LONDON — France is in everybody’s bad books. In Washington, France has been dismissed — along with Germany — as “Old Europe,” paralyzed by traditional views and unable to come to terms with the security imperatives of the global age. In London, anti-French feeling has been building up in official circles, with reports of harsh words between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, mostly about differing views of Europe’s development and differing attitudes to the United States.
In recent days, the London fury has been compounded by a number of factors. First, there are the continuing differences over Iraq, with the French remaining, at least on the surface, deeply hostile to the use of force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Chirac and his colleagues continue to make no secret of their view that Blair is U.S. President George W. Bush’s poodle and that American policy, supported by Britain, is, in the words of one French minister, nothing but “an undisguised drive for global supremacy, based on oil and gas.”
Second, there is anger in Britain that the French president has invited Robert Mugabe, the butcher of Zimbabwe, to Paris for a conference on African affairs — a move that the British regard as in direct defiance of the attempt to isolate Mugabe and his regime and prevent him and his senior colleagues from traveling in the European Union, or anywhere else.
Third, the moves by both France and Germany, acting in concert and without consulting others, to take EU integration far further and faster than many Europeans, especially the British, care for, is seen as an open attempt to hijack the European process and leave the British out in the cold.
This harsh viewpoint has in turn provoked a counteralliance of eight European nations that fully support the American stance, led by Spain, Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Britain along with newcomers Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic — a sort of incipient rival Europe that excludes France and Germany and that could have great significance for the future.
In short, Paris and London are definitely going through one of those periods of coolness and irritation that have characterized Anglo-French relations since time immemorial. Yet there is something odd and unreal about this apparent standoff. Officials may argue publicly and then brief the media, which obligingly carry rude headlines about the French government and its attitudes.
But, in contrast, down at the level of everyday life Britain and France seem to be getting closer than ever. Richer Britons have, of course, long been acquirers of elegant properties in France for their holidays. But now the habit has spread to almost all income groups.
Driven by amazingly cheap air flights to a growing number of remoter towns in France, the British have been snapping up French properties as never before, and not just for holidays but for permanent residence. Areas around small cities like Limoges, Bergerac, Poitiers or Chambery, once considered too remote for access by foreigners, are now seeing soaring house prices as the British arrive in the thousands. A second home in France has become every Briton’s ideal.
The reality is that the British today love France as never before. A weekend in glittering, elegant, timeless Paris is still one of the most exotic breaks an Englishman, or woman, can contemplate. Even a short day trip across the Channel lifts the British soul. It also helps the British pocket by opening the way to the purchase of almost unlimited wines and spirits at rock-bottom prices in French supermarkets. The very nearness of France, now only a short rail journey through the Channel Tunnel, makes the total contrast of atmosphere, the different smells, tastes and sounds, all the more attractive, almost intoxicating.
Much more than that, the British remain dazzled by French culture, by French art and by French women. This of course is nothing new; the British have been copying French trends in fashion and art for 300 years. When the French, led by Napoleon, “discovered” Egypt, British furniture and design rapidly followed the designs that flooded Paris. When the French fell in love with everything Japanese during the Belle Epoque at the end of the 19th century, again the British followed soon after.
As one Englishman wrote, “France is an idea, necessary for civilization.”
Most British people would still agree with that. It is a view that survived constant wars in the 18th century and endless blunders through history by France’s leaders — from Napoleon’s grandiose threats to invade Britain in the 19th century and the disastrous assault on Bismarck’s Germany in 1870, ending in French humiliation, to Vichy betrayal and treachery in the 20th century. And it will certainly survive sharp policy disagreements today.
In the end, as one U.N. official has observed, when it comes to war with Iraq, the French will be there. France, and the French approach to affairs, are central, inescapable features of the global scene. And so, it seems, are the squabbles between Britain and France that seem to boil up from time to time.
It is all part of a timeless love-hate relationship between the British and the French. The hate, or perhaps it is anger, may be more visible at the moment, but the love is stronger, and will certainly return and continue in full force, as it has always done in the past. There is no future for anyone in Europe without a prosperous, thriving and fascinating France.
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