“She’s my best friend, and I hate her!” There, expressed in playground language, is the schizophrenic relationship between England and France. Affection, admiration, resentment, dislike; all these play out regularly and both puzzle and dismay.
Some years ago, I married into a French family of the rural gentry. Many of the men were, or had been, officers in the French armed forces. Most, if not all, of the women were deeply concerned by keeping up appearances, “maintenir son rang dans la société”. On one of our first meetings my future mother-in-law, instructing me in local behaviour, pronounced,” Il vaut mieux faire envie que pitié”. “Better to be envied than pitied !”.
Brought up in austerely Protestant England, on the parable of the Good Samaritan; I was intrigued! Surely envy was to be avoided, I had learnt on practical as well as moral grounds: those who are envied are also disliked, shunned, even sometimes destroyed! Not so for my mother-in-law and all her ilk. For them, to envy was to imitate, and if possible, to outshine.
This attitude, of course, chimed with the natural aspiration of the officer class: to advance in rank. A rather challenging vision for one emerging from the world of the English Home Counties: comfortable, deceptively easy-going, even tolerant of eccentricity if linked to hard work and success.
Worlds apart then; for the French appearances and adhesion to rules: for the English, disarming laissez-faire masking resolute pursuit of goals, often financial. Nor was there any shared sense of humour. I was astounded by the loud guffaws of French laughter which greeted a man thrown from his horse: no place for ridicule, nor innocent buffoons: no clowns in Racine or Corneille: in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, there are the clowns who are also grave-diggers: a difficult concept for the French.
Not withstanding all this, the English, as I did, fall in love with the French and accept them as they are, while the French themselves seek relentlessly to analyse and understand.
François Mitterrand, subtle of intellect and experienced lover of women was intrigued by Margaret Thatcher. Sartorially impeccable and yet ferocious guardian of the nation’s balance sheet. As he famously commented, “The eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”. Politics is a serious business, he had to understand!
My fellow French T.V. viewers did not understand as on election day, an inflatable balloon of Boris Johnson floated above Hartlepool. They were convinced it was a clever ruse of his opponents to ridicule the PM. Not so: Boris Johnson knows how “to lay aside life-harming weariness and entertain a cheerful disposition”, while clearly maintaining belief in ultimate success.
Success, “aye, there’s the rub”! On the day on which the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death was recently celebrated, I received a phone call from one of the brightest and best of my former students at Sciences Po and graduate of l’ENA, “There’ll never be an English Napoleon”, he said triumphantly. “Why not?” I replied, interested in his reply. “No English Napoleon would have tried to export the revolution”, he said unexpectedly, “an Englishman would have seen that it would have cost too much money and too many lives.” I was stunned into silence by this. “And yet,” he went on, “for us, or the French, it was worth it, for the fervour, the excitement, and “la gloire”.
Ah, “la gloire”, not prized as ostentatiously by the English, and yet also acknowledged by both nations when quiet and honourable like the stand of the French infantry men at Bray-sur-Dune in June 1940 when the “Regiment de Fer” withheld the German advance on Dunkirk until the last of the little ships had set sail for England. The French officers and men were marched off for 5 long years to a P.O.W. camp in Poland. They had known that this, at best, would be their fate. Among them was also Philippe Bardinet.
This was Charles de Gaulle’s old regiment, in which he had served during WW1. He most certainly knew of their gallant stand at Bray-sur-Dune, just as he knew that he owed all his later successful political career to the welcome of Winston Churchill and the people of England.
That welcome was also felt by him as a humiliation for France, one which he never forgot. England had been his best friend and he hated her, and he went on hating her, fearing in his erstwhile protector an obedient American poodle. Admittedly, this fear seemed justified by Washington’s diplomatic torpedoing of the Anglo-French Suez campaign, after which it is reported that the wily German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer whispered , “Europe will be your revenge”.
And together, these two old men set out to foster and strengthen the young European venture, making it Catholic, patriarchal and bureaucratic, with no place for the Atlantic, “anglo-saxon” world, despite pleadings from Harold Mac Millan who was all too aware of the wind of change blowing, through the British Empire. How Charles de Gaulle would have loved Vicki’s famous cartoon of Mac Millan as a tearful, ragged Cinderella abandoned by the two ugly sisters, France and Germany, off in all their finery to the European ball!
But, ultimately, Cinderella did go to the ball, only to find after a waltz or two, that she needed some fresh air; and to the astonishment of France, Britain voted, not once, but three times to back the dishevelled Boris Johnson, and leave the European Union to “go it alone”.
Initially, in 2014 the popular press registered amazement, consternation, but above all, a widespread feeling of hurt. France had been rejected, as by a lover. Among the rural gentry, there were murmurings of “Perfide Albion” and memories of battles long ago, even of suspected sleight of hand; “remember Sykes-Picot” I overheard.
Could Britain really go it alone? France watched and waited, and just as it looked as though this was really take place, Covid struck Europe and among its first victims was Boris Johnson himself. His encounter with killer virus was close, very close, but he emerged to live again thanks to highly successful British medical care. This care was mirrored in the creation of the British anti-Covid vaccine Astra Zeneca. No demand for this in France, as the E.U. was to manage the Covid crisis, create a European vaccine and deliver it Europe wide.
But as the French secure in this belief, sneered at Astra Zeneca, no vaccine of any cost was available, phantom vaccination centres failed to answer anguished pensioners, designated first victims of the virus. National news dealt in half- truths and strange pronouncements eerily reminiscent of Jacques Chirac’s declaration after the Chernobyl disaster, that the poisonous clouds would stop at the Rhine! The E.U. was a vaccine desert.
Boris Johnson was accused of populism and the Astra Zeneca vaccine of lethal side effects while efforts were made to ease the French population away from Covid anxiety and toward the excitement of the next Presidential election. For the Establishment ruled media, Emmanuel Macron would be the standard bearer of French power and prestige: scorn for Brexit was carefully crafted into speeches.
But, in the midst of this wave of anti-British propaganda, the Duke of Edinburgh died aged 99. The reaction to the sadness of the Queen and the impeccably choreographed dignity of the Duke’s funeral showed that a deep feeling of affection, even kinship, still exist. Messages of heartfelt condolence were received by British residents in France, sometimes from unknown French sympathisers, re-awakening the feeling of hurt and loss over the 2014 decision.
Meanwhile, as the French economy vacillates, still counting on Euro relief, the candidates for top jobs in Paris, hestitate; understandably. It is rumoured that Macron himself has a keen eye on Brussels, should things go wrong. To occupy the vacated Elysée Palace, the two most interesting potential candidates on the centre right are Eric Zemmour, a latter-day Disraeli, less ringlets and fancy waistcoats, and the aristocrat and business tycoon, Viscount Philippe de Villiers.
Neither of these bears England in his heart; Agincourt and Waterloo are as surely stamped there as Calais was for Mary Tudor. For the moment, neither has thrown his hat into the ring in which Macron prances, ratcheting up his anti Brexit message. Had he Boris Johnson’s classical culture, he might well delight in proclaiming, “Britannia Delenda Est”.
But as the threat of civil disorder increases and the army waits in the wings to save the situation, it will be interesting to see who is best friends in the playground.