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Last Updated: Friday, 21 October 2005, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
British attitudes to the French - two theories
What are the underlying reasons for many British people's long-standing hostility to their French neighbours. Here, two academics give their personally-held views on this thorny issue.


In a less politically-correct era the English could speak their mind more clearly; and what they said indicated that it was the foreigners on their doorstep who troubled them most. Obviously, these were the people who presented the greatest threat to their island identity. Remember that "island identity" contains the notion of being insular, closed in on oneself, turning one's back on others. But how to deal with neighbours well placed to stab you in the back?

The fact is that the English are constantly in denial about their own identity, and the French show us what we really are - or could be if we let ourselves go. They're a kind of sibling, cast in the same mould as us, but showing how the same genes can express themselves in alternative ways.

Given this common background, the English, in spite of themselves, tend to give way to what Freud called "the narcissism of minor differences". We make a great deal of what distinguishes us from the French, for fear of seeing our prized identity lose its uniqueness by being revealed as just another set of shared human traits.

But in cultivating an apparent distinctiveness, we have developed a very buttoned up view of ourselves. We like to believe we are good sportsmen, abiding by the rules of fair-play. We celebrate the chivalrous character of the English male, deferential and solicitous about his women-folk. We worship hygiene and cleanliness, and have problems with sex.

In short, the English are in denial about their real selves. And when the French give expression to the persons we'd really like to be, we hate them for it. Henry VIII, that colossus among English Kings, doubtless thought he should keep something in reserve when meeting the French monarch at the "Field of the Cloth of Gold", in 1520. But François Premier, ruler of a country four times bigger and richer than England, did the sensible thing and went for broke. Same goes for Louis XIV : no beater about the bush he, calling himself "the Sun-King" and pursuing a foreign policy intended to leave no one in any doubt as to the glory that was Gaul. Speaking of which, the General de Gaulle did just the same thing.

This all seems a bit shameless to us English, a bit too "in yer face" for our liking. A retired, formerly high-ranking diplomat recently declared that the French have the finest, most sophisticated and well-informed diplomats in the world - but because they are so doggedly devoted to French interests, they are impossible to work with. Excuse me, but do we really want our diplomats to be finessed at every turn and walked over by the opposition?

Take the French resistance to American influence. Since the War they have done everything within their power to insist that France has a global role to play, that Europe has its own history, traditions and potential future. They have had an independent cinema and foreign policy, sought to defend their language, favoured the euro as a bulwark against the mighty dollar, and so on. And while the English have been obsessed with fending off the Gallic rival at the back door, Uncle Sam has come in the front door and they have sleepwalked into becoming an offshore subsidiary of USA inc. And our kids talk like they were on "Friends".

The trouble with the French is that they do things so well. And before you say that they're good at surrendering, just pause for thought over the alleged benefits of belligerence and war-mongering. Underneath it all, you can hear the half-stifled murmur running through the English brain : "Wish I could do that". Be like Thierry Henry, design the Citroen DS, have a TGV, be upfront about what attracts them to women, drink plenty without falling down, cook and eat well - without putting on weight.

Professor David Walker is head of department at the University of Sheffield's department of French.


Franco-British enmity appears to go with the territory. Harold's ordeal at the Battle of Hastings was being woven into a celebratory tapestry for display in France while Domesday administrators roamed the country identifying prime taxation targets. The countries clanged and jousted through the Hundred Years war (1337-1453), bickered over Calais and went to war over the Revolution.

In more modern times, the countries have been fighting on the same side but the anti-French mentality of the British, possibly forged in these early territorial and political disputes, appears to have mutated into "scatter-gun" contempt for the French and their cultural identity. Prejudice in the post-war period has tended to be articulated in scornful observations about military ineptitude and cravenness, sexual licentiousness and poor hygiene.

The British notion that the French don't wash may be attributable to France's relatively late modernisation. By the early 1950s British and American consumers, enjoying the new prosperity of a leisure culture, were able to mechanise and rationalise their open-plan domestic space with fridges, gas and electric ovens, electronic gadgets and keep it all clean with the newly affordable upright model of vacuum cleaner.

In France, recovery from the war was slower. The acute shortage of urban accommodation in France which continued well into the 1950s meant that migratory population from rural areas and overseas were compelled to live in squalid overcrowded conditions. Most Paris apartments did not have running water or inside sanitation. In rural areas, most dwellings still had flagged floors. The contrast between the two domestic environments must have been startling for the British visitor of the 1950s and early 1960s. And there were more visitors.

The baby boom and the consequent expansion of education at all levels meant a greater extent of cultural interchange. Young Britons were coming to France on educational exchanges and were living in the cheapest and least salubrious accommodation lacking even the basic sanitation. It is not hard to see how the myth of the "dirty French" was disparagingly communicated back to the Albion.

At the same time, in the immediate post-war France sought to purge itself of the "stain" of shame of the "dark years" of Occupation by setting about a programme of moral, political and cultural purging. Renewal was not possible while collaborators held positions of influence in French cultural and political life.

The idea that moral weakness had contributed to military defeat was an idea inculcated in the French by the Nazi puppet administration, Vichy but, at the same time, the notion that moral fortitude, military strength and resilience and national pride should be so closely interwoven in mentalities of the time might suggest an origin for the Francophobic rantings of British tabloids today, which are invariably focussed on military performance as indicator of moral worth.

Dr Wendy Michallat is a researcher and teacher at the University of Sheffield's department of French.

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