Tuesday, April 06, 2004

NYT Paris Memo: Since 1066, It Hasn't Always Been Cordial

This profile could only have been written by an ardent American francophile, for making out the British as little more than wannabe Frenchmen who are largely ignored by their Gallic neighbors. Nothing could be further from the truth.

PARIS, April 5 — If the history of British-French relations had begun with the signing of the Entente Cordiale on April 8, 1904, the record would not look too bad.

The agreement led to an easing of the colonial rivalry, alliances against Germany in two world wars and eventual collaboration, tinged with competition, within the European Union.

The problem is that most of the British and French public know "entente cordiale" only as a phrase — and they do not really believe it.

So Queen Elizabeth's state visit to France this week to mark the accord's 100th anniversary is as much an occasion to remember what divides the neighbors as what unites them. And here history began long before 1904.

Since 1066 for the British and the Hundred Years War for the French, the governments and the peoples have viewed one another with a mixture of envy and hostility. And even today, their cordiality often seems to be more out of necessity than conviction.

Yet, relations have also changed fundamentally, not as a result of the Entente Cordiale, but because the D-Day landings 60 years ago persuaded the French that the United States was now the undisputed leader of the English-speaking — "Anglo-Saxon" to the French — world. And if any doubt existed, that status was confirmed when London bowed to American pressure to end the Suez adventure in 1956.

As a result, since then, a basic asymmetry has shaped cross-channel relations: when France looks west, it now sees the United States, not Britain, as its competitor; but when Britain looks east, it still sees France controlling, at times blocking, its relationship with Europe. So, while the French are obsessed with the United States and somewhat indifferent to Britain, the British remain passionate about their love-hate for France.

And on and on it goes. What is it with so many Americans and the urge to belittle Britain? One would think they had chips on their shoulders or something. Whether it's taking sole credit for the spread of the English language - conveniently forgotten just who bequeathed it to them, as well as the fact that it would still be the most widely spoken European language around if America were excluded, thanks to the existence of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and Britain's former African colonies - or portraying World War II as a mostly American enterprise in which the British came along for the ride as sidekicks (ignoring the fact that the British stood alone against Hitler from 1940 to the end of 1941, as well as doing lots of fighting against the Japanese in Southeast Asia), there's a persistent belittling tendency that runs throughout American historiography and reportage on the mother country.

The only explanation I can give for this negativity is that for all of their swagger, a great many Americans still feel a certain sense of cultural inferiority towards the British, and try to make up for it by portraying their closest ally as a has-been country, a tatty old tourist-trap where everyone still speaks like Bertie Wooster and a nice cup of tea is had by all in the afternoon. It isn't only Australians who seem to suffer from the "cultural cringe."