditional egalitarianism allows debate across all social divisions, plus there are Scotch eggs.

Stephen Clarke, an author who has carved quite a career from examining the fractured relationship between the two countries (a subject that fascinates both sides), points out that if Thomas Becket hadn’t spent the two years before his death in France he wouldn’t have come back with such a stroppy attitude and annoyed King Richard into having him accidentally hacked to death.

Mr Arthur Bryant, for whom the historical lives on in the present, is happy to drag up anything derogatory about the French because he recognises something of himself in them. Both countries are left-leaning (or at least were until recently) compared to America and Central Europe. Opinionated and perverse in equal measure, both countries have vibrant immigrant communities and legacies of colonialism, but the French Republic inevitably takes its soft-brand socialism more seriously. In theory we should be more closely allied to Germany these days, but France remains the focus of our attention.

And now that the travel path between our two nations has been severed – partly by Rees ‘Lord Snooty’ Mogg and ‘Gissajob’ Farridge, partly by Covid – we miss them terribly. It’s made worse for me because I can see Paris from my window, as it were. The Eurostar train is waiting to leave just five minutes from my front door. Since I moved here I’ve used it precisely once because it’s so expensive, but there it stands, taunting me.

And taunting is so very French.



23 comments on “Slap Them, They’re French”

  1. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    My favourite disparaging remark about the French is Blackadder’s ‘What on earth was I drinking last night? My head feels like there’s a Frenchman living in it.’

  2. Wulfruna says:

    I bought a copy of Stephen Clarke’s “1000 Years of Annoying the French” from the Books for Sale bin in my local library. It was probably the best 20 pence I’ve ever spent. Absolutely fascinating.

  3. Brooke says:

    Besides, you’re relatives.

  4. Lyn+Jackson says:

    I loved both France and England during previous visits. Don’t suppose I will get back again with COVID restrictions dragging on. I have just started to read Oranges and Lemons and was thrilled to see you mention Perth. We are so isolated here that unlike the rest of Australia we are COVID free at the moment .

  5. John Griffin says:

    Over 30 years ago, on holiday in the Dordogne, I got into an argument that spiralled away from my slightly-better-than-schoolboy French. I kept hearing “Apash” or similar directed at me. Turned out my flat Northern delivery (thought by me to be a good phonic attempt, trained by Linguaphone) had rendered my ‘discours’ akin to a crim or immigrant from the dangerous bits of Paris. I have had similar reactions from RP speakers in England, all my life.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    I think the unique and often fraught relationship between Les Rosbifs and The Frogs can be summed up in the Battle of Crécy, during the Hundred Years’ War, when several hundred Norman soldiers exposed their bums in derision to English longbowmen — no doubt to ill effect. This was the first and only recorded English moon shot.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    The thing I love about French (the language) is that there’s a word for absolutely everything even if you don’t know the word. Should you you momentarily forget a word, don’t feel like saying it, or simply can’t be bothered, there is ‘machin.’ It is roughly the equivalent of ‘thingummy’ or ‘wotchermecallit.’ Then there is my favorite, ‘yaourter,’ yes, that’s right, ‘to yoghurt,’ but meaning trying to speak or sing and floundering, especially in a foreign language — and particularly French, of course, spoken to (and regarded by) a Parisian — no matter how well you actually speak it.

  8. Peter+T says:

    Lyn, When I finally got to Perth, only for a visit, I saw what a mistake I’d made in not taking any of the opportunities that I’d had to go and live there. It may be isolated, but perhaps that comes with being so special.

    Please don’t taunt me with France. My long-planned road trip continues to be delayed. Soon I’ll be too old, or we’ll not be allowed to use any cars capable of travelling more than 20 km, or Bozzer will classify France as permanently and in perpetuity red (or whatever colour means I can’t go there and will have to quarantine for a year if I do – not applicable to politicians, of course).

  9. Ian Todd says:

    I’m hoping it’s Stephen Clarke who’s made the error but it was Henry the Second whose off the cuff remark caused the demise of Beckett.
    On a separate train of thought if you get a chance to visit Fontevraud Abbey in the Loire not only do you find the final resting place of Henry, his wife Eleanor and Richard the Lionheart but if you look up at the stained glass windows there are the 3 lions that everyone seems to have been singing about recently.

  10. Wim says:

    Nigel from Eastenders: “ I blame the French”. His companion: “Why the French”? Nigel: “I always blame the French”.

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    @John Griffin It was probably ‘Apach’ or short for ‘Apache,’ a reference to ‘Les Apaches,’ notorious early 20th c. French (and primarily Paris) street gangs, who favored the head-butt as a close range technique and — who also (to say the least…) did not speak with the French equivalent of Received Pronunciation, The name was derived from the American Indigenous Apaches who were viewed as particularly savage by the Europeans of the time and in fact, were fearsome fighters.

    Interestingly, the term in its more polite meaning of ‘rowdy young men,’ was also taken up as a wry nickname by a group of self-styled cultural rebels of the period which included composers Ravel and Stravinsky. So — as for your RP reference you do have the distinction of being able to confound in two languages.

    My personal view on the matter (not that you asked, mind you…) is that a conversation requires a willingness to understand the other(s) by each party. Without that willingness there is no discourse, as far as I’m concerned (he said as he turned on his heel and walked away). And never fear, the RP bugbear is rapidly becoming extinct. Little did you know your amusing anecdote would be co-opted by some know-it-all.

  12. peter says:

    if napoleon had succeeded in invading us his plan was to remove the royal family close the house of lords and take back the land owned by various lords dukes and earls – if only – as Christopher says we are very much like one another and like nothing better than playing rugby and football against each other when Paris was attacked by terrorists a football friendly was not cancelled but played with one national anthem – the french – sung by both sets of supporters those are your real friends mr macron

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    And of course, let us never forget the oh so French-like invective from John Cleese as the ‘Taunting French Guard’ in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail:’

    Taunting French Guard: ‘I unplug my nose in your general direction, sons-of-a-windowdresser! So, you think you could outclever us French folk with your silly knees bent running about and dancing behavior. I’ll wave my private parts at your aunties! You cheesy load of secondhand electric donkey bottom biters!’

  14. Helen+Martin says:

    (Thank you, Ian, saved me from making the comment.) Here in Canada we have had an on again, off again similar relationship with the USA, with the additional complication of a more or less shared language. When you live next to people who persist in believing weird things about you there is a tendency to be resentful until you remember that it’s just Aunt Jenny’s family and we all know what they’re like. We’re supposed to be bilingual but so many of us aren’t – or like our new Governor General are bilingual in another pair of languages (she’s English/Inuktitut). Notice how many words and phrases in Chris’ posting are French. They call those purple things aubergines, too, which certainly isn’t a French word. Go back to the first chapter of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and you’ll find the pigman explaining how animals are Saxon as long as they’re alive and being herded but become French when they’re served up on the Sieur’s table. There’s a lot of back and forth in these situations (Poland/Russia, Poland/Germany, Austria/Italy, and I’m sure there are lots more).

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin I always find it amusing that the French (and again, particularly the Parisians) invariably ask when I’m speaking French, if I’m Canadian. The French Canadians, on the other hand, under the same circumstances, usually compliment me on my French, then ask if I’m English or American.

  16. Helen+Martin says:

    Parisian French people laugh at French Canadians because their accent and vocabulary derives from 17th century Breton and Norman speech. They don’t laugh at our Prime Minister because Justin learned Parisian (RP standard) French so it’s the Quebecois who laugh at him for his upper class foreign accent. It’s a situation where you can’t win, I think. Me, I’ll settle for being understood in either place. (I had to laugh with the lady who asked me if I spoke French and was told by her friend that there was no point in asking since if I couldn’t I wouldn’t be able to answer any way.)

  17. J. Folgard says:

    It’s true that we secretly love each other -trust me, I’m french! And I’m really, really looking forward to the next time I can set foot on those perfidious shores of Albion, the sooner the better.

  18. Stu-I-Am says:

    One area where Les Rosbifs are well behind their French cousins is in insults. English insults pale by comparison with the French and really need some work if there is to be any hope of parity. I mean what compares to ‘Vous parlez français comme une vache espagnole,’ ‘You speak French like a Spanish cow,’ or — ‘Aller se faire cuire un Å“uf!’ —‘Go cook an egg’, in other words, ‘Get lost!’ Then there’s the little used but apt, ‘con comme une valise sans poignée,’ (Stupid) as a suitcase without a handle.’ Of course, these are very mild examples as French insults go (befitting a sophisticated literary blog) and are, of course, the very tip of a very large iceberg.

  19. Peter+Dixon says:

    As Miles Kington pointed out – Le hangover: Il y a un petit homme dans ma tete, qui fait le demolition work. We continually have a hangover with the French language – but they don’t use it properly. They don’t even use the term double-entendre for les pleurs out-loud!

  20. David+Ronaldson says:

    I once told someone that, following School exchange trips to Germany, I always feel that, when travelling from France to Germany, it was like coming home. She asked if I generally got to Germany via France. “Well” I muttered “It’s easy to access Frankfurt via Strasbourg”. A raised eyebrow reminded me that I hadn’t thought this one through and often travelled via Kent du sud…

  21. Martin+Tolley says:

    ”Never underestimate the courage of the French. Remember, they were the ones who discovered snails are edible.” Anon. From the ever saintly

  22. Paul+Graham says:

    Sorry Chris, but it was Henry II that arranged Beckett’s ” a little off the top, please.”

  23. Helen+Martin says:

    Ian Todd, I have now spent two hours going through all sorts of photos of Fontevrault Abbey, including lots of pictures of the four Englishy royal tombs, but no stained glass. I did another search specifically for the windows and there it was, smack in the middle of the window. The sources couldn’t decide which tomb was Henry and which was Richard, nor which queen was which. Had a fine time, thank you.

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