We know that nature is finally healing now that the English have turned their ire away from the coronavirus and back towards their true, natural enemy, the French. Yes, the English love to hate their neighbours, as Ed West wrote last week, and as a Frenchwoman, I accept that the last few months have not been the most glorious in our history.
But if you thought that Emmanuel Macron’s floundering over the Covid crisis, and especially his drunken sailor pas de deux with Angela Merkel over the AstraZeneca vaccine, might ring in a measure of rarely-seen humility among the French ruling elite, think again.
No matter that one day Le Président says the Oxford jab is unproven and useless on the over 65s, only to perform the mother of all reverse ferrets three weeks later, and forbid vaccinating the under 55s with it, after a four-blood-clots scare over 15 million shots. No matter that the instant Mutti blinks and decides to suspend AZ vaccinations in Germany, France’s Covid Conseil de Défense, after being interrupted by a telephone call from Our Man In Berlin, rules that France will blindly follow suit.
In the immortal words of a thousand French novelty aprons and fridge magnets, Même quand il a tort, le boss a toujours raison (“even when the boss is wrong, he is still right”). Our President, who last year took most decisions on the handling of the crisis alone, whether following or contradicting the Scientific Council, found early on the ideal piñata: les Anglais, which in French means the British (with apologies to Celtic readers). Because we love to hate the English, too.
He has been helped in this strategy because the groundwork being generously laid for almost five years over Brexit. Emmanuel Macron, toujours lui, was still harping on about it for his New Year wishes last January, assuring Britain that France remained her “friend and ally” despite her choice to leave in a Brexit born of “lies and false promises”, coming across like a man moaning about custody rights and alimony during a family reunion five years after his divorce.
And while we usually protest that French ill-feeling towards the British is nothing, nothing compared to British naked aggression about all things French — yes, that Up Yours, Delors still rankles — the truth is that we love casser du sucre sur le dos des Anglais (to break sugar cubes over the backs of Brits, a popular colloquialism for badmouthing).
You may have invented the wrong sort of leaves to excuse your pathetic excuses for proper trains (for which read: French trains); we can discourse for hours about the wrong way in which Brian Moore won tries, and matches, over a technically better French rugby team. We could have invented the term “beautiful losers”, because even when France loses, it is with so much more élan than when the English win. Oh, and Emmanuel Macron even said for a long time that Britain actually vaccinated the wrong way, and France had performed better in terms of the proportion of people getting the full two-jabs. (No, I don’t understand the maths either; it’s all about “taking dangerous risks”, and he may not have been entirely correct.)
The likelihood that the AZ vaccine would have been similarly targeted by a series of damaging official statements if it had not been invented in Britain seems close to zero. The urge to do down les Rosbifs was too strong, even at the risk of encouraging antivaxxers over the Continent. In fact it’s the one cultural trend France has successfully exported in recent years: while we used to be Europe’s leaders in vaccine scepticism, with 43% of the population unwilling to take the needle, that number is now up to 61%; but similarly, 55% of Germans would now refuse the AZ vaccine (up 15%), as well as 43% of Italians and 52% of Spaniards (up 27% in each). And a good deal of it was born of the age-old French uneasy contempt for the British.
We don’t understand you. We don’t trust you. We don’t trust those among us who suffer from that terrifying disease, l’Anglophilie. There’s a certain kind of bon chic, bon genre French bourgeoisie who dress their daughters in kilts, send their children for a couple of terms in minor public schools in the Home Counties so that they’ll speak English more fluently than almost all our presidents, who mourned the disappearance of Marks & Spencer from Paris, and worship the Royal Family unironically. Just as Remainers pine for Provence and Tuscany after the second glass of Prosecco, France’s social equivalents wax lyrical about Glyndebourne, serve Pimms in the wrong sort of glasses, and think longingly to this day of Tony Blair. This sort of Anglophilia is not a vote-winner with the rest of the country, as politicians from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to Édouard Balladur have found out.
A quick vox pop among friends hit unexpected Yellowstone-sized geysers of animosity. It starts with use of unregulated longbows at Agincourt, encompasses burning Joan of Arc at the stake, finds its stride with Pitt’s flooding fake assignats to devalue French paper money during the Revolution (typical of the perfidiousness of Albion in all things financial, and probably present in the subconscious of Brussels regulators as they deny City financial institutions either passporting or equivalence rights), but truly flourishes when it comes to Napoleon.
“Les Anglais conspired to break the Peace of Amiens in 1803, led the entire continent into war, and managed to pin it all on Napoleon!” one friend raged. And on to St. Helena, to Kitchener’s stand-off against Marchand at Fashoda in the Sudan in 1898, and of course to the sinking of a good chunk of the French Navy at Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July 1940 by the Royal Navy, rather than risking it fighting on for Vichy. Yes, we do hold grudges.
But a great deal of Anglo-French antagonism is probably due to a discomfort on both sides as to who, really, is coolest — not that anyone will openly admit to failure. From the 1960s onwards Paris has played second fiddle to London, home to the Beatles and Rolling Stones and countless other musicians — even Berlin has at times appeared more cutting-edge — but with fashion Paris remains king. Even London’s couturiers, graduates from St Martin’s School, have not truly made it until France’s warring luxury titans, Bernard Arnault of Dior and Givenchy or François Pinault of Gucci and Chloé, had given them whole Paris ateliers to play with. Frenchwomen may be better dressed than their British opposite number, but Englishmen of a certain class beat too-dapper Frenchmen in narrow suits hollow — although no one would say that of all Englishmen.
We win at food, but you steal our chefs. It’s worth it, in order to escape your legacy of baked beans for breakfast, of frozen peas the colour of hazmat suits with the consistency of grapeshot, boiled meat falling in lank grey strands on the plate into congealing gravy, and at puddings you could play rugby with. We eat your fish (not so much these days, because Brexit spite trumps le brunch du dimanche) but you drink our Bordeaux and our champagne, one clear instance where you win hands down. Mostly, the French do not understand Marmite; but some cultural practices must just remain a mystery.
Sport is more complicated: a friend cursed you twice, once for stealing Eric Cantona from us, the second for returning him. Business is even worse: thirty years on, one of the negotiators over the Channel Tunnel contracts was still smarting over British “cheats”. “How so?” I asked. “The minute they’ve signed, they endlessly amend, change, revise contracts! It’s like trench warfare! You think you’ve got something to rely on, they want to adapt and adapt all the time!”
As we hashed it over, it became obvious that two entire philosophies were clashing: British pragmatism against French theory; British nimbleness against French top-down hierarchy. “Business in England starts when 20 shopkeepers get together in a café near the docks, and decide to finance a ship to the West Indies,” he said: “They find a captain, networks, information, insurers. In France, you go to the King; he gives you letters of marque against a cut in your profits; all is done in his name. Nothing has really changed: today, most large cross-border deals need the approval of the Direction Générale du Trésor at the Ministry of Finance.”
It was a perceptive point, and explains a lot of the different ways that Britain and France have handled the Covid vaccination effort. For the French, les Anglais appear to have won the war, despite losing so many earlier battles; but we cannot help that feeling there is something perfidious about it.