They're not like us, but the idea used to be that they just might be getting that way. Once Euro-people, Frogs especially, had different ways of doing practically everything. Thinking. Law. Food. Dressing. Driving. Everything. But in the 1980s and 1990s, we seemed to be getting the hang of them. Staggering numbers of quite ordinary Brits bought Euro-houses in the country.
As we saw more of them, got Eurostar and budget airlines, so we started saying that abroad didn't smell so foreign any more. The general idea was that it's all been taken over by globalisation. The end of history meant a shrinking world too. You couldn't go anywhere, to cave or igloo, without linking back to globalisation.
And, yet, countries have come out the other side stranger and more particular than ever. The predictability of the post-war consensus has gone. New technologies don't necessarily make new people, it depends what you do with them. And having Starbucks in common gets you nowhere. The great unifying surge of Anglo-American music for Euro-youth has almost run its course. They're making their own again.
Time then to think about France. Last autumn's riots in the banlieux gave Brits the guilty pleasure of thinking they'd got it wrong. The French, who had stood in judgement on us over practically everything, had their own huge problems, hidden away beyond the lovely preserved centres of the cities, out of earshot of Provence or the Hotel du Cap.
Is this because, as Mr Wolfowitz or Mr Perle or any of George Bush's deep-thinking friends would have said, "Old Europe" is resisting the march of modernity, huddling together for comfort? Right-wing Americans particularly hate the French and their global flirtations. They think they're arrogant and sneaky. Nothing delights a right-wing American more than the Californian ability to make passable impersonations of the old French wine styles.
Then there's the question of vile French habits. Despite the evidence of their own eyes - that the French middle classes are way more uptight than, say, their English equivalents - there's still an absurd race-memory of French sexiness in England and America (Bardot, Belle Époque, Nouvelle Vague films, all that). Their cars, with their curious looks, their different suspensions and their persistently protected brand ownership are running examples of the difference. From the Citroën Diane (the car that inspired a Roland Barthes essay; that alone told you how different they were) to the Renault Mégane, the French cars you remember are the marvellously divisive ones. The Mégane has an odd truncated squashed-up rear end. It looks like an accident on the computer, a first draft. In another age it would have been a rallying point for cheese-eating, left-leaning, Birkenstock people everywhere. I'm not sure it is now because you don't see them everywhere on the streets of Stoke Newington. I don't know who buys them.
But the very visible advertising has taken the design issue butt-on. Faced up to the problem. You'll know this campaign. It's the one with the bottoms. It's the one with Groove Armada's "I see you baby, shakin' that ass". They've been running it for a while now and it's a seasonal fixture. The latest one is gloriously self-referential. At a press conference launch affair, one of those French École Nationale Supérieure technocrat types - what did I say about their middle classes - is introducing the latest version with all its front-end advantages when a screen full of bumping butts appears above his head and the audience is utterly distracted. (The girl bottoms, incidentally, are J-Lo-ish in short shorts and bikinis, the men's are wide old janitors' things, completely covered up.)
Blissful chaos follows, the Mégane starts vibrating on its wobbly platform, showing its rear. It's so ass fixated several hundred parents have complained that it'll provoke indiscipline (Britain leads Europe in unmarried teen pregnancy) unless screening is kept till after the watershed. How wonderful to see Anglo-American music sustaining the glorious old mythology of French sexiness.Reuse content