“This is quite unacceptable,” the Liberal Democrat leader is supposed to have fumed at the French government.
I don’t know if the French have been chastened by this rebuke, but I think we should urge Nick to relax. Look at the polls. Anyone would think that Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron began that summit with a secret meeting, at which they agreed to help boost the other’s domestic ratings. “I’ll bash you if you’ll bash me,” they said. “Our voters will love it!” And hey presto. The Prime Minister takes a principled opposition to plans for a Fiscal Union (FU), and shoots ahead of poor old Ed Miliband in the polls.
Sarkozy bolsters his own election hopes as he launches an ever-popular tirade against les rosbifs and their appalling belief in free markets. It’s win-win. That is the point about the pantomime xenophobia between the French and the British: it is essentially innocent — or more innocent than almost any other form of xenophobia; because in our hearts, au fond, neither side really believes it. We have to admit there are times when we enjoy a good old orgy of gratuitous Frog-bashing. There are times when we are all prepared to read how our continental cousins are a bunch of garlic-breathing Strauss-Kahns with a deeply suspect interest in structuralism and gloomy films. In this stereotypical world, their women fail to shave their armpits, they have a weird obsession with suppositories and a fanatical lust to eat our children’s ponies.
As for the French view of the British, I am afraid that there are times when they can be heard to say that we have terrible food, that we prefer hot water bottles to sexual intercourse and that most of the men in our ruling class (this was a tart observation by former prime minister Edith Cresson) were not the marrying kind. This is the kind of cheerful abuse that we have been directing at each other for generations, and ever since the battle of Waterloo it has not been meant very seriously.
Deep down, all reasonable English people know that the French have an extraordinary culture, that their understanding of cheese-making is god-given, that they have high-speed trains of a kind we are still trying to imitate and that it is a shame that we (and our children) are so feeble in our mastery of their beautiful language. You can tell that the British secretly love and admire the French by the sheer numbers who go to France for their holidays, and who make their homes in the Dordogne.
As for the French, they know in their hearts that for all the 20th-century misunderstandings between us — Verdun, Mers-el-Kebir, Suez, de Gaulle’s “non” — we remain indispensable allies; and all civilised French people understand that we also have our good points: humour, gardens, custard, pubs, democracy, the theatre and everything else that makes this country great. That is why so many hundreds of thousands of French people have moved to England in the past 20 years, and that is why London is now the sixth or seventh biggest French city on Earth. In fact, there are now so many talented French people living in the English capital that a special MP has just been appointed for outre-manche.
Victor Hugo said something about how the French and the English needed each other, because they both did well from the competition — and he was right. And the final reason to be cool about the gall of Gaul is, of course, that we are not the real object of French wrath. It isn’t Britain whose dithering is causing the continuing and growing uncertainty over the euro. Downing Street is not responsible for the failure to reassure the markets with a credible plan to guarantee the sovereign debt of the peripheral euro nations.
The French are really disappointed with Germany; and it is a golden rule of European politics that when France is angry with Germany, Britain gets the blame. That is because a rant against Germany is a very different thing, with a much heavier charge. Sixty-seven years after the war, the French are facing up to the reality that the European experiment has failed to contain German economic might, and that the Germans are unwilling and unable to help other countries cope with the agony of the euro.
That is what is really making them angry — but that is taboo. Much better to chuck a cow at les anglais.