About fifteen years ago, I was teaching English in Paris. As a warm-up exercise I’d ask new students to name 10 famous Britons. I kept a sort of league table and the top 10 were: 1) Princess Diana; 2) Tony Blair; 3) Prince Charles; 4) Margaret Thatcher; 5) David Beckham; 6) Mr Bean; 7) Elton John; 8) Benny Hill; 9) Shakespeare; 10) A tie between the Queen, Sean Connery, Sherlock Holmes, Winston Churchill and Jack The Ripper.
Today, Johnson would probably replace Blair and Prince Andrew might just replace his former sister-in-law. Daniel Craig and Harry Kane would be logical substitutes for Connery and Beckham. The rest of the original list would probably still be there or thereabouts, though Harry Potter might edge someone out.
If one were to do the exercise in reverse and ask English students to name 10 famous French people, Macron, De Gaulle and Napoleon would be likely candidates, as would Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette. French culture might not be particularly well represented; Edith Piaf and Johnny Halliday…perhaps Brigitte Bardot and Gerard Depardieu. Sports fans might add Eric Cantona, Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappé. Some wags would no doubt mention Asterix the Gaul.
Generally speaking, the English and French have a broad brush approach when thinking of each others countries. Stereotypes serve a purpose and the popular press is adept at using them. News items covering major events are often illustrated with either berets and tricolours, or bowler hats and union jacks. “Aren’t foreigners funny?” articles appear regularly and are easy space-fillers.
Living in France now, it becomes easier to see how the French view of Britain is formed. When we first arrived, the only UK topic that French people wanted to talk about was Brexit. When they raised the subject (it was always them that raised it; we were sick of it), they would adopt facial expressions that were a mixture of concern and puzzlement, as if asking about an elderly relative of ours that they had not met, but who was rumoured to be mentally ill.
Once Brexit came into being, on January 31st 2020, the French, like most of the rest of Europe, lost interest. Stories about empty supermarket shelves and long lorry queues were met with shrugs and mild amusement. The impact of Covid dominated the news, and the only British angle was the relative success of the two countries in dealing with the virus. For a while, there seemed to be a sort of pendular movement between the two. When the virus was raging in the UK, France seemed to be getting clear, then, slowly, the statistics would move in the other direction. Hopefully, thanks to vaccinations, the crisis is gradually easing in both countries.
In the French media, as the Covid clouds clear, a strange new UK, or rather a strange new England, seems to be appearing. In the musical Brigadoon, a village of that name appeared once every hundred years, totally detached from reality. The England currently being reported seems increasingly to be turning into Brexitoon. While Brigadoon was a romance, in Brexitoon we are watching an odd mixture of Dallas and Downton Abbey.
The queen, now a sad isolated figure, is slowly withdrawing from public life. Recently widowed, she roams from palace to palace around her kingdom. Her favourite son, the Duke of York, once a dashing young war hero, is embroiled in a sex scandal that seems to drag on for ever. Reluctantly she has told him that he is no longer in charge of ten thousand men. In fact, he is no longer in charge of anything. Her eldest son, still heir to the throne but now in his seventies, has troubles of his own. While one of his sons, the bald one, is behaving reasonably well, pottering around in ambulances and helicopters, the other , the one with the strangely red hair, has married an American divorcée and left the country, just like the queen’s naughty Uncle Edward did all those years ago.
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
The queen’s problems continue to multiply. While she was sitting alone at her husband’s funeral and the country was under strict orders not to socialise, it turns out that her disreputable prime minister had been hosting a series of drinking parties – in 10 Downing Street, of all places, He denies it, but she knows that before he became prime minister he had already been sacked twice for lying. Her people are unhappy. The shelves are still empty, and inflation is rising. The red-haired one is about to have a “tell all” book published. A royal wedding would lift the gloom but unfortunately Prince George is only 8…
In this weeks gripping episode of Brexitoon, the prime minister’s career still hangs in the balance as an investigation into the parties is due to be completed. MPs are accused of blackmailing each other, and Liz Truss has warned Vladimir Putin that she has got her eye on him.
The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs
There is talk of pork pie plots and platinum puddings. The French don’t understand half of it but they are lapping it up. Dallas was never this good.
Things I’ve learnt this week:
The 1988 Olympics included the sport of solo synchronised swimming.
‘Son-of-a-bitch stew’ was a cowboy dish made from the internal organs of a whole cow and an onion.
In Old Norse, kveis meant ‘uneasiness after debauchery’.