Channel Chatter

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Caledon has always considered itself to be a somewhat twisted reflection of Victorian England, with all the foibles, charms and hypocrises of that time and place…just with a few cavorite powered airships and talking bunny rabbits thrown in. How far that simulation that simulation should extend, or how accuately, has always been a topic of debate around local watering holes, balls, raves, dungeons and dreadnaught brigs.

Perhaps the simulation runs deeper then we know. As we remember the occasional lapses in language and civility around the many sims of Caledon, the fiery and complex relationship between perfidious Albion and those wine swilling surrender monkeys..umm.. I mean between Britain and France, comes to mind. Perhaps we have a lot to learn from both the past and the future of that odd couple, linguistically and otherwise.


The following is reposted from More Intelligent Life.

As France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy pays a visit to England, Stephen Hugh-Jones reflects on centuries of name-calling between the two countries …

When we British have some foreign head of state to welcome, we do it with style, but not always with enthusiasm. Out come the flags along the Mall, the tree-lined avenue leading to Buckingham Palace. Out come the guardsmen in their busbies, the limousines or even some horse-drawn royal coach. But what often also comes out is the public indifference, and what doesn’t are the crowds.

Any American president, of course, can expect not just the deepest red carpet but huge public interest. That’ll be true of the next one, whether it’s Barack Obama, who has dreams, John McCain, who has a war record, or Hillary, who seemingly has both. Whether you like any of them or not, the Brits know who counts and who doesn’t.

Our European partners can’t be so sure. The European Union is less than popular, and we have an insular scepticism of them all. So how have we welcomed France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy this week? This was a formal “state” visit. At such a level, even grander than an “official” one, it was the first from Britain’s nearest neighbour for a dozen years.

The red carpet was knee-high. Prince of Wales at Heathrow, carriage procession through Windsor, royal banquet, bed and breakfast at the Queen’s castle, address to the united Houses of Parliament (in French, nay, which can rarely have been heard there–I won’t say understood–since the 14th century), plus sundry other ceremonial and political functions. England’s footballers even managed to lose to France’s national team in Paris (not that it took much trying).

And Sarkozy was a more than formally welcome guest. He is the first French president in 50 years whose emotional baggage does not include at least a wary suspicion of the United States, and of Britain’s attachment to it. He has not abandoned his predecessors’ view of Europe’s and France’s due place in the world. But he not only understands why the British value their transatlantic alliance but–unlike Charles de Gaulle, who understood very well, and thoroughly disliked it–he has some sympathy. His words of gratitude for Britain’s role in the second world war were more than welcome: they were moving.

With him came his lovely new Italian wife. We’re told that the French don’t think highly of her. If there are Britons who now share that view, what curmudgeons they must be. The media have been wowed. Between them, President and Mme Sarkozy have made quite a chip in the ancient structure of cross-Channel dislike.

Not before time. We English, and later the whole United Kingdom, have been at odds with the French for centuries, and often at war. In British memory we habitually won, notably against Napoleon. And we seem to have forgotten the ones we lost, such as the Hundred Years War, which ended in 1453 with our eviction from most of what we claimed in France; and the war that led, with French help, to the birth of the United States.

In peace as in war, for at least 200 years, we have derided the French as “the frogs”. They, in turn, have called us “les rosbifs”, eaters of roast beef. Four centuries earlier, the English soldiers trampling round France were known as “les bigods”, from their commonest oath. If such it really was, the British squaddie of the 1400s must have been more devout than today’s standard four-letter-mouther. But they were not the more welcome for it.

Not until 1904 did we get into bed with the French, thanks not least to King Edward VII, who for some decades had been literally doing the same. The two countries fought side-by-side in the first world war. Rather less so in its successor, when, in the British version, the French in 1940 scuttled like rabbits from Hitler’s advancing panzers; in the French version, les Anglais quietly forgot about defending France in our concern to defend Britain, and scuttled, if not quite as ignominiously, for Dunkirk. Both versions include a good deal of truth.

When General de Gaulle, who had not scuttled anywhere, came swiftly to Britain to rally his countrymen afresh against Hitler, Churchill, with frequent good reason, found him a pain in the neck–and showed it. He was not always taken seriously, least of all by Roosevelt. De Gaulle then had to dig in his heels to prevent the imposition of an “Allied”–ie, Anglo-American–military government on newly liberated France in 1944. As France’s president from 1959 to 1969, he had plenty of resentment for his country’s liberators. He slapped down Britain’s first attempt to join what is now the EU; he meddled with the ill-mannered internal politics of then “Anglo”-run Canada; and he ostentatiously thumbed his nose at the United States whenever he could.

It’s little wonder that the cross-Channel atmosphere, above all in public opinion, has been sour for years. This is a great pity, and not only because I believe de Gaulle’s view of the Atlantic alliance was, in its time, broadly justified. But having worked in Paris–for a French editor of a multilingual magazine–I am an almost uncritical admirer of that country and its people.

I had barely arrived before I had my first lessons in the error of English views of the French. “They’re cold, they’re unwelcoming,” I had been told. “They’ll be polite, but they’ll never invite you to their homes.” Within a week, one of my French colleagues had done just that. I never had better friends than the ones I made in that Paris office (we numbered Germans and Italians too).

I found a great deal to admire in France: the speed with which things got done (once officials had decided to do something); the beauties of its cities and countryside; the friendliness of its people (not excluding the weary ladies of the Place Pigalle, who would greet me in hope of a final client for the night, but who soon got to recognise a neighbour with other priorities); and the joyful elegance of French rugby football, even in defeat. I had little time to put more than a toe into French culture. But I found Paris the cinema capital of the universe, with a vastly wider international choice of films than you would ever find in London, and that was enough for me.

And I found little to criticise. Of course the people of France, like any other nation, have their faults, collective and individual. Of course–as any provincial there will cheerfully tell you–Paris has it share of cold and nasty people. So does any big city I’ve known, and however numerous, they were still a very small minority. But I don’t think it’s bias to contrast my real-world experience with the ignorant dislike in Britain and the still more ignorant, outright contempt for the French recently whipped up in the United States. What clever fool coined that brilliant but monstrous phrase “cheese-eating surrender-monkeys”? The French were despised for not taking part in an invasion of Iraq, but were they wrong?

“Cheese-eating” may be offensive in a country where 50 years ago my nearest A&P–in New York, not Peoria–sold exactly three varieties of the stuff: American, Swiss and cottage. But “surrender-monkeys”? The French had a poor show in the second world war, to be sure. But what about the first world war? Whatever may be taught in American schools, the numbers of American troops were barely felt until mid-1918, after the great German offensives of that spring had already, and decisively, been beaten back and the Germans knew they had lost.

That war was won, beyond question, by the British and their imperial allies, but above all by the French. In winning it, France lost 1.3m dead. That is well over 20 times–in proportion to population, say 100 times–the number of Americans who died in Vietnam. It was also roughly one in seven of all Frenchmen who put on uniform. Some “surrender-monkeys”, these.

Sure, all this is ancient history. But perhaps when we hear the French speak ill of les Anglo-Saxons, we should remember that they have had a good many insults to swallow, in addition to their vastly wider choice of magnificent local cheeses.

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