Often called “the best of enemies”, historic rivals Britain and France are in yet another scrap – this time over fishing rights.
Qu’est-ce qui se passe?
The UK refused to grant fishing licences to a handful of French skippers who wanted to cast their nets off the shores of Jersey. The French briefly captured a British scallop trawler – and, in a leaked letter to EU leaders from PM Jean Castex, seemed to suggest the British should be punished for Brexit. This petulant display, says Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times, is no more than a “cri de coeur from a beta nation” that has in its armoury only “petulance, histrionics and historical envy”. What do the French really have, beyond the ability to “shrug in an annoying manner” and a tendency to compensate for their inadequacies by “annoying the grown-ups next door”.
So is Boris bluffing?
“Of course he is, as usual,” French MP Bruno Bonnell told Radio 4’s Today this week. “He’s been bluffing all along.” Monsieur Johnson should stop worrying about French fishermen and start concentrating on “empty shelves in the UK”. The British media hasn’t helped, says John Lichfield in UnHerd. Encouraged by Downing Street, part of the UK press has worked itself into a “self-pleasing froth of Macronphobia” over this “fundamentally silly dispute”. It suits Boris, because bashing the French is an ancient and much-loved pastime for the English. But there’s no real conflict, just a phoney “scallops war”, says Bonnell. “It’s an Entente Cordiale in reverse.”
How did this play out in the past?
They beat us at the Battle of Hastings, of course, which is why you’re bound to know the odd William or Robert, and not so many Wulfrics or Athelstans. But although they’ve since gone to war with us more than 30 times, 1066 remains France’s only successful invasion of England. Louis VIII had a decent go in 1216, during the barons’ revolt, but the death of King John prompted half the rebel lords to abandon him. And in 1326 Isabella of France invaded with her lover, Roger Mortimer, but that hardly counts: she was already Edward II’s wife.
Not so cordiale after all
There is something about the French that is “shocking to the Anglo-Saxon soul”, says Ed West in UnHerd. But deep down there is a great deal of respect for their belligerence, and for the wider Gallic battle with “Americanisation, the modern world and often reality”. In a 1958 article in The Atlantic, Pierre Emmanuel fondly recalls the “Great Anti-Coke War, desperately fought in French cafés” a few years previously. There was a similar resistance to McDonald’s – in 2000 nativists bombed a branch in Brittany.
What do their other neighbours think?
The French inhabit some of Europe’s most coveted real estate, which to many of its neighbours feels like paradise. Hence the Dutch expression “Leven als God in Frankrijk” (Live like God in France). “When God created France, he thought it the most beautiful country in the world”, runs an old Belgian gag. “So to make things fair, he created the French.”
What about their cultural exports?
Enlightenment wit Voltaire is hard to beat (though he fled to England after a contretemps with a huffy noble). Funny playwright Molière still gets a look-in at London’s bougie theatres. And the impressionists knocked out a formidable wodge of paintings. Perhaps most notably, after the UK and Russia, France boasts some of the world’s greatest novelists. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Marcel Proust’s monumental À la recherche du temps perdu are all firmly in the canon.
The French intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s still exert an outsized influence. There’s the godfather of woke ideology, Michel Foucault, goggle-eyed revolutionary Jean-Paul Sartre and Algerian-born ennui vendor Albert Camus. It’s easy for practical-minded Anglo-Saxons to poke fun. But Sartre in particular has left a profound and dark mark on recent history, says Roger Scruton in The Spectator. As a student in Paris, future Cambodian dictator Pol Pot imbibed Sartre’s anti-bourgeois rhetoric before returning to his native country to apply its purifying logic. His purges killed up to two million Cambodians, a quarter of the population.
Anything more cheerful?
Bien sûr. When Astérix illustrator Albert Uderzo died last year at 92, Emmanuel Macron felt moved to compose a “personal tribute” to the books, says James Marriott in The Times. “The real ‘magic potion’,” Macron rhapsodised, “was that ink in which Uderzo dipped his pen to draw.” All Macron demonstrated, “at immense and florid length”, was that “he doesn’t really get it”. The France of Astérix is not the “metropolitan, global, hyper-educated” France of Macron, but la France profonde – “deep France”. The Gaulish villagers embody the age-old values of the French peasantry: they are “belligerent, unpretentious, lustful, gluttonous, warm-hearted, xenophobic, patriotic and fond of a laugh”.
What about popular culture?
The French have struggled to export pop music – not even superstars Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Hallyday could replicate their success beyond the francophone world. But the streaming era has led to a boom in French TV in the anglosphere. Big hits include Call My Agent, The Bureau and Spiral.
And some of the architecture’s not bad?
The French certainly have a penchant, and a reputation, for decorous building. Visitors have such high expectations that Japanese tourists regularly fall victim to “Paris syndrome” – an affliction that paralyses those who can’t bear the disappointment of what it’s actually like. But much of the country’s most magnificent property was built for pragmatic reasons. The 6,450 châteaux were necessary local power bases to control each unique terroir in a nation four times the size of England. As Charles de Gaulle put it: “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?”
🥩 🐸 “We always have been, we are, and I hope that we always shall be, detested in France.” The Duke of Wellington
Building the barricade
The French are still a fractious bunch, and the authorities have few qualms about crushing revolt. It’s not quite Napoleon’s cannons blasting peasants with grapeshot, but in their first year of protests, members of the gilets jaunes movement lost 24 eyes and five hands. Two died. And Parisian authorities killed up to 200 French rioters in 1961, during protests about the war in Algeria. (The violent struggle for Algerian independence is one reason President de Gaulle supposedly holds the record for failed assassination attempts: about 25.)