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They peep through the tunnel at ex-island race

FRANCE'S best-selling national daily, Le Figaro, carried the front-page headline: 'The end of British insularity'.

It may have been an overstatement but the headline, published by the conservative newspaper on Friday, reflected a French consensus that, like it or not, the opening of the Channel Tunnel must change something in Britain.

A plethora of commentaries on Britain in the French press, prompted by the inauguration of the tunnel, covered almost every aspect of modern Britain from sex scandalsto guides on where to buy marmalade in Paris. The left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, with a cover showing a punk and a bowler-hatted man under the words 'at the end of the tunnel, a people to discover', carried articles by William Boyd and A S Byatt with profiles of John Smith and Richard Branson. The tunnel, it said, was a challenge 'to geography and history: here we are back 3 million years when Britain was not yet an island. A time which only eels remember'.

For the conservative L'Express, Britain 'technically, will stop being an island. It is not enough to say that a page of history has been turned . . . It is the very identity of the country as in the myth created by its inhabitants which is at issue.'

Adding that the tunnel would probably bring more change than Britain's entry into the European Community 22 years ago, L'Express added: 'We do not understand in France the depth of this trauma.' For Le Figaro, the opening of the tunnel 'is proof of the metamorphosis of Europe. They keep saying and repeating that the tunnel project is two centuries old. But before it was just a dream, nothing more.'

While the continent was 'a bloody arena for people disputing the control of the known world, the tunnel did not stand the slightest chance of being brought about. Britain was a citadel. The sea protected its white cliffs and this geographical singularity proved its worth just 54 years ago,' it added.

'Many English people continue to denigrate those conceited and often ridiculous French. Many of the French will still harbour a mistrust for that enemy of the past. But mentalities are changing . . . It is the inexhaustible (Victor) Hugo who said a century and a half ago: 'England, always, will be the sister of France'.'

Le Nouvel Observateur's tone was more cautious. 'When they decided, seven years ago, to wipe out the Channel, Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher wanted above all to give body and a sense to this new Europe which the peoples, rightly, considered just theoretical. As for the symbol, they've won] This Pharaonic project has turned out to be the perfect reflection of European construction: costly and noisy. And with a still uncertain future.'

Le Monde said French politicians were disappointed by Britain. 'French officials watch and regret the fact that Britain, in many respects, has accepted its political and economic decline, that it has given up trying to find its salvation within itself, abdicating too easily before foreign investors. As it also turns into a medium-size power, France - and this is not pure Gallic vanity - rejects this decline which it finds revolting.'

But, Le Monde added, different views did not stop the two countries co-operating and they were 'for Europe, the natural leaders of the common security and foreign policy which is still in limbo . . . When the hour is grave, the French and British in uniform together embody Europe and make it less impotent.'

In a comprehensive review of modern Britainthe monthly Vogue Hommes said relations between the two countries resembled an English sauce: 'Spicy and sweet at the same time. We adore each other and hate each other cordially.

'There is a lot between our two countries: we owe to the English the invention of rain, fog and boiled food and they insist on driving on the left in contravention of our highway code. But they also invented taxis, tweed, the raincoat, pubs and tea, whatever the Chinese and Indians may think.'

Would the tunnel 'change the English? And the French? And Franco-British love affairs? We hope not. The English Rosbifs will still berate the Frogs . . . It is the story of an old couple separated and united by a Channel.'