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Monday, 25 October, 1999, 13:59 GMT
The beef between France and Britain
Is the Channel the only thing that divides Britain and France?

By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

"The best thing I know between France and England is - the sea." This quip by the nineteenth century wit Donald Jerrold still sums up the attitude of many, even in the era of the Chunnel.

In his book, The English, A Portrait Of A People, BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman suggests that although suspicious of all "foreigners", the English reserve a particular animosity for their "nearest continental neighbours".

Napoleon Napoleon still haunts the Anglo-French relationship
"We all need enemies, and the French are so wonderfully convenient," writes the Newsnight presenter.

The French embargo on British beef is seen by some as just the latest in a long history of rifts between the nations.

"For centuries we were each other's hereditary enemies," says Dr Andrew Knapp of Reading University's French studies department.

A habit not lost

"It was an in-built habit not quite lost in the 19th Century," says Knapp.

He recounts how even when France and Britain were allied against the Russians during the Crimean war, British generals persisted in calling enemy troops "the French".

PMs Tony Blair and Lionel Jospin Entente cordiale: UK's Tony Blair and French premier Lionel Jospin
This slip is hardly surprising, since just half a century before Admiral Nelson was advising young sailors: "You must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil."

Military co-operation rather than confrontation has marked the Anglo-French relationship in the past century, yet even this has not always sparked mutual respect.

World War I exposed the British working classes to the ways of the continent. "They brought back a hatred of all Europeans, except the Germans," observed George Orwell.

Down but not out

During the next war the leader of the Free French refused to talk of "defeat".

"This act of bluff by De Gaulle was respected by Churchill but not liked as it made life difficult," says Dr Knapp.

Charles De Gaulle De Gaulle: Ally or opponent?
Once recovered from the war, the two nations were again vying as equals on the European stage.

"We tend to see the French as trying, through European institutions, to fulfil a centuries-old ambition of continental domination."

"The French see us as wanting all the benefits of the European club, but not wanting to pay for it," Dr Knapp said.

Taking French leave

Francophobia is not necessarily a British phenomenon - the Scots have a long history of friendship with the French. Nor did this supposed animosity stop more than 11 million Britons visiting France last year.

Baroness Thatcher recently blamed Europe for the UK's woes, adding that all the solutions had come from "English-speaking world".

EastEnders in Paris EastEnders Pat and Roy joined the 11 million Britons lured to France last year
France has, of course, had an influence on the English language - arguably one of the cornerstones of Britain's national identity.

"French has been part of English since William of Normandy invaded in 1066," says Simon Elmes, producer of Routes of English, a BBC Radio 4 documentary charting the development of the tongue.

"Tens of thousands of French words are imbedded in our language."

We can thank the French for not only the terms restaurant or café, but also for plate, chair and table which found favour over Saxon words.

Norman wisdom

"The everyday story of country folk would have been called The Bowmen, rather than The Archers, if it hadn't been for the French," says Elmes.

Many traditional Anglo Saxon words happily co-exist with Norman. The sheep and pigs tended by the Saxon peasants, became mutton and pork on reaching the tables of the French nobles.

Even beef, the current cause of friction, is a word the two countries now share thanks to the Norman invasion.

And the French, of course, have appropriated inordinate amounts of English vocabulary. They take breaks at Le Weekend and are know to bid farewells with a "Bye bye".

Sheep 'Mouton' dressed as 'sheep'?
Perhaps talk of animosity relies on rather tired stereotypes and a narrow view of history.

"Relations between us have never been better, if you put the beef apart, on everything that is important, the substantial matters," says French Embassy spokesman Laurent Lemarchand.

"Look at what we've done together in Kosovo. Trade figures are increasing, as is investment on both sides."

"We are really as close as we are close by geography itself."

It seems we return again to the gulf between France and Britain - the English Channel, or rather La Manche.
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See also:
18 Oct 99 |  UK Politics
MPs take ban beef to the French
15 Oct 99 |  UK Politics
Blair tackles Jospin over beef
28 Jun 99 |  Middle East
Handshake ends the Battle of the Nile

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