An English View of the French Character

Some racially discriminatory thoughts about the French character follow! An American friend emailed from near Paris today to say “Tomorrow is our Independence Day 14 July, and I have a new feeling (of the heart) for France.” I suspect the Americans see the romance of France more readily, and the perfidy less readily, than the English. I am of course aware that perfidy is precisely the quality the French ascribe to the English, but that does not make them free of it!

France is indeed a wonderful country. The English tend to find the French have an infuriating quality, a combination of amour propre, a tendency to cheat at sport, and habit of seducing one’s wife while pretending they are just being friendly, and shrugging their shoulders with an unanswerably mendacious innocency. And yet on another level they have a gloriously civilized approach to life, to food, to sex, even to war, which leaves the English in the dust.

Americans en masse (perhaps not the minority of Americans who visit Europe frequently) turned on the French when they disagreed about foreign policy. French fries (‘chips’ to the British!) were renamed ‘freedom fries’, and the French renamed ‘cheese-eating surrender monkies.’ This recalled seventeenth century English views of the Welsh. Civil War pamphlets, in mock Welsh dialect, often equate the reluctance of the Welsh to fight with cowardice, and refer to their fondness for eating toasted cheese as if it was somehow connected. However, the English love-hate relationship with their neighbours is more chronic than that American flash of rage.

Does Anglicisation of global culture threaten the survival of the Gallic character? No doubt Sarkozy will make France as much like the Anglo-Saxon world as he can, but I doubt it. I rarely go to France and do not really know what is going on but the culture is sufficiently old and vigorous to have some life in it yet, I would have thought.

It does appear to me that the loss of French as the second language of choice in British schools, and the second language of choice for most adult students, (and perhaps as the language of choice for the European Union) makes French culture less visible. The teaching of languages in British schools is meaningless, beyond its symbolic value, but that is worth something: I seem to recall French was compulsory for all, we started at about eight years old with a native-speaker of French as teacher, and other languages were optional extras. But after eight years of near-daily French (and exam success), very few children could speak the handful of words required to communicate effectively with a Parisian waiter. I doubt if language teaching in English schools is much better now.

The deficiency of my own French was illustrated one day whan I was alone in a steak house at Victoria (London), and started talking to the young man at the next table. He said he was French. I told him in French that I thought the French were more civilised than the English. There was some confusion because he understood ‘siphilisé’, but I really had meant ‘civilisé’ So much for the hundreds of hours of French lessons I had undergone. There are many British, even English Francophiles, but our neighbours deserve more awareness.

Since my blog is mainly about Classics, if any classicist is still reading, I would be interested to hear what it is about French scholarship which is distinctive? There is something which makes the work and writing produced by the French different, but I cannot quite put my finger on what it is.

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