The French gently mocked the pop-singer Petula Clarke on French media in the 1970s for her contortions about her heart being English but her soul French, or was it the reverse? But however much the British metropolitan classes may cloy to France as a mythical ‘world they have lost’, the French perceive the Franco-British relationship very differently. Competition is the watchword. And it is sharp. General de Gaulle the most acute of politicians and contriving of historians remarked, when French policy in the 1960s called for Britain to be rejected from the Common Market: ‘Our hereditary enemy, it was not Germany, but England.’ Leaving aside the centuries old clichéd rivalry from William the Conqueror to the Entente Cordiale versus the millions of French deaths from three German-provoked wars in seventy years, the modern focus of Franco-British rivalry is on comparative GDP, public debt and, flippant as it may seem, rugby. But most recently it is on Covid-19 statistics.
For anyone living in France with a pulse on their media Britain is the major comparator and for obvious reasons: same 67 million population, GDP, permanent UNSCR membership, nuclear and military assets and historic rivalry (Germany is in a different league). But it is the small competitive advantages that truly irk on both sides of the Channel. Covid is the new field on which the age-old game is played out. The competition with Britain has been a roller-coaster: the French worst hit, then Britain. Now in the last few days France is moving towards a second wave with daily infections at a post lockdown record approaching 3000, way above the UK’s tally. As a consequence the British government has removed France from its safe travel list. The result has been outrage by French authorities. France’s European affairs minister tweeted that the government regretted the British decision adding that it would ‘lead to a reciprocal measure’. The Dutch government - similarly targeted – ruled out tit-for-tat measures. At stake for the French is not merely the 400,000 British holidaymakers in France, but French national pride at being labelled (again) among the least successful Covid states. The French make no bones about declaring areas of other states ‘no go’ areas, such as much of Spain, but for France nationally to be put on the naughty step is too much, especially when it smacks of precocious Brexit.
So will they retaliate in kind to save face? Unlikely if their rising numbers really do signal a second wave while Britain’s remain under control. But should the French rein in the numbers successfully Britain can expect a blast of French sullenness in areas such as cross-Channel immigration control.
All of this recalls the great patriotic nineteenth century historian Jules Michelet explaining how important French animosity towards Britain was in French nation-building:
‘The struggle against England has done France a very great service by confirming and clarifying her sense of nationhood. Through coming together against the enemy the provinces discovered that they were a single person. It is by seeing the English close to, that they felt that they were France. It is the same with nations as with the individual ; he gets to know and define his personality through resistance to what is different from himself. He becomes conscious of what he is through what he is not.’