England v France: a millennium of enmity

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The owner of the Paris sandwich bar told me, straight-faced: "I have put a second serviette in your bag today, to wipe away your tears on Sunday." Until a few days ago, the same man, Dominique, a great rugby fan, had been mournfully predicting an England victory in the World Cup. "You are the strongest, the fittest, the most professional," he had said to me, over and over. "You will win the cup easily."

No more. In the space of a week, the mood of France - or that part of France which even knows there is a rugby World Cup - has changed. Up to the startling victory over Ireland last Sunday, Gallic expectations were dim. Now the newspapers are getting their cock-crowing in early.

"A nous les grands Anglais!" (Bring on the great English!) was yesterday's headline in Le Nouvel Observateur, a weekly news magazine, which rarely writes about rugby, or any other sport. Normally the French do not cultivate the old enmity with England in the same way that the English are psychotically obsessed with disliking the French. But once in a while, French minds do revert to default mode.

The racial, cultural and historical hard-disk bleeps with the memory of past insults and grievances: Agincourt; Trafalgar; Waterloo; Winston Churchill's French accent; the vicious lambasting of what now seems a rather sensible French attitude to the invasion of Iraq; The Sun putting President Jacques Chirac with a worm's body on the front page.

For the French, the prospect of a victory for France tomorrow is sweet; the prospect of beating England is delicious. But Dominique, the sandwich-bar owner, is wrong about one thing. I am one Englishman who will not cry if England lose. After seven years in France, I find myself, treacherously, attracted to the qualities of the France rugby team: its grace; its imagination; its unpredictability, its stubborn Frenchness; its underlying toughness.

Like the French economy (sometimes), and the French way of life, this is a team that seems to defy the calculating, unromantic, business-like Anglo-Saxon ways. It is more like a Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), than a train-operating company. It is more a succulent, sour-dough pain de campagne, than a white, sliced, plastic-wrapped loaf.

To me, the England team looks a sporting version of the country England, or Britain, has become in the past 20 years: outwardly successful, arrogantly so, but spiritually brutal, contemptuous of others and permanently stuck in traffic jams.

Our star player, Jonny Wilkinson, looks like a rugby-playing Tony Blair: a talented, boyish-looking man, once sure of himself, who finds the world (or World Cup) is ungratefully refusing to respond as planned to simplistic formulas and good intentions.

Of course, the French have problems of their own. The economy is stumbling; unemployment is rising towards 10 per cent; the budget is breaking the euro regulations; the French people hate yet another prime minister for trying to do what he said he would do.

Just like the French rugby team, France can never be consistently one thing or the other. It is the self-appointed leader of Europe that breaks more European rules than any other member state. It is a country that aspires to lead, and lecture, the world, but whose own politics remain mired in the inward-looking, dated obsessions of the far left and the far right.

In one sense, the two countries (which celebrate next year the centenary of their official friendship, the Entente Cordiale) have never been closer.

There are 200,000, mostly young, French people living in London, which they see as a more dynamic city than Paris. There are more and more, and younger and younger, British (mostly English) families moving to France, where they are convinced that life is easier and more fun.

And yet we are still, in many ways, two countries living back to back, who will never fully understand one another.

As in politics and the economy, so in rugby. The England team has done everything right. Everyone, even the French, say so. It has prepared the most intensively. The English rugby structures have become the most professional and the most commercial.

In France, by contrast, rugby remains, at its heart, an amateur businesss, a thing of joy, rather than calculation. By rights, England should be dominating the World Cup. In fact, the form team, the glorious team, is France.

By rights (if you accept The Wall Street Journal view of the world) France should be an economic basket case. Despite its problems, it has a higher, real standard of living and a higher rate of competitivity than the United Kingdom. Finally, I believe, that is what makes the English so jealous of the French, apart from their wine, cheese, weather, countryside and good looks. They do everything wrong and seem, mostly, to get away with it.

I fear, none the less, for France. The English are always at their most dangerous when their backs are to the wall. The French are always at their most fragile when they are full of confidence.

Take the France football team, which won that other World Cup in 1998. It was a solid, well-drilled-team, lacking in flair, which had learnt how to win by playing its football for clubs abroad.

It was not expected to succeed and yet advanced, modestly, to victory. Four years later, the same squad regarded itself as unbeatable and fell on its collective face in the mud at the first hurdle.

For all the great Gallic qualities, my experience of living in France suggests that the French are at their worst when they gaze at themselves and are satisfied with what they see. The most interesting and successful French people - from politicians to footballers - are those who temper French qualities with modesty and with experience of the rest of the world.

The France rugby team has learnt this lesson in part. Its defensive coach is a man called David Ellis, from Yorkshire, a former miner and professional rugby league player.

Mr Ellis says that the English rugby union hierarchy will have nothing to do with him because he is a former league player and because he is working class. (Although, in his time, he used to coach the Gloucester RUFC team.)

Mr Ellis has gone down very well in the French press. The revolutionary part of the French soul likes the idea of an English sans-culottes helping to guillotine the professional aristocrats of English rugby.

None the less, there is something about the hysterical confidence of the French mood before tomorrow's match that should set alarm bells ringing, in the south-western rugby heartland of France, if nowhere else.

Recall Shakespeare's description of the French army before the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V:

"Proud of their numbers and secure in soul, the confident and over-lusty French do the low-rated English play at dice ..."

And remember how that match turned out.