The historian Theodore Zeldin once wrote a book about the French in which he said that all our ideas about the French were wrong. Oh, they may have been right once, but they were now bady out of date, like most stereotypes. To illustrate this, he pointed to the way we still persist in picturing a Frenchman wearing a beret, carrying a baguette, etc.
In fact, said Zeldin, the beret was a passing fad which started life as a Basque habit and reached its peak in the 1920s. Since then the beret has dropped in popularity in France year by year, and to prove it he quoted statistics of beret production in France year by year, and sure enough they went down and down and down. Our view of the French as beret-wearers (and onion-sellers and baguette-carriers and accordion-players) is way out of date.
But then so is the French view of the British. Look at a French cartoon of an Englishman, and what do you see? You see a besuited City gent with furled umbrella and bowler hat. Now, I haven’t looked at the statistics for the manufacture of bowler hats in Britain, but I am willing to bet that it tails off as dramatically as beret manufacture in France. You do very occasionally see an old-style businessman wearing a bowler hat in London, and very odd it looks too, even to an Englishman. Bowler hats, surely, are more commonly worn by people on parades in Northern Ireland...
If you want to get a truer view of what separates the French and the English, you have to go beyond the clichés. In fact, you have to stand the clichés on their head. The French, for instance, think that we British are unemotional, tight-lipped, unfeeling. There is a story told by the French about two English lords (they also think we are all lords) sitting in a West End club together, and after a long period of silence one says to the other: ‘Sorry to hear you buried your wife the other day’. After a pause the other replies: ‘Had no choice, old boy. She was dead.’
Well, yes, we did tend to button up our feelings in the past, but on the other hand we have more recently pioneered the art of football hooliganism, which involves abandoning all control whatsoever, and we also seem to be world leaders in the art of road rage, which is an equally fairly unbuttoned activity. So are we buttoned up or aren’t we?
Similarly when it comes to the French, it has always been a cliché in sport that French rugby players show wonderful flair, and spontaneity, but are useful for little else, as they always lose heart when the chips are down. Everyone knows this. The French have flair but none of our bulldog application. Which doesn’t explain the fact that the French have emerged as the best organised, most industrious, wonderfully integrated rugby side of any in Europe. Flair be damned - their side is the well-oiled machine that the English XV would love to be!
But the French have always had more organisation than we give them credit for. We like to think of them as woolly thinkers, full of theory and hot air, which they can be, but when the French want to do something, they get a plan going and then they carry out the plan a lot better than we do. That is why they have a fast rail link from Paris to the Channel Tunnel and we have nothing. That is why they have a successful nuclear energy industry. That is why they have a good rugby team...
Another cliché is that the French are slightly oily charmers. Think of Maurice Chevalier, Sacha Distel, Antoine de Caunes... But back home in France the image of all these people is quite different. Chevalier was an actor and singer - his Gallic charm cut no ice in France. Distel was a serious musician - he used to top jazz guitar polls in France. Antoine de Caunes is a stand-up comedian in France... it is we British who have been lured into seeing them as charmers.
But then the British are suckers for overseas innovations. I don’t think the French fall in love with foreign imports nearly as easily as we do. The British buy foreign cars, foreign food, foreign machinery, even foreign beers, for heaven’s sake, without thinking. The French tend to buy French much more. I once asked in a French grocery for some Parmesan cheese. They had never heard of it. I explained that it was the best Italian cheese you could get. Italian cheese! they exclaimed. Who would want Italian cheese? What it is like, this Italian cheese? I explained what it was like and they speedily found a French equivalent.
I also once asked a French wine merchant if he stocked any Australian wines.
‘Do they make wine in Australia?’ he asked, seriously.
Well, they know differently now, because French wines have taken a beating internationally from New World wines, but I wager that the French still don’t bother to drink imported wines. They have convinced themselves that they are the centre of the world, wine-wise, and it is only our own fault if we see it differently. They still think that Paris is the art centre of the world, and although France hasn’t produced a single important artist since the War (can you think of any living French painter ?) we still believe that Paris IS the art capital of the world. We believe that Paris is the fashion capital of the world. And the intellectual capital of the world, even though Jean-Paul Sartre died years ago...
Yes, the French are very clever at PR. They must be, otherwise we wouldn’t believe that the French are the best lovers, and the best chefs, and the most stylish dressers... I have once, and only once, met a Frenchman who thought that the English were better at a lot of these things. He was an Anglophile who visited England as often as possible.
‘Good for you,’ I said. ‘But you are an exception. Not many Frenchmen think like you.’
‘Ah, well,’ he said, ‘that is because the French do not know the English first-hand. The English do not come and see us very much. We know the Germans much better. In fact, we have an arrangement with the Germans whereby they come and invade us and live here for five years every fifty years or so, and make us work for them, while they sleep with our women... so you see, we know them much better.’
For a moment I was gobsmacked. Then I realised that he was making a joke. A good, rather dark joke, but a genuine French joke. Yes, the French do have humour as well - or at least, they have wit. They like to tease sense around until it is back to front, whereas we like to subvert it altogether. We could not produce Voltaire, they could not produce Lewis Carroll. Nonsense is anathema to them. I once found a book of Edward Lear poems in a French second-hand bookshop. It had been there for five years, the owner informed me, during which time many people had looked at it, few had laughed and nobody had bought it.
It was a Frenchman who said: ‘What’s the point of getting your hair cut? It only grows again.’
It was an Englishman who said: ‘It is better to have loved a short man, than never to have loved a tall.’
I do not believe either nation could have said the other.
We are very different from the French. That is why we are obsessed with them. We are very like the Germans. That is why we find the Germans so boring. If you don’t believe me, then explain to me why we go on holiday to France so much, and so little to Germany.
March 3 1998
Summer edition of Voyage, Brittany Ferries magazine.