Alix Sharkey
What's that small thing floating in the water? Is it really an island, or a just an over-inflated dinghy? Is it getting closer, or is it drifting off into the Atlantic towards America? Who are those people on board and why do they seem so hysterical? Are they just pretending they can't see or hear us? It's not often that I lie back and think of England, but when I do, these are the questions that spring to mind.

From this side of the Channel, one sees very clearly how the cultural and national insularity of the English print media often verges on paranoia. Remember that nonsense about rabid "European" bats coming through the Channel Tunnel, for example? In whose interest was it to stir upsome anti- European sentiment, at a particularly sensitive moment in the BSE negotiations?

The hysteria surrounding Euro 96 revealed a similar level of desparation. "Football's coming home" we were assured by a cretinous sub-Beatles pop song. Yeah? Well, football came home for just over two hours, sniffed, and headed back to Germany faster than an Andreas Moller penalty. I prayed that England wouldn't win, partly because I'd put a fiver on the French at 10-1 back in March, partly because France had the most exciting and fluid team, but mostly because I wanted to see Jean-Marie Le Pen choke on his words. After their first match, the president of France's extreme- right Front National bemoaned the "collection of foreign players brought together and baptised 'the French national team' " - a reference to the various Frenchmen of Algerian, Tunisian, Armenian, Guyanan, Ghanaian and New Caledonian descent.

I willed the French to win, as I prayed that the English would fail. Not that I believed in God's or Terry Venables's ability to pick a winning team: for me it was a matter of anti-prayer, of counteracting another's petition to a higher power. Every night durinq Euro 96, I'm sure, John Major knelt and prayed for victory, which would have meant sudden death in extra time for New Labour. But I was in a tiny minority. We had to win, it seemed, to prove we are still a mighty country that commands respect on an international stage. "Achtung, Fritz!" bellowed the tabloids. John Bull the guv'nor, right?

It's not just the beer-breathed, belching-and-farting papers that reinforce these attitudes. The BSE crisis has galvanised the English media into jingoistic unity, the broadsheets trivialising the affair with headlines about "Beef Wars" and rhetoric about government "fighting" for British interests - playing into the hands of those Tories whose last-ditch strategy is to demonise the EC, to create a siege mentality that might just get them re-elected. Never mind that the whole despicable mess is down to a government which dragged its feet over domestic legislation to eradicate BSE. Or that, having spread BSE throughout Europe, the British should demand compensation from its partners. Never mind all that - it's Us against Them in the "Beef War". That makes a better headline, right?

Unless, of course, you're looking back at the dinghy from solid ground. In which case it seems perhaps that this brain-rotting disease is not being passed from cows to humans, but the other way around.

Still, at least the British press can criticise its politicians. Here in France, political criticisim is in danger of being stifled. Last year, the Front National launched a propaganda offensive, announcing that it would no longer tolerate being called "extreme right", "racist" or "fascist", and would take legal action against any paper that so defined it. Thanks to an 1851 law giving misrepresented parties the right of response in the paper that defames them, Le Pen and his party have been granted the the space to respond in such papers as Liberation, Charlie Hebdo, Le Monde and L'Evenement du Jeudi.

Rolling with the punches, Liberation reminded its readers that many of Le Pen's FN co-founders were war-time collaborators, and it published an opinion poll stating that the FN was regarded as a party of the extreme right by three-quarters of those polled - including the FN's own voters. The party suffered a further serious blow last week. Le Pen has consistently denied any right-wing or nationalist involvement in the desecration of a Jewish cemetery at Carpentras in 1990, claiming it was part of a "Zionist media conspiracy" to discredit him and his ilk. Last Wednesday a 26-year- old white skinhead confessed to the crime, and led police to arrest two others. All three, former members of the French and European Nationalist Party (PNFE), are in police custody pending charges. The PNFE's slogan is "France first, white forever". Of course, this has nothing to do with the extreme right, and any similarity to any racist or fascist slogans is entirely coincidental, as M Le Pen would doubtless confirm.