Although she was born in Britain, Lynda S. Heard lived in France for many years and has a good understanding of both French and British culture. She explains why she finds the recently agreed Franco-Aglo pact somewhat hard to swallow
I’ ve adored the French ever since I was six-years-old and my grandmother bought me a little French children’s book, featuring a duck. Unlike most of my fellow British citizens, their language is music to my ears and ever since I lived in the 20th arrondissement of Paris during my 20s, I’ve admired their manners, sophistication, culture, music, style and, of course, their cuisine.
In fact, I was so disgusted with the obsequious Tony Blair, who took his country to war in Iraq against the will of his people, that I phoned the French embassy in Athens to ask how I could become a French citizen. But I quickly dropped the idea when it became evident that the person on the other end of the line thought I was mad once she ascertained that I was no third world asylum seeker or would-be economic migrant. “Let me understand. You are British and you want to be French? Ha! Ha!”
My eyes still get slightly misty when I hear the songs of Charles Aznavour, Edith Piaf or Alain Barrière but, sentiment aside, I can’t help thinking that the 50-year defence pact, recently signed by the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is a grave mistake.
There’s a long history of conflict and rivalry between the two countries on either side of La Manche, beginning with the 1066 Norman Conquest and continuing till the 19th century Napoleonic wars but, more importantly, the two cultures are suspicious of one another. The older British generation is still unable to forgive the French for surrendering to the Nazis during World War II. What’s more, they are envious of its reputation as the world’s most romantic nation.
The younger British think that ‘the frogs’ are simply snobs who pretend that they can’t speak English when in fact they can and they resent them for their ability to eat croissants for breakfast, plus two three-course sauce-laden meals a day, while still staying slender.
In the eyes of the French, the British are an insular, island people, lacking in finesse who back-pack around the world. And they believe their giant superiority complex leads them to infect culturally-pure societies with vulgar Anglo-American culture. They resent Britain for behaving like America’s 51st state and, in recent times, for its role in the US-led invasion of Iraq that was bitterly opposed by the then French President Jacques Chirac. But, for most, an even worse ‘crime’ is the fact that the British lack dress sense. “Some French women find it liberating to live in a country where nobody cares what they are wearing,” writes French journalist Hortense de Monplaisir in The Times. “But personally I find it depressing. When you walk down a street in England, you might just as well be dressed like a fright because nobody is going to look at you.”
She thinks, “it’s a protestant thing. Vanity is despised. Appearances don’t matter”. She says British woman don’t know how to showcase their charms and she quotes an old French joke: ‘What do you call a beautiful woman in London? Answer: a tourist’’.
It may sound a bit harsh, but the fact that such a joke exists at all is indicative of how much venom the French reserve for their ‘English rose’ cousins.
On the political front, the UK and France have frequently crossed swords in the EU over Britain’s monetary contribution to the European body. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when British parliamentarians were blaming the French for blocking a second UN Security Council resolution authorising military action, and US senators were pouring French wine down the drain and renaming French fries ‘freedom fries’ as part of an anti-French protest , British politicians and newspapers were openly vitriolic about the French government’s stance.
The Sun nicknamed President Jacque Chirac ‘The Worm’ while Tony Blair and Jack Straw stirred up anti-French hysteria with suggestions that Saddam could have been ousted without a shot being fired were it not for France’s threatened use of its UN Security Council veto.
Forgive me for using stereotypes. There are numerous exceptions to the above – I’m one of them – but there’s no getting away from it. ‘We’, and by this I mean the French and the British, have little in common politically, culturally or linguistically. In short, we don’t really like each other. We are rivals, which is why the new military détente strikes me as odd to say the least.
This cost-saving pact includes cooperation over nuclear weapons, a joint 10,000-strong expeditionary force, the sharing of aircraft carriers and the joint development of drone aircraft, submarine technology and satellite communications. However, both Cameron and Sarkozy were quick to assert that the pact doesn’t infringe on either country’s sovereignty and does not pave the way for a European army.
But what happens if Britain and France fall out as they did during the 1982 Falklands War when Argentina sank British ships using French missiles? Moreover, Britain could one day find itself uncomfortably caught between competing French and American interests or in a vulnerable position when faced with unexpected hostilities from one of France’s allies.
The establishment of a EU military force, which has often been suggested, would make far more sense. That would provide every EU member country with protection, while precluding Europeans from engaging in pre-emptive wars without an EU consensus or legal cover. Eventually the UK will have to choose between having junior partner status in the special trans-Atlantic relationship and being an equal with its neighbours in the European Union. At a time when it’s winding-down its military prowess, it can’t have both.