On any given holiday in France – and there have been many in our family - I always ponder what the French truly think of les rosbifs, the Brits. Personally, I cannot for one moment take offence at that moniker bestowed on our nation; to be compared to a nice joint of beef for Sunday lunch, roasted with a little bit of pink in the middle, washed down with drop of claret – well, probably more than a drop – is a badge ofhonour, not an insult.
Of course, we all know what we think of the French. They talk a lot, they gesticulate a lot, they shrug a lot, they drink pastis and smoke Gauloises for breakfast, they take to the streets in protest at the drop of a chapeau, they only work a 24-hour week and retire when they’re 45, they are inveterate amoureaux, they are excitable and illogical, they kiss a lot, they believe de Gaulle singlehandedly won the Second World War…. and they don’t play cricket.
Yet, we know this not to be true. Well, it could be a little bit true, but scratch beneath the surface and you recognise that this picture is a lazy national caricature. Yes, they do drink pastis, yes, they do openly protest against some of their government’s policies, yes, they do seem to work a shorter week and retire earlier than us and so on and so forth, but so what? Vive la difference! They are not rude and off-hand. In fact, I find them, by and large, extremely polite and accommodating. The trick is to try and say a few words in French and they will probably answer you in better English than your French, and then treat you with amused tolerancewhilst maybe sharing a little joke with you. What they do notlike – and who can blame them – is visitors to their country, dressed in loafers, salmon pink chinos and linen shirts with one button too many undone, who address them in braying English, without so much as a s’il vous plait or a merci beaucoup. No doubt we would bristle if a stranger to these shores demanded service in a foreign tongue, loudly and insistently, without a word of English, because, of course, to our shame, few of us speak a second language.
Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that de Gaulle repeatedly and insistently said non to our requests to join the Common Market. Perhaps le grand general in the kepi, with the pencil moustache and the haughty bearing, knew more about the British than we thought. After all, it was we, who eventually joined in 1975, who said non 45 yeas later. De Gaulle, who assumed ogre-like status in this country on account of his intransigence and his overtly patriotic utterances, is perhaps unjustly demonised on this side of the English Channel (or La Manche, as our neighbours prefer to call it). France, after its capitulation to the Germans in 1940, was a humiliated and dispirited nation. De Gaulle understood that she needed to resurrect herself when victory in Europe was achieved and the only way to restore her pride and sense of self-worth was to create a myth, that she had resisted German occupation and freed herself of the Nazi yoke by her own efforts. To Churchill, Roosevelt and Eisenhower, he may have been insufferably arrogant, even a bit delusional (“France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war” and “I was France”, par example), but they understood that post 1945, the country needed a strong ruler to rebuild her from the dust and the ruins.
It was not true he lacked a sense of humour. I loved this comment by him:
“When I am right, I get angry. Churchill gets angry when he is wrong. We are angry at each other much of the time.”
Actually, I think he and Churchill were cut from the same cloth, both having an untroubled sense of their own destiny.
So, what do the French think of us? We don’t wash (not sure where that one came from). Our food is terrible. We drink to excess and spoil for a fight. Our dress sense is deplorable, and we go bright pink in the sun. We lose at football (and rugby). Cricket? We play for five days, with breaks for lunch and tea – naturellement - and still there is no result to the game. We drive on the wrong side of the road. We are an island with an islander’s insularity and aloofness. We are not truly European. We don’t even share the currency of the rest of the continent. Les Anglais? They think they rule the world and that everybody else should speak English.
We don’t really recognise this in ourselves, even though there might be a smidgen of truth in the observations. Let us put to one side the image of the English hooligan that has left a trail of destruction in his wake in football stadiums throughout Europe (though if you are the owner of a local tabac that has been trashed by English football fans, putting it to one side might be a little difficult). The fact is that many more Brits visit France than French visit England. Likeable or otherwise, we tourists greatly aid the French economy. Many small businesses and hospitality outlets went to the wall during Covid, when British visitors were conspicuous by their absence. So, let’s have a bit more entente cordiale and less harking back to centuries-old enmity of Agincourt, Crecy and Waterloo. (I have a French friend, who when she was reminded that it was the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, responded, “Waterloo? I ‘ave never ‘eard of it. Ees a train station, n’est ce pas?”)
I believe it is incumbent upon all of us who visit another country to be polite, to be respectful of native culture and practice and at the very least to take the trouble to memorise a word or two of the local lingo. For a resident in a foreign country, however, the rules of etiquette fundamentally change. First, you should learn the language. And secondly, you should do your very best to integrate into the community. I am not suggesting you should don a beret, commandeer a tractorand drive it down the autoroute at 5mph with a string of onions around your neck, waving the tricolour and singing the Marseillaise at the top of your voice, but some effort to assimilate will put you in good odour with the locals (who like onions anyway).
In this regard, I take as a shining example my sister (as I do in all things!). Late in life, she decamped to France with her husband…for the long haul. We talk about la France profonde. There was nowhere in France more profonde that the small hamlet in Dordogne where they lived. They painstakingly restored a derelict barn as their home and in so doing were determined to integrate fully into village life. Mind you, there were not many villagers to integrate with; there did not seem to be much more than a dozen families living there. None spoke a word of English, so my sister had no option but to learn the language, which she did, notwithstanding her unreconstructed English accent, something which her neighbours found tres charmant. So much part of village life did she fit that she was elected on to the French equivalent of our parish council, known as the local commune. Not many foreigners are so honoured. Better to have the enemy within the tent, and all that, a quip which she took in good heart. To be brutally honest, few Brits living in France would be so inclined, even if they could be bothered.
My brother is still living in France. On his retirement, he and his wife went to live in Beam, in the lee of the distant Pyrenees. He was a French teacher, so he is fluent in the language, but not the patois of the region, Bearnese, which he struggled to understand but which he was determined to master. He now reckons he can converse reasonably comfortably in the local dialect. They too live in a remote area, with no Brits resident anywhere nearby and have thrown themselves headfirst into local politics, customs and divertissement. There is nowhere they would rather live, in spite of, or maybe because of, their remoteness. They are accepted in the community; they are not your typical aloof English. He has even been brave, or foolhardy, enough to stick his finger into a wasps’ nest. He is writing a book on the French Resistance in the area during the War. Good luck with that, bro. There are families who still shun each other in the village because they fell on different sides during the Vichy government; those who were collaborateurs and those who supported the Resistance. Old resentment and bitterness are slow to die. Hatred seems to be passed down from generation to generation. How sad, how very sad. But let no-one in this country believe that our behaviour would have been any different. We were never invaded. We never had to live under the jackboot.
But to more pleasant commentary….I happened to fall into conversation the other day when in France on holiday with a lady who was selling wine at a local vineyard in the Bergerac region. Once I had discovered she came from Manchester, the rest of our chat – naughtily, in view of what I have just been saying – was conducted in English. What prompted her, I wanted to know, to abandon the North-West of England for the Dordogne. She gave a smile as if to suggest that the answer probably lay in the question. The weather, for a start. It was hot and sunny outside whereas currently Storm Betty (whoever thinks of these ridiculous names?) was battering the west coast of England. The food was another attraction. That I had no issue with, though the standard of British cooking has improved over the years. Still, haute cuisine it is not. The wine. English wine, especially the white and the fizzy stuff, produced on the chalk hills of Surrey and Kent, is gaining a good reputation, but you feel there are several centuries of catching up to do. The people, the pace of life, the daily routine – all seem so much more congenial in France, she said. Are you comparing them to the Mancs, I cheekily asked, or the rest of the UK. She laughed, but I took her point. She gave a convincing Gallic shrug. “Tell me,” she concluded, “What’s not to like?”