One of the highlight of my internship here in Germany is that I finally got to meet a Brit (yes, I had to go to Germany in order to do that, life is full of surprises). The thing is, during our French-British summits, something hit me really hard in the face: we like to tease each other on our respective countries and our conversations ultimately led me to the conclusion that relations between France and England are kind of messed up. Between love and hate, between rivalry and cooperation, France and England are tied up in all sorts of ways.
The thing is, even though we are not fighting over a piece of land or the next candidate for the throne anymore, we had so many historical differences in the past that we still glance at each other with some suspicion in our eyes. It is still common, especially amongst older people, to hear some hateful comments about the other country across the Channel. Let’s go back in time just a little to find some explanations for this. As I said, we had A LOT of historical differences, and that may explain why we don’t get along so well as it is so deep rooted. I mean, we have a huge history together – history referring to wars, schemes and invasions. Seriously, I doubt we French ever fought against another enemy with such an enthusiasm (and I hope the Brits enjoyed their share of good times as well).
One of the turning points of the whole “French suck” tale is undoubtedly the decision made by our dear old William to invade England in 1066, letting the Normans be crowned the kings of England. I for one am definitely not complaining about that as I am French and since I have to thank William for introducing French words into the English language. But that’s another topic altogether… I guess the legend of William is still vivid in the minds of spiteful British people (even though it happened 1000 years ago). As a matter of fact, I am not very happy with the memory of The Hundred Years War myself (during which we supposedly fought each other for 100 years, which shows how much we used to love each other) and especially the famous battle of Azincourt (when the French used to cut the fingers of British bowmen and thus gave them a particular reason to hate us) and Joan of Arc being burned at the stake. British soldiers made our life quite impossible back then, that’s for sure. At this time, to call someone “a son of English” even became a popular insult in France. After that we sure continued to hate each other and fight occasionally just to be in great shape, but the next blow was certainly when Henry VIII decided to convert England to Protestantism. I guess that “What the fudge??” was undoubtedly what Francis I and his French people said at the time. Indeed, England was not only a foreign evil, in addition it became a heretical one. Foreign evil led by heretics… France sure was charmed by England.
But when our mutual interests were at stake, we learned to pretend not to want to burn and ravage the other country (even though we still wanted to, I guess) in order to survive in this jungle they call Europe. Indeed, France often sided with England in the hope of utterly destroying Spain. At least we knew how to get along when it came to scheming against other countries, so that’s better than nothing. Of course the New World became a battleground between the two powers. As fighting in Europe was simply not enough anymore, they had to experience something new and relocate the battlefield since after quite a number of centuries it was getting kind of boring.
What was next? We had so many “differences”… Then there was the Napoleon era, how could we forget! Still war, war and war, so nothing out of the ordinary here. Of course we won’t mention Waterloo (I’m French, remember?). But I did hear a funny anecdote about people in England wanting to rename Waterloo station in London, in order not to offend French tourists. This sounds quite funny, because I guess I speak on behalf of most of the French people when I say we are quite over it, though we still prefer not to mention this sad part of our history.
Fortunately both of us eventually learned to play nicely and we decided to stop fighting, hugged each other and did great stuff together. This is where the Entente Cordiale begins. Peace, at last! Actually, each of the two parties realised that the other one was not so dumb and evil, and that they had great cultural things to share. It was pretty obvious that both France and Britain were totally awesome, so really quite ridiculous to be constantly at each other’s throats. So, this is when Francophiles in Britain and Anglophiles in France began to spread a mutual respect and love – how beautiful. Britain was introduced to French food and wine, and France was introduced to English sports like rugby. After that, we became friends and were allies against the Germans during the two World Wars, even though we still consider the Mers el Kebir episode as a betrayal…
Still, we just did not manage to love each other completely. The problem is, from a French point of view, the Brits just do everything differently, but more on that thanks to this article. Nowadays, we are supposed to develop cooperation. In President Sarkozy’s words: we have to “overcome our long-standing rivalries and build together a future that will be stronger because we will be together”. He also said “If we want to change Europe my dear British friends – and we Frenchmen do wish to change Europe – we need you inside Europe to help us do so, not standing on the outside.”
So what now that wars, invasions, conquests, schemes, finger-cutting, women-burning and the “don’t touch my colonies” battles are over? Well, I would say that even if we still despise each other, at least we do it in a much nicer way. Actually, this really is a love-hate relationship. Our past may prevent us from loving each other completely, but we sure have nicer relations. English is the first foreign language taught in French schools, and French is the first foreign language taught in England. Furthermore, we certainly have a great sense of fashion in common (after all, they have London, we have Paris…). France is definitely a very popular destination for the Brits – many of them even have houses in France! And we French sure, in a weird kind of way, love the Brits and their country in return. Seriously, as long as they don’t beat us at rugby, I guess everything is fine!
As Victor Hugo said: “There has never been an antipathy between them, only the desire to surpass. France is the adversary of England as the better is the enemy of the good.”