By Boyd Tonkin
Italy: In the 14th century, an inspired trio of playmakers - Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch - secured Italian supremacy all over the park of European literature. After this world-beating bunch possession passed to other squads - notably France and England - while Italy specialised in rule-bending mavericks like political clogger Machiavelli.
A spell of relegation ensued under Papal, Spanish and Austrian management, until Romantic wizardry from Leopardi and Manzoni helped win the Italians a place in the top flight. Since then a succession of tearaway talents - from Pirandello and Montale to Calvino and Eco - have scrapped with bullying touchline tyrants such as Mussolini and Berlusconi.
France: It all began with the bad lads: roving troubadors, footloose, erratic and erotic. In the 16th century, Rabelais had a belly-laugh at his own side (and everyone else's) until strategic brains like Racine and Pascal made cool reason and clinical finishing touchstones of the French style. Voltaire took up enlightened positions but arch-rebel Rousseau made space for poetic runs from Hugo, Baudelaire and pals. Realistic game-plans returned with Flaubert and Zola, and Proust took total possession of the pitch, but lone stars on the left, Sartre and Camus, tore up the rules with kicks for freedom. Modern sceptics, such as Derrida and Barthes, have tried to blow the whistle on the whole game. Then on came rogue striker Houellebecq to score for France in extra time.
By Simon Calder
Italy: Italy has its fair share of the Alps, best viewed when reflected in the northern lakes; and the other end of the nation is decorated by a corrugation of volcanoes. Much of the landscape is deliciously crumpled; indeed, it is easier to point to the flat lands, such as the plains of Emilia-Romagna, than to list all the rugged ranges. The populations of Italy and France are almost identical, at just under 60 million.
Since Italy has barely half the area of France for the same number of people, the countryside is relatively more scarred; the autostrada disfigure great landscapes, and urban detritus obscures too many views. But Italy's two giant islands are thinly populated and differently beautiful. At the final whistle Sardinia and Sicily make it, scenically, a scoring draw.
France: Quality and quantity: in terms of landscapes, France has a surplus of both. Wherever you point a camera, with the exception of the down-at-heel banlieues of big cities, you are likely to capture an image of beauty. From the wild and lonely marshes of the Camargue to the highest mountains in Europe, the French reside amid a compendium of gorgeousness. Rolling hills? Hop across to Normandy. Elegant valleys? The Loire, or the Rhone, or the Seine. Figuratively and literally, France is a work of art.
By Geoffrey McNab
Italy: The Italians looked strong in the 1940s and 1950s, when neo-realism was in its prime and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini was exhorting film-makers to go out into the streets in search of stories. Those were the days of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica and yielded masterpieces such as Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D, Voyage To Italy and Rome Open City.
There were still decent Italian movies being made in the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, the Italians have lost the plot. When the best they can offer is the schmaltz of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, you know that something must be wrong. This team is ailing.
France: Les Bleus have a proprietorial interest in cinema - the Lumiere brothers helped invent the form in the first place. If you want moody, lyrical tales of amour fou, they've always been able to deliver. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were those wonderful Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir movies. The 1950s saw the flourishing of La Nouvelle Vague and the emergence of superbrats like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.
They take homegrown cinema far more seriously than any other European country. This means that in spite of the pretentious tripe they sometimes serve up in the name of auteur cinema, they have a definite edge over their Mediterranean rivals.
By Christopher Hirst
Italy: The Italian tradition of cucina povera, which involves producing fine dishes from humble ingredients, could never have arisen in France. For everyday eating, this country remains unsurpassed. The near limitless buffet of antipasti is one of the world's great gustatory treats. Everyday excellence is not so evident in Italian wines. Considering how many vines grow in Italy, there are few first-class bottles.
France: The skill and finesse of top-end French cooking are unparalleled. But visitors may find the gastronomic foothills disappointing. The solid bourgeois restaurant is now a rarity, while "Le McDo" is everywhere. In the wine department, France's top vintages have taken a pasting from the New World, but its middle-order labels still offer excellent value.
By Sean O'Grady
Italy: From feisty Fiats and Lancias through exotic Maseratis and Lamborghinis to the Ferrari Enzo, Italy has crafted machinery which has one aim: entertainment. Michael Schumacher started out on a "bambino" Fiat 500. True, Italian cars can be a little temperamental. FIAT, so the old joke went, stood for Fix It Again, Tony. But they were usually entertaining, just like the footballers. The clincher is many of the best French cars - such as the Peugeot 205 - were styled by Pininfarina, an Italian studio. Quelle domage.
France: The French have given us some astonishing style mixed with terrible duds. At the top of their game were the Citroen 2CV, and the imperiously Gallic Citroen DS. There was one unforgiveable crime, though; the Renault 9, the ultimate dull car. The Italians would never have done that.
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
By Stephen Bayley
Italy: Italy's most famous building is a magnificent catastrophe: Pisa's Torre Pendente is saved from collapse only by international efforts while the locals look on. Italy has no serious art schools, but the most prolific designers. The post-war ricostruzione was defined by design. Italians have never separated art from life. Si guarda al fine! (It's the result that matters: Machiavelli).
France: France's most famous building is the Eiffel Tower, a masterpiece of strict observation engineering, rigid and true. Because of its academies and hierarchies, official French architecture and design is austere. The best of France is the disposable ingenuity of a Bic pen, razor or lighter. Le style est l'homme. (The style's the man: Anon).
By Mary Dejevsky
Italy: Italian politics was always a stylish cacophony with the country's endemic corruption assumed and often upfront. Silvio Berlusconi, TV tycoon turned politician, embodied this sleazy exuberance, which may be why, uniquely, his government managed to stay in power for its full term.
The election of Romano Prodi suggests a new mood of sobriety and almost Gordon Brown-style prudence has taken hold. But the political scene retains a streak of irresponsible vivacity, thanks to the presence on the margins of such characters as Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of the Duce and former topless model.
France: French politics is a serious matter, played out - with extreme dullness and a few choice insults - in Parliament and periodically, with much energy and destructive passion, on the street. Corruption, like many important things in France, is unobtrusive. Real politics is personal and presidential, the standard set by the towering figure of wartime and post-war leadership, Charles De Gaulle, against whom the French subconsciously measure each successive president.
By Claudia Winkleman
Italy: Italian men do not shy away from wearing a coloured loafer and they aren't embarrassed to tie a lemon sweater round their shoulders. That should be applauded. They also shout "Ciao Bella" indiscriminately at women because they love us. Again, thumbs up. They like women to eat too. A young romeo called Luca, who I once fiddled with behind the Uffizi, was particularly keen that I finish off his parma ham and gelato.
Italian men also like women with curves - think Sophia Loren versus Coco Chanel. It would be marginally less embarrassing to be seen in one's underwear in broad daylight by an Italian man than a French one.
France: French men think it's cute when you try to speak French. Cocking one's head and saying "Salut" always seems to do the trick. French men are romantic and they recite poetry. It's slightly more subtle than an Italian singing an aria and throwing carnations around the place.
French men don't make a fuss about their other girlfriends. Sure, they're sleeping with someone else but it gives us more time to wear fitted trench coats and slim hairbands. A French man, such as Kylie Minogue's fella Olivier Martinez, might wear tiny white underpants but he'll never make you live with his mother. And that's why they win.
By John Walsh
Italy: Because of Nancy dell'Olio, it's hard to think of her countrywomen without seeing kilos of mascara and lipliner, acres of raven tresses, mountain ranges of bosom, lakes of Tanfastic. Like a helping of lasagne al forno in Naples at lunchtime, there's just too much to digest in one sitting. The long-standing bella figura rivalry between Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida speaks volumes about Italian women's sense of self. It's about display, packaging and presentation rather than the integrity of the raw materials. The nanny-loving English nurse a secret crush on brown eyes and tidal breasts, so Monica Belluci and Isabella Rosselini will always be welcome; but they also suspect that these ladies are just a month or two away from turning into Anna Magnani...
France: Let other women have a certain je ne sais quoi: French women have bags of on sait exactement quoi. They have le pout, brought to perfection by Bardot, Moreau, the heavenly Emmanuelle Béart and the obstreperously sexy Béatrice Dalle of Betty Blue. They have a sleepy vulnerability about les yeux that you can see in Catherine Deneuve, Isabella Adjani et Julie Delpy - a weary yearning for a little lie-down as soon as possible. There's the cool appraising intelligence of la reve-bateau Francaise, whether she's the gamine Jean Seberg, the shrewd Juliette Binoche or the impulsive Irene Jacob
By Michael Church
Italy: If you're talking opera, there's no contest. With the sublime works of Monteverdi, Italy gave opera to the world, and it has thrived there ever since - bel canto, "beautiful singing", being the style singers everywhere now aim at. The great operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini set the pace in the 19th century, which wound up with Verdi and Puccini.
France: So dominant were Italian musicians in 17th-century France that "Sun-King" Louis XIV vainly tried to ban them. A hundred years later, no French composer could compete with Vivaldi. Nineteenth-century Paris found its game with operetta, and Bizet's Carmen took it into the big league, but only when Debussy and Ravel emerged did France finally assert musical dominance.
FASHION & STYLE,
By Susannah Frankel
Italy: Miuccia Prada once said that her fellow countrywomen's habit of appearing on television wearing barely any clothes was "awful". "I call that look 'the desperation of the sexy'. The more sexy you make yourself appear; the less you'll have sex." It is true that a certain wantonness appears to characterise female Italian dress. This is perhaps because Italian children are generally more conservatively attired than most. Any flesh-flashing in later life then might be seen as healthy rebellion. What's more, for every woman - or indeed man - clad in dazzling Versace there are more actually wearing understated Giorgio Armani. Big hair, though, is a prerequisite, as are sunglasses - all year round - and the time-honoured national pastime of stepping out with a jacket slung over the shoulders in an "I'm too stylish to bother with anything so banal as pushing my arms into these sleeves" kind of way.
France: Here fashion is a rather more serious business. Any self-respecting Parisian in particular whispers the names of Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel with hushed reverence and national pride. If the Italians like to wear their fashion, the French are more than happy to be worn by their clothes, which tends to imply more formal attire. The repressed bourgeoise - think Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour - is still a favourite with the ladies while men are immaculately besuited for anything remotely approaching a special occasion. Grooming is of prime importance - French women routinely have their nostrils waxed if not their underarms - as is being stick-thin.