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The Best of Enemies

Divided by 20 miles of water, France and England are old friends, neighbours and rivals.

Sixty years ago, the English writer GK Chesterton wrote, 'If an Englishman has understood a Frenchman, he has understood the most foreign of foreigners. The nation that is nearest is now the furthest away.'

We even measure the distance that separates us differently--for them it's kilometres, whereas the trusty old mile is still good enough for the English. From time immemorial, we have carried on a complicated love-hate relationship across La Manche--the English Channel. The Channel Tunnel, opened in 1994, has created the first permanent link between us since the ice age, but has it brought us any closer to understanding?

There are those who might say it doesn't matter: we don't have to love our neighbours, only live next to them. What does it matter if we quarrel from time to time about beef or apples? We manage to complete aerospace projects ensemble, and our wars are now fought out on the sports field, in newspaper headlines and committee meetings, surely that's progress enough?

But travel in Africa, and you are forced to recognize the divisions that we have forced on other parts of the world. Travel, telephones and mail, communications of all kinds still all too often pass through London and Paris even between next-door neighbours. Europe as an entity is going through something of an identity crisis, and any sense of vision beyond national interest is sorely lacking. And we have seen our differences and tensions undermining our ability to deal coherently with crises such as that in the Balkans.

The popular press, especially on the English side, often stirs up antagonism. The Sun even ran an anti-French joke competition. (Example: Why are French roads ranged with poplars? Answer--so that German armies can walk in the shade!) The serious Le Monde newspaper ran a counter-offensive. (Example: What's the difference between an accident and a catastrophe? An accident is when a liner full of English people sinks. A catastrophe is if they can swim!)

I am British--but I have lived in France, speak French at home with my Swiss wife, live less than a mile from the French border, and love France. Qualifications perhaps for a light-hearted--and serious--look at the relationship between these two great peoples and countries, so close in geography, linked by so long a history.

More British war dead lie buried in France than anywhere else on earth after the two titanic wars fought as allies in the first half of the 20th century. Contemplate the long list of names on the war memorial in a little French village, and imagine the decades of suffering, loss and loneliness--and the rivers of blood--that unite us.

The French think they know best. The English know they know best. There is the story of the Frenchman who admits to the Englishman, 'You know, if I wasn't French, I think I'd like to be English,' and the Englishman who replies after a moment's reflection, 'If I wasn't English, I would want to be!'

We English love France--perhaps that's why we found it so hard to leave it to the French. They may not welcome British beef in France, but more and more British farmers are buying farms there, according to Farmers' Weekly--to say nothing of the popularity of second homes and holidays. More than 100,000 French work in London. And who knows how many Brits have followed in Peter Mayle's wake to his rosily glowing Provence?

Our two national identities were largely forged against each other, through the Hundred Years' War and Joan of Arc, through the Napoleonic Wars, through the competitive race for colonies. The Norman Conquest was, after all, the last successful invasion of England. 'Before the English learn that there is a God to be worshipped, they learn that there are Frenchmen to be detested,' maintained JL Fougeret de Montbron in 1747.

The new Luc Besson film on Joan of Arc shows her witnessing the murder and rape of her sister by pillaging English soldiers. A pure invention of the filmmaker, but one hardly designed to provoke understanding and harmony between our peoples.

Beyond irritations about how the highspeed Eurostar train from Paris has to slow down when it emerges on English soil and quips about central heating more for visual effect than warmth, three of the French friends I consulted for this article referrred to Fashoda--an incident in 1898 in Sudan that brought Britain and France close to war and where the British forced the French to back down. How many British readers have even heard of Fashoda?

Alain Tate, a French former banker with an English father, pleads for a bit of historical psychoanalysis, to bring these unhealed hurts to the surface. He suspects that they go back even further than St Joan--to the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. But he also recalls Churchill's amazing offer to the French government in 1940, at the moment of defeat, to form one government, one country.

Tate notes that an Englishman can appear phlegmatic and proud, but prove to be sentimental and vulnerable, while a Frenchwoman can appear humble and warm, and yet prove to be hard. Inside every Englishman, there is, I suspect, a well-hidden Italian trying to get out.

Anne Wolrige Gordon, an Englishwoman living in Scotland, thinks the French and the English get on badly, if we do, because we come at every issue from a different angle. This should be a help, in order to perceive the whole picture. She adds, 'The Scots prefer Europeans, including Germans, to the English.' And for the French, there is indeed a certain blurring between the terms 'English' and 'British'.

Keith Clements, a British Baptist church minister, and the Secretary General of the European Conference of Churches, notes the same imprecision in A Patriotism for Today. 'For the English, Britain is essentially England, with the Celtic communities attached somewhere on the fringe. That they are attached at all is a fact for which they should be more grateful than they often are, in the English view.' This equation of an assumed English dominance with British identity has been increasingly challenged by Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and by events in Northern Ireland.

Antoine Jaulmes, a manager at Peugeot, agrees that the French respond better to the Celtic people of the British Isles--'they're less rigid and boring'. He goes on, 'What a dangerous illusion to feel closer to America and the other English-speaking nations than to the Continent.' France, Spain and Portugal, he points out, have all managed to keep links with their former colonies, without being less than European.

Many French share this feeling. Philippe Lasserre, a French linguist and anglophile, regrets that the English only see Europe in terms of economic advantage and interests. The British may think they have a special relationship with America--but it was the French who helped the Americans gain their independence from Britain and inspired their constitution, he points out.

Bill Porter, a retired senior media and publishing executive, lives a few miles from the French side of the Chunnel. He loves French food, and it shows. For him, there's not so much an edge in the relationship as a mystery. For instance, there's a different approach to politicians' private lives--one only has to think of the French media's long silence about the well-known fact that the French President, François Mitterand, had a mistress.

Many of those I question come back to images of the family, and a family quarrel. Ian and Anna Corcoran, who used to have a holiday home in France, liken the relationship to a turbulent and passionate love affair, all love or all hate by turns. They tell the story of visiting a French family where their daughter had stayed on an exchange programme. After a convivial evening of food and champagne, one of their hosts burst out with their frustrations about the EU ban on using raw milk in cheese production. 'They seemed to think it was Britain's fault,' says Anna. 'They were astonished when we told them that some of our cheese producers were equally outraged.'

Jacqueline Piguet, a retired bookseller and editor, sees us 'as two brothers too close to each other to be anything but eternal rivals--but the affection remains. Each remains convinced deep down that he's a bit better than the other, and is ready to laugh if the other slips up.' Patrick Wolrige Gordon, a Scottish farmer and former Member of Parliament, wryly notes that neighbours often find it easier to see each other's bad points than to celebrate their good points.

From the rapidity and length of their replies to my questionnaire, the French seem more concerned about the relationship than the British. But Lasserre disagrees. For most French there's nothing very wrong with it; we're more rivals than enemies. We're like an old couple whose bickering hides a basic understanding. We've had to learn much the same lessons, overcome class war, shed colonies and empire. 'The world needs our two old nations united and as friends,' he concludes.

A British beef-producer, Chris Evans, supposes that the relationship is like many family ones--complex. He doesn't know what the French feel about our inability to understand each other, but thinks that most Brits regard it as 'their problem, which must be infuriating'. 'Should we work at healing? Probably, but the prospect doesn't energize me. At the same time I can't help minding about France, its past and its future, and wanting to appreciate and be appreciated by the French.'

Evans turns to sporting images: 'Two strong players with contrasting styles, strengths and weaknesses should be a greater asset to the team they play for than two identical ones. A good team manager has to deal with strong egos, and design a game plan around the strengths of each. But first the manager would have to persuade the two players in question to play the same game by the same rules. I can well understand the exasperation the French (and others) must feel that we signed up to a team called Europe, but are now sulking because we don't like the rules. On the other hand, many here feel the rules have been changed since we signed up without anyone consulting us.'

Swiss writer Jean-Jacques Odier notes that even though the English see the French as intellectual, 'there's often with us a background of improvization, bricolage ('do-it-yourself') is the French word, a belief that things will come out right in the end'. In the same register, Robin Evans (uncle of Chris), who married a Frenchwoman and lived in France for many years, loves the French word se débrouiller. It can be variously translated, according to the context, as 'muddling through', 'working the system', or simply 'untangling a confused situation', all of which he thinks the French particularly excel at.

'Why should the British be afraid that the French, with their generosity and logic, their strong sense of national independence and the rights of the individual, would allow the European Union to become a soulless super-state rather than a Europe des patries, a Europe of nation-states, to which every culture will contribute--even if the medium of communication has to be English?' Evans asks.

Graham Turner, a well-known English journalist, reacts to the overblown esteem for intellectuals in France. He tells the joke about the man who shouts for help when the person next to him in the cinema collapses and no-one moves. Then he shouts, 'But he's an intellectual,' and he's overwhelmed with help! Certainly the title of 'intellectual' is worn with pride in France, whereas it's almost an insult on our island. He suspects that the French have never forgiven the British for helping them in the war--a suspicion echoed by Odier.

Nevertheless, many older French have fond memories of their first encounters with the British during the war. Piguet recalls her little sister answering the door bell in Lille in 1944, and coming back with her eyes popping out of her head to say, 'It's the English. They're so big, so big.'

Lasserre remembers two maiden-aunt-type English missionaries, stranded in Chamonix by the German occupation, helping his mother to save Jews, and then later, a rather more exotic lady spy, whom they sheltered for three days. 'We listened to the BBC on the radio with her, us children holding the aerial to improve the reception,' he says. 'Intrepid Albion, rather than perfidious Albion.'

Many note the strange similarity between the English conviction that their way of doing things is the only right way, and the French incredulity that there can be a different way from their own. Odier says, 'Perhaps this is an inevitable corollary of empire for the English, an innate certainty that their values are universal. It's not quite pride, since things are seen to have always been this way, and so they will always be. But the French have a monumental pride, a will to set themselves at the head of the Europeans (since they can't rival the Anglo-Saxons on the world stage).'

Jaulmes remembers the shock of trying to find something decent to eat on an English ferry on his first visit, and the inability of the crew to speak any French at all. But he appreciates the many sports that the British have given the world, and the carefully cultivated humour and eccentricity. It's quite a compliment in France to be told that you have a British sense of humour, he says--though, going by the level of some British TV comedy, perhaps the French view is idealized. He sees many fine qualities--courage, calm, humour and independence--but feels they are marred by a monumental arrogance.

Turner believes that the British love affair with France is a middle class affair, not shared by the rest of the nation. Revelling in his political incorrectness, he sees Europe as 'a slough of despond', and is amazed at how happy the French seem to be about being run again by the Germans. The Union as a guarantee against another war is just about acceptable but he slams the 'corrupt politicians and bureaucrats'. He feels more at home with a de Gaulle. 'We should hear more about the grandeur of France--I feel that way about Britain,' he adds.

Jean-Noel Odier, a young banker living in London for the first time, is struck by the contrasts between great consideration and vulgarity. As a foreigner, he notes, he has no natural sense of queuing, or of not blocking the left-hand lane on an 'up' escalator in the Underground. Having travelled widely, he's surprised by English people's lack of interest in foreigners. Other non-English of his acquaintance share his perception that 'the English keep you at a distance'. Paradoxically, he suggests, our strong sense of specialness and apartness might bring us closer together--if only we could laugh at ourselves.

So what cures might a doctor recommend? Leave the patients alone, for fear of making things worse, perhaps!

On both sides of the Channel, we could decide to work harder at our language skills, with the simple aim of communicating better. Porter notes that both French and English have such a rich heritage of vocabulary and literature that there is little motivation to learn the other's language. He's lived for years in the Pas de Calais, the closest French département to England, and has rarely met a French person who speaks tolerable English--nor a reasonable French-speaker in Kent, the English county nearest to France. When he first went to France himself, he was incapable of buying a bus ticket, ordering a meal, asking the way or understanding the newspaper headlines, even though he had passed his French exams at secondary school.

Lasserre describes the English language as concrete and vague, whereas French is abstract and precise. Perhaps if we learnt each other's language, we might all gain, some in precision, and others in pragmatism. Certainly many French, like builder Gérard Gigand, react to the natural assumption that English is the language of the world. For Ian and Anna Corcoran, French is so apt and attractive, 'that we constantly poach words and whole phases. They do the same with English so this must prove that we have some love for each other.'

The 'Eurobarometer', the regular statistical x-ray of the European Union shows that French and English respond similarly to questions about whether the union is 'a good thing', and whether we benefit from it. The British differ strikingly in not feeling themselves to be European--only the Greeks and the Swedes define themselves more strongly in purely national terms. And humiliatingly, for the British, they come low down the 'trust index', just above the Greeks and the Italians. There may be a challenge here--to start to bridge the gulf between our own image of ourselves, and how others see us. Then perhaps we'll be better equipped to work on our histories.

When I visited Paris as part of a World Council of Churches group visiting France, a senior French Protestant told us about the yearly meetings that his federation had with their British counterparts. When the French suggested that it might be interesting and helpful to talk about Anglo-Irish relations, they received the tart reply, 'If you want to talk about Ireland, we'll put Algeria on the agenda.' As a result, these two painful chapters of our pasts were wilfully avoided. Perhaps we both have further to go in understanding ourselves, before we can go much further in understanding the other.

There's little doubt that on both sides we would 'do better if we tried harder', as some of my school reports used to say. We might even find some elements of common vision, some common tasks. But if the greatest 'sins' lie in the area not of what we've done but of what we've failed to do together, then they are by definition invisible.

My personal conviction is that our misunderstandings are not life-threatening, but that they are costly. Perhaps Africa is best placed to benefit from a renewed partnership between these two old friends and enemies who carved up their continent between them. We might even help each other deal with some of the difficult chapters of our national pasts--like Ireland and Algeria. There are creative, unexpected pluses, unrealized initiatives for Europe and for the world, that could spring from a deeper friendship and compassionate understanding.

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Publishing permission refers to the rights of FANW to publish the full text of this article on this website.