Eh alors, qu’est-ce que vous avez fait vous britanniques ? Every time that someone has asked me that question since last week, a small corner of my heart has rejoiced in the knowledge that, finally, I have graduated from Anglo-Saxon to Briton. It is just a shame that I have finally been given a reasonable label at the very same moment that I wish most fervently to distance myself from the people I share it with.
I am ashamed to be British at the moment. Not simply because of the worldwide publicity surrounding our suicidal decision to leave the European Union, but also because the news reports emerging from England in the wake of the Brexit vote portray a country that I do not recognise. It is a country that holds dear none of the values that I have been writing about in this blog. How can I possibly bleat on about diversity, integration, and cosmopolitan values, when people are being told to “f*** off back to Africa, you p***” on commuter trams in Manchester?
In France, cultural differences have always seemed to me to be worn close to the surface. Thus nobody ever considered whether or not they were causing offence by describing me as being Anglo-Saxon. I still cannot imagine an equivalent tag being applied to French people in England (who loftily addresses a French person as a “Gaul”, for example?).
This French unabashed public acknowledgement—and sometimes mistrust—of cultural differences can yield results, which, for the politically correct Brit, are somewhat uncomfortable. Take the decision last year to legitimise school meals with no pork-free option, for example, which seemed to inspire certain mayors to create meals where all three courses were constructed solely with pork products on the first day when they were entitled to do so. This defiant display of pig-eating was for me the adult equivalent of a small child who has just won an argument waggling their fingers in their ears and blowing raspberries at their vanquished opponent. Not cricket.
Just a month ago I sat smugly at a dinner party table, listening to someone denounce the burka with considerable force, and declare their perfect conviction that a French person should have the right to rip it forcefully off its wearers in the street. What ever happened to liberté ?, I asked at the time, convinced that I had the killer argument. Surely banning the burka was the ultimate symbol of a nation prepared to embrace freedom for its indigenous people but derisive of it when it came to those from outside? In the UK, I preached, we let other cultures express themselves and that enriched our own culture. We had nothing to fear from people who were different…
Now I watch news reports from my country with a creeping sense of alarm. It seems that the functioning toleration I have always advocated was a mere veil (if you will excuse the pun) across a seething and barely concealed cauldron of racial hatred, petty xenophobia, mutual suspicion, and nastily-expressed egotism. The country about which I felt such a poignant nostalgia just a few weeks ago is not the country that I see making the headlines around the globe.
I feel, therefore, as if, in the wake of the Brexit referendum vote, my French friends and acquaintances have the perfect right to mock me, and to reproach me for my dolt-headed championing of British culture: perhaps I will even allow them a triumphal bim. No, they might never have been prepared to tolerate difference in their midst, but at least they were honest about that. For it transpires that, whatever my naïve delusions, us Brits were guilty of hypocrisie all along. We were only ever pretending to be the good guys.
In fact, far from being mocked, criticised or stamped on whilst I was down, I have been overwhelmed by expressions of support and sympathy from the friends I have made here. J’ai honte, I say, and they shrug: mais ce n’est pas ta faute. Ça pourrait arriver même en France.
Although I am grateful for the solidarity, I disagree. Marion Le Pen may have hailed the UK’s decision as the way forward for France, and the far right Front National may be alarmingly popular here, but France is too conscious of the benefits it reaps from its EU membership to vote itself out.
It would be impossible to live in the French countryside without acknowledging the safety net that the EU provides to French farmers (and which they will readily go on strike to protect). Struggling regions have a very clear idea about the side on which their bread is buttered. Travel to the Beaujolais, to take just one small example, and everyone acknowledges with pride that their project to try to boost the local economy and attract newcomers, Beaujolais Vert Votre Avenir, would have made precious little headway without generous EU support. Even if some French people have views on race that would make you shudder, naked self-interest would prevent them from biting off the hand that fed them.
Not so in the UK, of course. The mind could but boggle as Doncaster, which voted 69% to 31% for Brexit, suddenly started scrabbling around in a desperate bid to plug the £133 million hole in its finances which would be left when EU funding was withdrawn. The people of that town had voted against the appalling levels of deprivation they were experiencing by depriving themselves of the one source of hope that remained.
No, you can accuse the French of many things, but perversely engineering their own misery is not one of them. Perhaps Doncaster, and all panicking British towns like it, serve as a good illustration of the reason why there is no serviceable French equivalent to our old adage about cutting off your nose to spite your face.