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Why the French still use the medieval term 'Les Anglo-Saxons'

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Why the French still use the medieval term 'Les Anglo-Saxons'
Photo: Nick Macneill/Wikicommons
10:30 CEST+02:00
Ever noticed how the French will refer to the English-speaking world as "les Anglo-Saxons", even though historically-speaking the Anglo-Saxons haven’t been around since medieval times? Emile Chabal explains why it says more about the French than it does "Les Anglo-Saxons".

If you have lived in France, or perhaps simply been a regular observer of French media and politics, you’ll have witnessed how often people refer to le monde anglo-saxon or even le modèle anglo-saxon.

Far from referring to medieval Britain as you’d be forgiven for thinking, the commentators or politicians or economists are actually talking about the modern English speaking world, from the US and Great Britain to Australia and Canada, and pretty much any country where English is spoken.

“The French breezily refer to les Anglo-Saxons when talking about the British, the Americans, the Canadians, the Australians or some mix of all four," writes Emile Chabal, director of the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh on the site Aeon.

"They are more than happy to engage in vigorous arguments about the so-called modèle anglo-saxon, which has become a catch-all term to describe a variety of cultural, social and economic policies developed in the English-speaking world; and they are quite comfortable drawing stark contrasts between une culture anglo-saxonne and a wide range of countercultures,” 

“Even politicians and media pundits do not hesitate to describe a ‘model’, an ‘approach’ or an ‘idea’ as Anglo-Saxon – and they can be confident that the vast majority of French people will know what they mean.”

But where does it come from and why does it still persist?

“It comes from the middle decades of the 19th century, particularly under Napoleon III when the French were trying to expand their empire into Latin America,” Chabal tells The Local.

“The term Anglo-Saxon began to be used as a contrast with Latin culture in an attempt to place France at the heart of a global Latin world.”

Chabal says the term really emerged in the 1870s after the Franco-Prussian War and the violence of the Paris Commune when there were considered to be three powerful groups: Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Latin.

Today the term is used to stress contrast, between French culture, language, economic and social models and way of thinking to those in the English speaking world, most obviously the UK and the US.

Chabal notes that it's common to hear references to ‘Anglo-Saxon liberalism’ and predatory 'Anglo-Saxon capitalism' which was usually seen to be a dangerous affront to a French ‘social model’.

It's also common to hear about "Anglo-Saxon multi-culturalism" in contrast to France's strictly secular model of assimilation."

“If you spend a morning listening to French TV or radio, you will hear it at least once. The presenter or speaker knows that listeners will know exactly what they are talking about if they refer to ‘le modele Anglo-Saxon’”.

In reality however those presenters are probably only referring to one part of the “Anglo-Saxon” world rather than all of it.

“If they talk about Anglo-Saxon ghettoization they are clearly only referring the United States,” said Chabal.

Chabal says the French are within their rights to use the term but it is not the most analytical or accurate, given it links very different parts of the world, and the fact “there are racial connotations in the origin of the word which are unsettling”.

Even if it’s not “helpful” Chabal says the French use of the term, particularly in recent decades is very revealing.

“To put it simply: when the French refer to ‘the Anglo-Saxon’ or use the term as an adjective, they are usually talking about themselves. The Anglo-Saxon is a mirror on Frenchness; it is France’s alter-ego and often its most feared enemy,” Chabal writes.

The Anglo-Saxon in France is a placeholder, a mirror, an echo, a metaphor."

“It reveals how the French view the outside world,” Chabel tells The Local. “And how they fear French decline, in particular the decline of their culture, language and economic model to “Anglo-Saxon” influences.

Chabal stresses it’s not always used negatively.

“The use of the term Anglo-Saxon is as often about envy and admiration as it used in a derogatory way,” he said.

So how should the French refer to the English-speaking world?

“The French talk about 'La Francophonie' or the French speaking world, so they could easily talk about “le monde Anglophone” or “l’Anglophonie” because then at least it focuses on language rather than culture or race.

“Or if I was an editor I would just stick to using the individual countries and societies they are talking about,” Chabal adds.

But les Anglo-Saxons are not immune from using lazy, inaccurate terms to describe alternative cultures either.

Chabal points out the equivalent is how British will often lazily use the term “the continent” to refer to the rest of Europe.

“The term ‘the continent’ evokes all kinds of things, notably the idea that Britain is standing alone against that place where there is Nazism, communism, the EU... It’s about differences again,” he says.

To know more about Emile Chabal, you can CLICK HERE. 

 

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