Do we really dislike the French? Ponderings of a British francophile
The cliché of the English disliking the French has never made much sense to me, particularly when so many Brits flock there each year and keep second homes in Le Beau Pays.
I find myself defending French people quite frequently, be it for their manners, two-hour lunches (only bad if you are waiting in line!), infamous bureaucracy or closing shops on Sundays. All of this I have accepted and find, alongside many other particularities, endearing about the great Hexagone.
So, is the anti-French sentiment just a myth? Where does this way of thinking come from?
Throughout history, France and Britain’s relationship has not always been amicable – to say the least. Both nations have fought with the intention of conquering one another at various times, before becoming allies in the 19th century.
“When Paris lost the bid for the 2012 Olympics to London, former president Jacques Chirac was condemned for declaring that ‘only Finnish food’ was worse than British food.”
The two countries then began to joke with each other. According to one story, a French diplomat once said to two-time British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston: “If I were not a Frenchman, I should wish to be an Englishman”. To which Palmerston replied: “If I were not an Englishman, I should wish to be an Englishman.”¹
I’ve noticed that the older generation especially favours a negative view of the French. I recall a conversation with my elderly neighbour, who told me repeatedly that the French ”let us down in the war”.
Being a young French Studies undergraduate and keen on French history, I tried to reason with him, by informing him of the geographical position of the country and its political situation at the time. Unfortunately this did nothing to change his opinion. Plus ça change…
Further light research into this stirring subject uncovered some (in my opinion) comical statements from prominent historical leaders. Can you imagine seeing this on Twitter today?
Horatio Nelson said, circa 1800: “You must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil.”
The Duke of Wellington announced some 30 years later: “We always have been, we are, and I hope that we always shall be, detested in France.”²
And Mark Twain put it in his inimitable style: “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French. I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.”³
Next time a Frenchman gives me an odd look for my French, I shall simply smile and think of Twain. Speaking French in France will always be better than not at all.
Une petite rivalité depuis longtemps
Yet it seems the jibes go both ways across La Manche. And there is nothing like sport to encourage out the worst rivalries of all.
When Paris lost the bid for the 2012 Olympics to London, former president Jacques Chirac was condemned for declaring that “only Finnish food” was worse than British food.
And though many Britons might show some disdain for French food in return, France has plenty of enviable attributes: good weather, high culture, film and wine.
For all these reasons and more, I am hoping to move to France following my final year at university, and plan to unashamedly embrace any Frenchman’s satire that may be directed towards us Brits. One can only laugh…
While les Français may sigh at the thought of us prude Rosbifs, I am interested in what they really think of us nowadays.
I imagine that Chirac et les seniors on the other side of La Manche might be a little hostile to les anglais moving to their country and drinking their fine wines with a little less finesse than is proper…
To them, and my neighbour on this side of the channel, I say: chacun sa route.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it important? Join the conversation by commenting in the box below.References:
1. Franco-British relations, Wikipedia.
2. Will we ever really trust the French?, dailymail.co.uk.
3. Selected quotes, connexionfrance.com.
4. Chirac’s views on British food, bbc.co.uk. Image credits:
1. Hollande meet Cameron, on Shifting Grounds.
2. 1000 years, by Stephen Clarke.
3. ‘Rosbeef‘, via Kamichan.
Great article Esme! I am also always defensive about the French’s stereotypical faults – so much so that many of my friends see me introduce me as ‘practically French’! We seem very alike – I also want to move back to France after my degree. I am thinking about doing a Masters out there, though not entirely sure as of yet. I will be spending three weeks in Lyon on a journalism placement during the summer – if you’ve got any tips!
Hi Sellina – thanks for your comments. Indeed we are both dedicated francophiles! I too have been thinking of a masters/further study/internship in France. Wow, congrats on getting the placement, j’en suis jalouse!
Lyon is great, have you been before? Distinctly different from Paris and Marseille, you can see Mont Blanc from the city on a clear day and there is so much to do. Make sure you try some traditional bouchon recipes and visit les halles, the musée Gadagne & the Maison de la Soie. My favourite thing to do was just wonder around as you find all the best ‘off the beaten track’ places this way!
Although there is a bit of rivalry between us, there is in our experience also great friendship.We have several French nationals living in our part of Northern England some whom have become close friends. We also have many good friends in France and it is always a special time when we meet up. In our experience it is a myth that the French will only speak in French, although we speak French, the people we meet are keen to communicate in English and do so very well. I think they may be slightly unfair about our food!!! Bon journee