Admit It: They Are Better Than Us: Insulting the French Is a Habit That Dates Back to George III. Stop It Now, Demands Jonathan Fenby

By Fenby, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), January 21, 2002 | Go to article overview

Admit It: They Are Better Than Us: Insulting the French Is a Habit That Dates Back to George III. Stop It Now, Demands Jonathan Fenby


Fenby, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


Whatever his other lapses, Prince Harry is a chip off the old block in one respect. The "fucking frog" insult he is reported to have levelled at a French chef at his local pub can claim direct descent from his great-grandfather at sixth remove, George III, who instructed the boys at Eton to learn to "hate the French". In both cases, the words seem to come naturally: in 2002 as at the end of the 18th century, there is nothing the British love so much as to take pot-shots at the people across the channel.

Even the tabloids have finally given up portraying the Germans as goose-stepping closet Hitlers; Italians are seen through the prism of Chiantishire, rather than as bottom-pinching ice-cream merchants; Spaniards are no longer "dagos"; and jokes about the Irish ran out of steam before the turn of the century.

But the French are different: l'exception francaise proclaimed by the heirs of Joan of Arc and charles de Gaulle is a source of constant baffled resentment to the British-- or perhaps, in light of the auld alliance, just to the English.

In need of a modern historical put-down? Refer to the defeat of 1940 and what followed. Culture? Dismiss France as a desert that hasn't produced a decent film/book/play for as long as anybody can remember. The media? Note the paucity of French national papers, and add, with a chuckle, that they could do with a Sun or two. As for gastronomy, everybody knows that one eats better in London than in Paris these days, and that French cuisine is badly cooked, bland and lacking in creativity.

contrast the fascistic repression of Paris with the let-it-all-hang-out liveliness of London; and as for that guff about -- noblesse oblige, politesse and raffinement, we all know that the French are rude, inconsiderate and selfish, taking particular pleasure in unleashing their Least attractive characteristics on longsuffering Brits.

In the time-dishonoured tradition of racial stereotyping, this, and much more, depends on a few generalised instances. Vichy was two generations ago, and the French media show an interest in the world that is increasingly rare here. Being a city that works hardly makes Paris a temple of fascism, nor does a failure to write in English mean that French literature is dead. A few highly starred restaurants in London cannot outweigh the legion of French establishments that nurture culinary standards in a way undreamed of in Britain.

But you don't even have to cross the Channel to play the game. This month, Julian Barnes has become a surrogate punching bag with the publication of a collection of essays on France. French esteem for Barnes was taken by several reviewers to be a sure sign that he is deeply suspect - along with Ken Loach, who may, according to one critic, owe his popularity in France to the way his films make Britain look like a dump.

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