Fresh look at trends gives lie to stereotypes

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They are our closest neighbours and we have enjoyed scrapping and sparring with them since the Norman invasion. But for all our supposed dislike of the French Glenda Cooper finds that our two nations are a lot closer than we think.

The British think the French are lazy, promiscuous and drink all the time. The French think the British are boring, uptight and don't know how to dress. Les Rosbifs and the Frogs have fought happily for years, glorying in their differences.

But - quelle horreur! - according to the Office for National Statistics, which has collaborated with its French counterpart, the two nations are a lot more similar than they think. It is hard to imagine which nation this will horrify more.

To celebrate the 25 years since the United Kingdom joined the European Union, the ONS has prepared a special article comparing social trends in the two countries. It shows key changes have been "surprisingly similar", according to the survey which is included as part of this year's Social Trends, described as "the biography of the nation".

Both populations have been ageing and have become very close in number, although the population of France is expected to overtake that of the UK by 2000.

For all our insecurity about the supposed French superiority in matters of sex it seems we are very much alike here as well. In both countries the number of marriages has reduced while at the same time the numbers of divorces and births outside marriage have increased sharply.

For both French and English children there is no escape from education. Improving access to non-compulsory education has been a priority in both countries over the last two decades with Britain and France increasing the proportion of children under five attending school as well as an increase in those going on to higher education.

Prejudices also die hard when it comes to learning languages. While nearly nine out of 10 French people considered the teaching of foreign languages as essential or very important, just over half of Britons felt the same way.

Differences remain in the world of work: British full-time workers tend to work longer hours and more regularly at weekends than their French counterparts. French women are more likely to have full time jobs than their British sisters.

Many changes in the labour market have been remarkably similar - with both countries seeing a reduction in the proportion of older men and younger people who are in work. Women on both sides of the channel are now more likely to have jobs than formerly.

In matters of health there are also contrasts. Deaths from cirrhosis and alcoholism remain one of the major causes of premature death for French men, although they have fallen in the last two decades.

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