Slap Them, They’re French
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.