Britain and France: best enemies?

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Au cours des derniers siècles, les relations franco-britanniques ont fréquemment été hostiles, notamment à cause des nombreuses guerres qui ont marqué leur histoire commune. Aujourd’hui, si les Français ont plutôt une bonne opinion de leurs voisins britanniques, les Anglais ont tendance à entretenir une certaine francophobie et les derniers propos du patron de John Lewis début octobre en sont la preuve…

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Back from Paris where he was attending the World Retail Congress, John Lewis’s managing director Andy Street said France was “sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat” and told the British investors to pull money out of French businesses because France was “finished”.

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In those comments reported by the Times, Mr Street even mocked the award he received in Paris on behalf of John Lewis. He clearly provoked a scandal in France as his reprimands created quite a stir on social media. He was thus forced to apologise on October 3rd and admitted he had gone too far.

But the harm had already been done. The incident seems to have rekindled old feelings of rancour. To respond to those criticisms, the French embassy in the UK pointed out that France remains the fifth biggest country for foreign direct investment.

Is France really “finished”?

According to John Lewis’s boss, nothing works in France and no one really cares about it. If people compare France to the UK on the economic front,  the eurozone’s second largest economy is surely struggling for growth. The GDP is flat compared to the UK’s 3.2% annual growth. Yet, the UK has its problems too. In fact, Britons are less productive than the French and they pay more of their earnings on childcare. University tuition fees are much higher in the UK. Finally, even if Street seemed not impressed by French food or wine, France has almost four times the number of Michelin-star restaurants as the UK.

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This new scandal is a new episode in a long series of Franco-British squabbling…

The hate-love relationship between the two neighbours

Britain and France have often fought, from the battle of Hastings in 1066 to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. They fought during the wars between Henri II and Louis VII, the hundred-year war, the wars of Spanish and Austrian succession, the seven-year war or the Napoleonic wars. Each country aimed at gaining more influence and territories than the other. Each yearned for more power.

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And with good reason! Indeed, the French blamed Britain for burning Joan of Arc, for its transatlantic preference rather than the deepening of the European partnership, for its support of the USA during the Iraq war or for the way English has contaminated the French language. On the other side of the Channel, Britons mocked French pedantry, criticised de Gaulle’s veto on British European Economic Community membership or the fact that France maintained its ban on British beef for three years after the EU decided the mad cow disease was not a threat anymore. Even if the military conflicts seem to have definitely come to an end, the rivalry between the two countries has moved on to political, economic and cultural battlefields.

However, Franco-British relations do not boil down to mere spats. Britain and France formed the Entente Cordiale in 1904 to overcome their feuds and unite against the German threat. They also struggled side by side during the World Wars. London welcomed General de Gaulle in June 1940, the BBC helped him broadcast his famous speech. Before returning to France, De Gaulle even said to a British journalist “Nobody’s more friendly than your people”. More recently, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy signed the Landcaster House Treaties in 2010 for defense and security cooperation and both countries formed an alliance for an intervention in Libya in 2011. France and Britain are capable of putting their differences aside in case of absolute necessity.

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In fact, French and English bashing are a kind of national sport in both countries, which reveals their special and ambiguous relation. The two countries have always been quite similar in broad outline, and their friendly competition seems to be a way of differing themselves from the rival “frenemy”.  And as is often said, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.

Claire ALVES & Emeline CARPENTIER

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