Vive La Difference
The recent spats between Sarkozi and Cameron and the general timbre of anti- British invective emanating from the highest French government sources has given me cause to deliberate on the long standing acrimony between the Brits and our Gallic cousins across the Channel.
Every time the traditional Anglo/French animosity hits the headlines, we often refer to the ‘Entente Cordiale’ with much ironic mirth; but I wonder how many people realise that the ‘Entente Cordiale’ was actually a series of treaties signed between Britain and France in 1904 which was intended to bring to an end almost a thousand years of almost non-stop conflict between the two nations.
Indeed, from the time that William The Conqueror invaded our shores back in 1066, There have been more than 40 major wars between the two nations, including the ‘Hundred Years War’ in the 14th/15th centuries and a long series of never ending wars between the late 1600’s and the early 1800’s which is often referred to as the second ‘Hundred Years War’. There are literally dozens of other wars of slightly shorter duration, such as the ‘Nine Years War’ in the 17th century and the ‘Seven Years War’ in the eighteenth century, all of which paint a picture of two nations who have been perpetually at war for a thousand years or more.
Victories and defeats have ebbed and flowed between the two protagonists over the millennia, and I wouldn’t attempt to count up the ‘score’ of victories and defeats to try to determine which nation has emerged the winner most often.
What I can say is that the successful invasion of England by William was certainly a very notable victory by the French, (although purists will claim that it was actually the Normans who defeated England – not the ‘French’ as in those days, Normandy was a separate State), and that the victory and the assimilation of the Normans into English society, transformed England in many fundamental ways and it became a better and stronger country as a result.
A similar thing had happened some thousand years before the Norman invasion when the Romans also successfully invaded our shores, also playing a major role in shaping England for the better.
I have to say, with my undoubtedly biased ‘English hat’ on, that ever since William the Conqueror, a majority of the significant victories have gone in England’s favour. I don’t wish to turn this piece into a history lesson, but I will just mention England’s famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 against numerically superior French forces, The Anglo French Wars of 1755 -1763 which resulted in defeat for the French in Canada ,and their resultant loss of Quebec and Canada to the English and the French Revolutionary Wars in which the various pro English, anti-French coalitions ultimately triumphed over Napoleon and had him removed him from office.
Finally, we have France’s ultimate humiliation – the wars which the modern day French have still not got out of their system and also the wars which still bear the scars of long lasting enmity towards the English – the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, which concluded the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, and marked the end of an era of French supremacy in continental Europe.
Many might also argue that Napoleon’s defeat signalled the ultimate decline of France as a major power and certainly presaged the decline of the French language as having a major role in world affairs and the emergence of English as the dominant spoken tongue throughout the world.
The French are a proud race and have much to be proud about in their nation’s history and achievements and have given much to the world in terms of art, literature, science, and technology but, sadly, they can’t seem to get rid of that huge ‘chip on their shoulder’. To this day, many French – especially those in power – resent us, dislike us and pour opprobrium upon us at any and every opportunity.
Through the years I have had degrees of personal interaction with the French. My earliest memory was of the very first time I went to those Gallic shores, when I was around 21 years of age. A day trip to France was my first venture, as an adult, abroad.
It was a day boat trip to Boulogne – I forget from which English port – and it was so long ago, (1967), that it pre-dated the ‘booze’ cruises; it was simply a pleasure trip to spend a day in a French coastal fishing village and to sample a soupçon of French culture.
Accompanying me, was my new American girlfriend, (‘Mardie’ – about whom I have written in a ‘Mobi-Vignette’ and which can be accessed by clicking the ‘Mardie’ tab above), and a middle-aged married couple who I was very close to in those days. The long ago trip sticks clearly in my mind for two reasons.
The first was when we arrived by coach at the port of embarkation, a British immigration official took one look at Mardie’s American passport and hauled her off the bus, almost frog marching her away to some distant building. She was gone so long that the entire coach load thought they would miss the ferry, but just in the nick of time a very flustered Mardie was returned to us.
She told us that immigration had informed her that her visa to stay and work in the UK would have become invalidated once she left the country and that she would have had to re-apply for a new visa in France. This would have proved impossible – especially on a day trip, but thankfully, in the end common sense had prevailed, and they had given her some kind of re-entry stamp which would mean her visa was not cancelled, (shades of Thailand, fifty years later).
The second reason that I remember this first excursion into the Gallic unknown with such clarity is because it was the first – and probably only time – that I put my GCE ‘O’ level French speaking to a test. After our disembarkation and a brief walk around Boulogne, we selected a restaurant and sat down for our lunch. As the only ‘French speaker’ amongst us, I took charge and asked for the menu from a young, very charming, pretty little French waitress.
Perusing the menu, I found to my disappointment that it was in English – but not to be outdone I insisted in ordering in French, to show off my linguistic prowess to my girlfriend. Looking down the menu, I decided to have English fare and ordered sausages, bacon, egg and chips. I used my best French accent and the lovely mademoiselle smiled brightly at me, indicated that she understood me perfectly and wrote my order down with great gusto. After this, my companions all boringly ordered their food by pointing at items on the menu.
Ten minutes later the meals arrived. She placed my order in front of me. It was a plate stacked with half a dozen large sausages and a pile of chips – but no bacon, and no egg – how could that be? I was sure I had ordered correctly.
Then came my companion’s food, all served correctly as ordered. I started to feel very downcast when suddenly another plate appeared next to my first plate, and on it, was half a dozen large rashers of bacon and another pile of chips. Before I could utter a sound, a third plate was placed next to the other two.
Yes, you’ve guessed it; on it were three large fried eggs and another pile of chips. The lovely girl looked at me with a broad grin and said those magical French words: ‘Bon Appetite!’ Not only my companions, but the entire inhabitants of the crowded restaurant all burst out laughing.
I put on a brave face and did my best to get through three meals, but failed miserably and it was many, many years before I was to live down my ordering ‘howler’ in Boulogne.
The next venture into my neighbouring country’s territory was many years later –the late 80’s or possibly early 90’s – when I went on a ‘bed and breakfast’ touring holiday of Normandy and Brittany with my then Thai wife, (wife number 4, ‘Noi’.)
We actually had a very nice holiday and the Normandy countryside was beautiful. I don’t know about today, but in those days, virtually nobody in that region spoke a word of English and we had a hilarious time getting by with the use of a English/French dictionary, my schoolboy French having been long forgotten and discarded. We stayed in some wonderfully ancient farm houses in very rural areas and encountered nothing but friendly, helpful locals during our travels around the region.
I also vividly recall our last day in France. We drove to the beach town of Ouistreham, near Caen, in Brittany, early one morning, but our crossing wasn’t scheduled until late afternoon. So I parked up on the beach and we went into a local deli, bought some baguettes, cheese and cooked meats, plus a bottle of plonk and had a nice little picnic on the beach.
Noi wasn’t a big drinker, so I downed probably 80% of the wine, but still having time to kill, I decided to buy a second bottle and proceeded to down that as well. I only had a 1/2 mile to drive to the embarkation point, but nevertheless I was pretty tipsy when I climbed into the car, mid-afternoon, for the short drive.
Imagine my consternation when, half way into my brief journey, I encountered a line of very slow moving vehicles – and horror upon horror – a hundred yards ahead, I spotted a group of Gendarmes who were stopping and breathalysing every driver.
There was no way I could get out of the tightly packed line of cars and any attempt at an illegal U-turn would be immediately spotted , so I dreaded what was about to transpire. I had visions of not only missing the ferry but being clapped in a French jail and possibly even losing my job; as by then I was a rising star in a UK-regulated insurance company where its financial executives are required to keep to the highest possible standards of legal probity.
As I inched towards the waiting cops, I could see my career disappearing into thin air and gritted my teeth, awaiting the expected instruction to get out of my car at any moment. One of gendarmes looked at my English number plate, mumbled something to another gendarme on the side walk and the two of them grimaced at me and waved me on.
I don’t know whether they were two of the very few Frenchmen who actually liked their Anglo Saxon neighbours or, more likely, decided it would be too much hassle to arrest an arrogant ‘Ros beef’, who almost certainly didn’t speak a word of French. But I didn’t care; as far as I was concerned on that particular occasion, the ‘Entente Cordiale’ was alive and well.
A few years later I took the whole family for yet another holiday in Normandy, this time renting a lovely rural cottage for our stay, and once again we found nothing but friendliness, although our contact was minimal due to the fact that we spoke little French, and the locals –if it is possible – spoke even less English. It was a great holiday and we saw yet more of France, with its gorgeous chateaus and picturesque countryside.
There’s a saying that ‘the only thing wrong with France is its people’.
That is a trifle harsh, but as the years have drawn on, despite my early impression to the contrary, I’m now beginning to believe there may be more than a smidgeon of truth in this.
Apart from my two family trips to Normandy and Brittany, I did spend a number of long weekends in Paris through the following few years with my wife and it was there that I first encountered that distinct lack of hospitality from our French hosts, not only in a general sense, but even in the tourist sector, where you might have expected them to be more helpful and friendly.
But not a bit of it; it was almost as though the entire population of Paris, including those working in hotels and in tourism, resented our presence there and went out of their way to make things as difficult as possible.
Although a lot of Paris seems to be one enormous monument to Napoleon, (which continually reminds us, – as if we could ever forget – that their greatest ever hero was ultimately defeated by those cultural barbarians from across the channel), it is nevertheless a very beautiful city.
I have had spent many enjoyable times, walking its streets, wandering along the banks of the Seine, exploring and admiring its architecture – and browsing in its incredible museums and art galleries, and all this, in spite of the French antipathy to me and other visitors. I well recall the irritation I felt on one particular visit, when on buying some postcards to send home, we failed miserably to find anyone who could tell us where to find a post office or even to buy a few stamps.
Even in England, where we are also famously off hand with our visitors, I don’t believe you will find such ridiculous, deliberate indifference to the needs of people who are spending their hard earned money in our country.
After those ‘romantic weekends’ with my wife, my subsequent involvements with the French and their country were all through business. In my exalted position as Financial Director of major Insurer and re-insurer, one of the few ‘jollies’ that I allowed myself was attendance at the ‘International Insurance Taxation Conference’ which was annual event, each year held in a different European Capital.
One of the first such conferences I attended was in Paris, where once again, I renewed my love affair with the lovely city, but not its people. This particular event was notable for the ‘keynote speech’ on the first day of the conference, which was to be given by a very senior member of the French government.
At that particular time, The French government was going through one of its periodic ‘purging’ of alien (foreign) words in the French Language and had recently passed a law that were intended to help preserve the nature and propagation of their mother tongue. For a country who espoused ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ all those years ago, it was a bit rich that they were now trying to legislate on how people were allowed to speak.
The good minister prefaced his speech by a brief announcement in perfect, colloquial English, explaining that the recent law prevented him -a French citizen – from addressing us or, or indeed any conference or seminar in France, in a foreign language. It was clear from his tone of voice that he thought the rule absolutely crazy and apologised to us, before reverting to his mother tongue of the remainder of his lengthy address.
We all received an instantaneous English translation through our headphones, but what a farce! Remember, this conference was attended by predominately foreigners from around the world; USA, Australia, Latin America, South Africa and of course all the European states. One of the smallest contingents – I doubt they had more than 6 delegates – was from France itself.
So what sort of impression did the French convey to this veritable ‘United Nations’ of senior financial executives from the world’s major Insurance companies? Frankly, they made total arses of themselves, to say nothing of being a laughing stock.
A few years after this, my employers decided to open a branch in Paris, and not being a organisation to hide our light under a bushel, we chose as our location, a beautifully ornate, 18th Century renovated office complex, complete with chandeliers, original murals on the walls; an impressive period building that was once occupied by the composer, Chopin. The location, in the Place Vendome, couldn’t have been more prestigious, just across the square from the Ritz hotel, where only a few months previously Princess Di had taken her fateful journey.
As ever, Mobi led the initial charge into new territories and during the period when we were ‘bedding in’ our new French business, I spent a great deal of time in France, making frequent trips back and forth from London to Paris on Eurostar . We’d hired a number of highly experienced French insurance professionals and soon started to build up a healthy book of insurance business.
But our new French staff proved to be a nightmare. Strangely, the local manager, was a bit of an Anglophile and proudly drove around Paris in his British Jaguar, but despite this professed love for all things English, he soon became completely unmanageable. He refused to respect any rules or company procedures – rules that all our other branches and subsidiaries throughout the world had no problems in complying with, and he continually acted outside his authority on business matters. It soon became clear that he was effectively trying to set his entire staff against the English bosses at their ‘head Office’ in London.
Eventually, he was fired but it took a long time to sort out the mess he had left behind and even longer before we managed to get the staff to understand that they worked for us, Brits – not for themselves.
I also had some first-hand experience of the incredible French bureaucracy and ‘red –tape’ when obtaining all the necessary licences and permissions to open the branch. As you might expect, in spite of the EU supposedly being an insurance ‘free trade’ zone, where any member could set up a branch in any member state, the Frogs made it as difficult as they possibly could for ‘Johnny foreigners’ to invade their sacred territory.
I also found the labour laws amongst the most draconian I have found anywhere in the world, which, amongst a nightmare of rules, gave all staff unbelievably generous pension and holiday benefits. But even worse was a crazy law that prohibited employees from working more than a certain number of hours in a day, even if they volunteered to work the extra hours and were rewarded handsomely for so doing. They even had ‘office hours’ police who would raid offices in an evening and arrest anyone found working beyond permitted hours!
And don’t ever try to get any business done – either government or private -during the long summer months, as everyone has left town. Paris becomes a virtual ghost city for 2 months, with most government departments closed and private companies running a skeleton staff who produce very little output.
I often used to wonder how on earth the French economy managed to stay afloat and how on earth they could afford their enormous social welfare state bills, and even to this day the French economy is still a bit of an enigma to me, despite recent events that suggest that it may finally be getting its comeuppance.
My final personal anecdote on matters French is a very memorable, chance conversation I once had, with a man in of all places, a London West End theatre, about 15 years ago. He was sitting in a seat directly in front of my wife and I as we awaited the start of that magnificent musical – Les Miserables. The man was talking in fluent French to a youth sitting next to him and I remarked to my wife how odd it was that here were a couple of Frenchmen, coming to see an English musical based on a French classic story.
The man overheard me and turned around to inform me that he wasn’t French, but English, although he lived and worked in France and his son was born there. We got chatting, and he told me that he lived ‘somewhere’ in central France, (I forget the name of the town), and that he lived there with his French wife and son.
I remarked on the problems I had been having in setting up my Paris Branch and he immediately launched into a tirade about how difficult the French make it for foreigners –especially the English – to do business in their country, in spite of the supposedly liberating EU regulations.
It was clearly something that bothered him a lot, and he proceeded to tell me chapter and verse on what bastards the French were and how they all went out of their way to make doing business in their country as difficult as possible. All this, despite the fact that he spoke and wrote fluent French, had a French partner and a French wife. He claimed that as soon as other businessmen found out that a local business had an Englishman on board, they would do everything they can to drive that firm out of business.
I have no idea how typical his experience was, and cannot recollect what line of work he was in, but such was the vehemence of his argument that it has stuck with me ever since, as some of what he had to say certainly struck a chord with my own business problems in Paris.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been some famous, successful collaborations between the English and French and at the top of the list would be the Channel tunnel and also right at the top would be the only commercial supersonic airline ever to be brought into regular service, the never to be forgotten, Anglo/French ‘Concorde’.
But I well recall the fuss over the name of the plane and the French getting their way and insisting that the Concorde be spelt with an ‘e’ at the end of the name; and then their insistence that they should have the honour of flying the very first commercial flight. All pretty childish nonsense, and of course us Brits, as the victors over Napoleon, rose above it all and humoured their pathetic nationalistic urges.
Yes, I’m afraid the French have never forgotten or forgiven us for putting one over them at the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo and even within my own lifetime we have had to suffer the indignity of one of the 20th Century’s favourite French sons, General De Gaulle, playing the rabidly anti-British card on a number of occasions on the world stage.
Those who have studied WW2 history will know That de Gaulle, as leader of the Free French forces, was domiciled in England throughout most of the war and was given huge support and assistance by the Brits and the Yanks. As soon as the invasion of France had begun in 1944, De Gaulle, against prior agreement, shot over to France and caused all manner of problems for the allies by acting unilaterally and refusing to cooperate and follow orders. (Shades of my French insurance manager).
As the war was being won, De Gaulle pushed himself forward as the ‘French Hero’ who had single-handely liberated his country and promptly forgot and ignored all the help and support that had come from the allies. He was once told by a friend: “General, you must not hate your friends more than you hate your enemies.” De Gaulle himself stated famously, “France has no friends, only interests.”
In fact, he treated Eisenhower and Churchill so shabbily that even his own French people eventually disowned him and sent him into the political wilderness in 1946.
But he was to return to power in 1958 and created the Fifth Republic, steadfastly rejecting requests from Britain to joining what was then the EEC in 1963, uttering the single word ‘non’ into the television cameras at the critical moment, a statement used to sum up French opposition and belligerence towards Britain for many years afterwards and refusing again in 1967 when British PM Harold Wilson renewed our attempts to join.
Although Britain was eventually permitted to join the now much tainted European EU club, the French have rarely ceased their snapping and sniping at us at every opportunity, both real and imagined.
These days, the French are saddled with yet another egotistical, anti-British President, (in the true Napoleon/ De Gaulle tradition), who is little better at leading his country than the notoriously inept Berlusconi, who was recently removed from office in Italy.
Back in December, Sarkozi famously said to Cameron: “We’re sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the Euro, you didn’t want to join and now you want to interfere in our meetings,”
Good, bad, tainted or otherwise, the EU is a club and its members are required to act with a degree of decorum with each other. They are certainly not supposed to speak badly or criticise each other’s policies or to pass derogatory comments on member state’s economies in public.
Then, later in the same month, the French government launched a concerted campaign of criticism against the British economy in some warped attempt to deflect plans on an expected downgrade of France’s credit rating.
The French Minister of Economy, François Baroin, described as “very worrying” the situation in the UK, assuring everyone who cared to listen that their country was much in a better situation.
“French economy is better than the British right now,” said Baroin, noting that the UK has “a deficit of Greece” and “a higher level of debt than the French”.
François Fillon, the French prime minister, said that Britain was in a worse economic position than France and the country’s central banker indicated that this country’s, (Britain’s), credit rating should be downgraded.
François Baroin, then stepped up his attacks saying: “You’d rather be French than British. In economic terms, France’s economy is in better shape than the U.K.’s,” he said, repeating a line of defence used by other French officials in the days ahead of Standard & Poor’s decision, on whether France would keep its triple-A rating.
The Bank of France governor and the French finance minister then claimed that the U.K. should be the country to lose its highly-prized triple-A credit rating, not France.
His comments echoed those of Prime Minister Francois Fillon and central bank chief Christian Noyer, who both pointed to comparative weaknesses in the U.K. economy. Mr. Noyer even said the U.K. should be downgraded before France.
Mr. Noyer said in an interview with regional French paper Le Telegramme. “A downgrade should come first for the U.K., which has a greater deficit, as much debt, more inflation, and less growth than us, and collapsing credit.”
All these anti- British, ‘un-club-like’ half demented rants had absolutely no effect on Standard and Poor, and France’s credit rating was duly downgraded.
And finally, back to Sarkozi who, fighting for his political life, decided once again to launch a broadside against Britain’s economy in some kind of misguided attempt to rally his wavering popularity. He stated that Britain is a country with “no industry” as he set out “shock measures” to reinvigorate France’s faltering economy.
When he announced he would increase VAT by 1.6 per cent, a journalist made the point that there had been an increase in prices in Britain after VAT rises, Sarkozy claimed: “The United Kingdom has no industry any more.”
If you refer back to an article I wrote back in October last year, (http://tinyurl.com/6p9lcjg), on the subject of ‘Made in Britain’ where I pointed out, just how much industry Britain still has, although admittedly much reduced since its formative, highly industrialised years.
In 2009, (in which the latest comparable figures are available), manufacturing, as a percentage of GDP, was 11 per cent in the UK – the same as in France. UK industrial production as a share of GDP was 15 per cent, compared to 12.5 per cent in France for the same year.
Sarkozi was telling fibs. He knows the Brits are ‘true gentlemen’ and he assumed he could get away with his little lies, in the same manner that he has pretty much got away with all his snide comments about the Brits ever since he has been in power.
Can you imagine the outcry in France if Cameron or any British ministers made similar remarks about the French? Another 100 years war maybe? Actually, I don’t think the last one has finished yet.
Maybe it would have been better for our peace of mind if we had let Napoleon win at Waterloo….
Nah… that would never do…
BUTT… BUTT… BUTT… I don’t give a French fig or a British hoot…