Ah, les britanniques

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.

The dog prefers the floor to being British.
Even the dog prefers the floor to being British since Brexit.

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.




19 thoughts on “Ah, les britanniques

  1. I wish I was as optimistic as you about Marine le Pen and next year’s elections.

    25% of Talloires, my sleepy comfortably well-off village on the shores of Lake Annecy, voted Front National in the first round of the regional elections last year.

    I just looked up St Cyr au mont d’or – 18% FN in the first round!

    Marine le Pen is going to ride that anti-EU anti-immigration referendum wave as far as she can and I for one am worried.

    The Brits have just magificently shot themselves in the foot (another great expression)…why not the French next year?

    1. Oh, I’m not. I think FN is an appallingly real risk and I am frightened. I think that the same people who are openly racist, though, know which side their bread is buttered on the EU. So I think that is less of a risk. But yes, I am with you all the way on MLP.

    2. And, just to be clear, I don’t think the self-interest excuses the flirtation with FN. I was just surprised to find that there was so much under the surface in the UK. Thank you for reading!

  2. Excellent post and I agree with you in every way. Here in the South West, I have met with nothing but friendship from all the French, astonishment at how stupid the British have been, yes, but continued support and non stop suggestions that we should just become French!

  3. Not British, I don’t understand Brexit, because the UK always was on the fringes of the EU–not part of the euro, not part of Schengen. For the UK to say they want to sell freely to the EU but none of the other stuff on top of the stuff they already refused, well, no wonder the EU is saying no way.
    The French thing is more cultural. People don’t like pressure to have sex-segregated days for swimming pools. People don’t like burkhas not as a symbol of religion but as a symbol of repression of women. That said, I’m not sure people won’t vote stupidly to “make a point” that will turn around and hurt them.

  4. I think it is something that is being played out across the world – Donald Trump? Spain, Greece. Now Australia as well. There is a big gap between the politicians and the electorate. As one of my French friends wrote quite eloquently –

    “Thinking of the EU, a brilliant idea that utterly failed to market itself to the peoples of Europe.

    Thinking of democracy, the worst form of government except for all the others.

    Thinking ahead. Thinking of Donald Trump and the upcoming US election. Thinking of the general election in Spain in December 2016. Thinking of an usually quiet Marine Le Pen, patiently waiting for the May 2017 election in France.

    1. You are quite right that the sentiments are being played out across the globe. As I said, the latent racism and xenophobia is less latent here in France. France is, however, much more centred on Europe than the UK ever was. Oh, and don’t get me started on Trump… Thank you for dropping by.

  5. This is such an amazing read. I am from somewhere else and my first view of the UK is how welcoming the people are. In my country being from another nation would be really special as we dont get a lot of visitors. The last election really made a lot of people on both sides angry. This is the first time that I have seen so much anger on a lot of people here. But I have only been here 6 years.

    I think its been there for awhile and people are just ignoring it. And like a volcano some erupted. There is something big happening and I dont know what to make of it yet but I am hoping that the leaders would not let the voters down. I hope that the leaders would step up and try to make things better for the people so that the anger that they are feeling would heal.

    Sorry if I am not making any sense.


    1. Thank you for reading! You made perfect sense. I feel quite sad that there was always that pressure building beneath the surface, but that I willfully believed that we were not like that in the UK. I feel cheated and betrayed! I am glad that you have had a good welcome, though.

  6. Great post, and one of the most notable differences between France and the UK with regards to the EU is, in my opinion, that in France, people are relatively well-informed about the positive impact that EU funding has on businesses, the economy etc, and nobody is ashamed of it, it is something to be celebrated and mentioned from the top down. In the UK, the government has done nothing for years but complain about the things they don’t like about the EU but has never made a big deal about how we benefit, and so British are ignorant of how much our standard of living is reliant on being part of the EU. Well, that and so many other reasons that I cannot fathom, including some sort of British Empire heyday wishful thinking…

    1. Thank you for stopping by. And yes, you are right about British ignorance, as is being played out right now across the UK as projects based largely on EU funding falter… And the lack of pride too.

  7. I’d like to think you’re right about the French recognising which side their baguette is buttered – but then, I honestly thought that about the Brits (and so, it appears did most of the “Leave” campaigners!!) and look what happened. I fear for our future as Europeans, here in France, and what will happen when the whole horrible leaving actually comes to pass.

    1. Perhaps you’re right. I think money might win through. It appears that in the UK nobody had the faintest idea, or those who did lacked the sense to argue, that the UK took so much money OUT of the EU. In France, I think people have more of a clue. Then again, the immigration/integration debate is much nastier here, so who knows. Thank you for stopping by.

  8. I think a frog at large is right about more people being informed in France and not being ashamed of the EU but like many other commenters I wish I could share your optimism that France won’t surprise us with any shock decisions just like UK did. I was shocked and saddened by the Brexit vote and disgusted with the racism and hatred thrown into the open and felt profound sadness for the first time ever over a political decision but then the attack happened in Nice on my turf and all thoughts of Brexit went out of the window. I don’t think I’ve ever been more upset with the current situation in the world. Thankfully, from a purely selfish point of view, we left on our summer holidays shortly after the attack and are managing to switch off from horrible world affairs and recharge. Otherwise I think I could have sunk… Thanks for linking this to #AllAboutFrance

    1. I don’t feel particularly optimistic either, Phoebe, but I am trying to keep my chin up. I don’t know what to say to you about Nice really, other than that I am thinking of you.

  9. I still feel ashamed to be English. I’m quite used to changes of government by now – one bunch of people I didn’t much like is replaced by another bunch of people I don’t much like – but this was much worse. The Little Englanders, flat earthers and climate change deniers won by peddling lies and xenophobia, and the people in the deprived areas (Wales, Cornwall, the industrial North and Midlands) who voted to leave will be the ones who lose most as a result.

    Keep up the good work, Emily – you’re always worth reading!

    1. Thank you Alan! I have not been keeping up the good work in August because I have gone native and taken almost an entire month off… I am comforted upon my return to learn that there is a small corner of SW London that remains as civilised as I remember it to have been.

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