En 1966, I taught for a year in a Catholic school in Rennes. The teaching team included a pleasant canon, an elderly man who was very quiet. However, when he passed me on the stairs, he always greeted me with a discreet nod, and whispered softly: “Ah, the treacherous Albion. “ Of course, there is often some truth to the right words. I also had a student who frequently stared at me with outspoken hostility, and he ended up admitting to me that he hated. ” the English “, because her uncle had perished at Mers El-Kebir in 1940, when the Royal Navy sank the French fleet – an operation I had no idea of at the time.
For centuries our two countries have been staunch enemies, and from time to time reluctant allies. Are there two other nations that have fought each other for so long and in so many different theaters? In India, Canada, Africa and America, to name a few. I like to surprise my American friends with this figure: George Washington observed that if 5,000 French had not died fighting for American independence, they would still be under British rule. Even in peacetime, the suspicions that our two nations have about their respective motivations are easily awakened and turned into xenophobia. Right now, we are crossing swords in fishing. A minor issue for the economy of Great Britain, but which arouses passionate reactions from both sides, and which some politicians can only exploit, whether or not they are in need of re-election.
Our respective strengths and weaknesses often mirror each other: French or English, we can be courageous and firm on our principles, and we are just as capable of being untrustworthy and hypocritical. Some of our perceptions of each other are generally outdated, decades old, if not centuries old. We are good at slipping into the role of accuser and offended victim.
Let us recall this strange decision of Churchill after the defeat of France in 1940, when he suggested a Franco-British Union sealing a hypothetical merger of the two countries. De Gaulle, then in London, enthusiastically endorsed this idea, but Pétain replied that it would be “Like being chained to a corpse”. Twenty years later, it was de Gaulle who was unwelcoming when he opposed British prime ministers wishing to join the European Economic Community. The main reason for this rejection was that the English had little mind “Community”. The events of the past five years have proved him right.
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Julian Barnes: “France and Great Britain have fallen back into their old bickering”