As France prepare to take on England in the football World Cup, there has been plenty of mostly good-humoured banter on both sides, but in general this is a complicated relationship.
First let’s get one thing clear – while we are aware that English and British are not the same thing and that the UK is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, French people tend to be pretty vague on the difference between les anglais and les britanniques. What we’re examining here is largely an English phenomenon, but media or politicians who at least nominally represent the whole of the UK will also be making an appearance.
Listen to the team from The Local discuss the French-English relationship in the latest episode of Talking France – find it on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts, download it HERE or listen on the link below.
Saturday’s World Cup football clash is making headlines on both sides of the Channel with French sports paper l’Equipe getting in early with the franglais headline ‘God save notre king’ – their king being, of course, star striker Kylian Mbappé.
"God save Notre king"… @lequipe gettin in early with this headline today. We can expect to see it again if Mbappe does his thing against "les beefs" on saturday night.. #FRAANG #FRAENG pic.twitter.com/ZD60zJavQW
— Ben McPartland (@McPBen) December 5, 2022
Over on the other side of the Channel there were reports of English fans boycotting baguettes and croissants ahead of the big match, while the French commentator Julien Hoez found himself the subject of a UK newspaper article after making a flippant comment on Twitter about an (objectively revolting-looking, it must be said) fish-finger and cheese croissant on sale in England.
Day 5 of my war against fish finger and cheese croissants.
— Julien Hoez (@JulienHoez) December 7, 2022
Hoez is far from the first Frenchman to be less than flattering about British food, with former president Jacques Chirac once remarking: “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that. After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food.”
But away from banter about food and football, English ‘French-bashing’ can be more serious.
In the midst of an actual war in Europe, British MP (and, briefly, prime minister) Liz Truss remarked that “the jury is out” when asked whether French president Emmanuel Macron was a friend or foe of Britain.
Her remark is part of a long tradition of British politicians who have decided to make verbal attacks against France or the French, usually to try and distract from problems at home.
It goes way back to British portrayals of Napoleon Bonaparte (did you know that it was British cartoonists that created the myth that Napoleon was short? In face he was of average height for a man of his time) right through to tabloid headlines over Covid travel rules.
This is the usual blame-the-French bollocks, doubtless encouraged by Johnson to distract from his own incompetence. In truth… Fr announced and kept to a 48 hr ban. Fr is uniquely in front line with thousands of lorries a day from the UK. Others, incl Germany, are harder line. https://t.co/D3OYaUekb0
— John Lichfield (@john_lichfield) December 23, 2020
Interestingly, this is a trend that’s much less prevalent among French politicians and media, where tabloid headlines about the UK – where they exist at all – tend more towards teasing than vitriol.
Political commentator – and a Brit who has lived in France for 25 years – John Lichfield told us: “I think when British politicians engage in a bit of French-bashing they assume that their people will like it and their media will lap it up and therefore there is a sort of constituency for that type of French-bashing in England, not necessarily in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
“It’s not something that French politicians really go in for because there’s not much of a constituency for it, I don’t think there are many votes for Macron or anyone else in seeming to be anti-British.”
He added: “What’s interesting at the moment – with the England v France match – is that it focuses attention on where this ‘French-bashing’ is coming from – and it is an English thing, not a British thing. Most Scottish or Welsh people, certainly the ones that I know, don’t tend to be particularly anti-French.
“It comes from England and particularly from the English-based British media. There is of course a certain amount of teasing of Britain and British people in the French media, but nothing like as insistent and as vicious as you get from the other side of the Channel.
“I think it’s partly that we are an island and when we look out on the world France is what we see, so it’s the French that we pick on, whereas France is continental so when they look around they have lots of neighbours that they like to tease or to dislike – they don’t have the same obsession with England or with Britain as the English have with the French.”
But politicians and media and one thing, while ordinary people are another.
It’s rare for Brits living in France to report any verbal attacks or aggression from the French because of their nationality – although of course teasing and banter, particularly around sports events, are par for the course.
John said; “I always find that French people who don’t know Britain have a quite weird view of it – they think that we’re either all old people in bowler hats and pinstriped suits or we’re punks with purple hair and razor blades hanging off our ears who are smashing up pubs. They don’t seem to think that there’s much in between, so you do get a kind of cartoon view of Britain – as there is a cartoon view of France in England.
“In 25 years of living in France I’ve only once ever been attacked for being British – and that was by a farmer during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease that had come over from Britain, so he had an axe to grind.
“But on several occasions I’ve had rude comments and signs made at me while driving through Britain in cars with French number plates
“I think there is still a lot of warmth towards Britain in France because of two world wars and that is not forgotten. We tend to have a rather cartoonish view of both word wars and not recognise the huge contribution made by the French towards their own defence in World War I and more of a contribution at the beginning of World War II than we ever give credit for as well, whereas I think a lot of French people – especially older French people – do remember what happened in 1944 and 1914-18.
“So there are many reasons why there are different attitudes going across the Channel – but really the British and French are very similar in many ways. I’ve said before that our two countries are like sisters who live next door to one another, constantly looking over the fence to see what the other is doing (the British more than the French it should be said) but there is this type of sisterly quarrelsome relationship in which both countries admire each other more than they would like to admit.”
You can listen to the team from The Local discuss French-bashing and their experiences as Brits in France in the latest episode of Talking France – find it HERE.