May 2006 Journal

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French Connections

The refugees from Central Europe have often acted as a bridgehead between Britain, their adopted country, and the cultures and peoples of the Continent. Less prone than the native Brits to fits of insular super-patriotism, they may also be inclined to look more generously on our neighbours across the Straits of Dover than is currently the mood among much of the population, influenced by the tabloid press. Anti-French feeling has long been a staple of British nationalism, especially when that national feeling is fuelled by an underlying sense of insecurity. That has been the case for some decades now, as Britain, having lost its empire and its role as a global power, has struggled to redefine its position in the world, and its relationship with Europe in particular.

The common perception that France has been notably more successful than Britain in achieving its European objectives has led to a confused sense on this side of the Channel that the French have slyly gained an advantage over the British in such areas as agricultural subsidies, beef bans or Eurojobs in Brussels. This inchoate feeling of indignation at having somehow been outwitted has found expression in a series of anti-French headlines, typified at gutter level by The Sun's 'Hop Off, You Frogs' and 'Up Yours, Delors' (Jacques Delors being the then President of the European Commission). It is, of course, impossible to imagine this sort of crude jingoistic insult appearing in the French or German papers - they are far too civilised for that.

Also much cultivated in the anti-European press is the image of France as the 'historic foe' of Britain. To those familiar with the uglier undercurrents of German nationalism in the pre-1914 era, this comes uncomfortably close to the image of the French as the 'Erbfeind' of Germany - cunning Latin plotters whose aim, constant over generations, was to keep Germany divided or, after unification, to undo the glorious achievement of Germanic nationhood. It is also historically illiterate. To cast France as Britain's consistent foe is to ignore two centuries of evidence, as the two countries have not been at war since the Battle of Waterloo (1815). On the contrary, in all three major European conflicts in which both countries have since been participants - the Crimean War and the First and Second World Wars - they have fought on the same side.

Francophobes would do well to remember that it was the French army that bore the brunt of fighting the German war machine to a halt in 1914-18, rather as the Red Army did in 1941-45. Far from France being in semi-permanent conflict with Britain to its north-west, it was from the east that the great threat to France emerged in the nineteenth century. In the 70 years between 1870 and 1940, France suffered no less than three major invasions by German forces, starting with the Franco-Prussian war. These invasions from the German side of the Rhine even passed into common British discourse, most famously in the First World War soldiers' song 'Mademoiselle of Armentières', which begins 'Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine, Parlez-vous' (and is thereafter unrepeatable in a family magazine).

High-octane nationalism, especially when fired by a sense of national grievance or failure, tends to attach its own prejudices and obsessions to the foes of its choice, thereby creating a bogeyman that is in reality a mirror image of itself. This is true of present-day British Francophobes, who are apparently convinced that the wicked French are as unrelentingly hostile to Britain and British interests as they themselves are to France. Apart from the historical considerations already mentioned, it is obvious from a glance at the map that Britain mostly does not rank anywhere near top in French external priorities. France has no land border with Britain, but it does have substantial land borders with the three other major Western European powers - Spain, Italy and Germany - as well as with Belgium, Switzerland and Luxemburg. The immediate impact of the British on France occurs in a peripheral northern region, the Pas-de-Calais, where the principal centres of population are Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk; one might compare these with ports of entry like Hull or Newcastle. The nearest large city, Lille, looks to Flanders and the north-east, not to Britain, as its architecture shows only too plainly; the 'beffroi' (belfry) is a feature common to the entire lowland area on either side of the Franco-Belgian border.

French sensitivities to relations with Italy and Spain have been very evident in the modern era. France has been actively addressing its relations with Italy ever since Napoleon III's ill-considered military intervention in the cause of Italian unification in 1859. It was the prospect of the accession to the Spanish throne of a prince from the House of Hohenzollern, the Prussian royal family, thereby giving the principal German power a potential base south of the Pyrenees, that triggered the war between France and Prussia in 1870. The only invasion of France mounted from Britain in modern times was carried out under American command, and was aimed at restoring French sovereignty from Nazi occupation.
Anthony Grenville`

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