How easy it is to forget our friendship

NOTEBOOK: The French honour our war dead: we hurl insults over beef. Why can't we grow up and learn to live with our neighbours, however awkward?
Click to follow
The Independent Online
My theme is remembrance and forgetfulness. A little while ago I saw a 98-year-old British veteran of the First World war receive his Legion d'Honneur from the French government (the medal is being presented to all surviving allied veterans). It was a moving occasion, attended by five or six other British veterans of the Somme and Arras and Vimy and Cambrai, who had already received their medals in Britain.

Earlier, I had to drop my nine-year-old son at a birthday party for a French school friend. The friend's father - an educated man in his 40s - expressed surprise that an obscure British veteran should receive France's highest award. Did many British soldiers fight in France in the First World War, he asked. I was taken aback. Over five million of them, I said, if you include Commonwealth forces. He was astonished. He had a vague idea that Britain had played a role in the war, but had no idea that it was so large.

Last year, just before the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, a letter was received at the British embassy in Paris asking if Britain had taken any part in the 1914-18 war. The letter was written by a French history teacher.

So much for Remembrance.

But the French - or some of the French - are not the only ones to have a selective memory of history. Half a million of those five million "Britons" were actually Indians: how often do we remember their contribution? Would anyone watching the movie Saving Private Ryan have any notion that D-Day was anything but an American-German battle?

Remembrance of Britain's contribution to the Great War does survive in France, sometimes on an epic scale. Preliminary approval was announced last week for a pounds 1m visitor centre on the Somme. Most of the people who use it will be British. It will be built beside the great Lutyens-designed memorial at Thiepval, visited by 200,000 people a year, predominantly from Britain.

Successive British governments have refused to support the idea of such a centre (at present there is not even a toilet for the nearly 500 visitors a day, let alone anything to explain the history of the battle or the war.) There is to be a private appeal in Britain for pounds 300,000 of the cash needed, but the rest of the money is to come from French government and EU sources.

Senator Fernand Demilly, president of the Somme council - the main mover behind the centre, with Sir Frank Sanderson, a retired British businessman - told me last week that the "people of the Somme feel an obligation of remembrance to the soldiers who fought and died here, especially the British ones".

Local councils in Picardy are studying a proposal put forward by a French architect in Lille for a 12 mile "river of blood" - a permanent bed of poppies 12 miles long and up to 100 yards wide, following the trench lines of the first Battle of the Somme in 1916. The Somme was an Anglo-French offensive, but poppies are the British symbol of the war. The French use cornflowers.

So much for Forgetfulness.

Stubborn memory and stubborn forgetfulness are also intertwined in the British attitude - or some British attitudes - to the Beef War. (What did you do in the Beef War, daddy? I put up two fingers to a French car on the M25 and refused to eat Golden Delicious for three weeks.)

It is 184 years since Britain and France fought each other with anything harder than insults. Since then we have fought alongside one another a dozen times, most recently in - or over - Kosovo. The economies of the two countries are inextricably intertwined. Seven million Britons visit France each year. Despite the row over beef, the two governments are pushing ahead with plans for closer and closer co-operation between their armed forces, including new generations of aircraft carriers which would be equipped to take one another's aircraft.

And yet a highly complex and technical dispute about beef in which the French are broadly wrong - but which directly concerns maybe one in 5,000 Britons - produces a six-week media campaign of strident Francophobic insults ("hypocrisy", "double cross", "betrayal", "French cows eat s-- t"). Some of the reporting on the French side has been partial and unfair, but no French journalist or politician has felt the need to insult Britain. In a minor register - or maybe not such a minor register - we have been subjected to the kind of nationalistic, xenophobic propaganda which fed the Napoleonic wars and the Great War. On this occasion, the propaganda has been media self-generated, not government-inspired.

A friend recently reminded me of the Whitby Incident. During the Napoleonic wars, a ship sank off the Yorkshire coast and a pet chimpanzee, the only survivor, struggled ashore. It was promptly lynched by the locals, who recognised it as a Frenchman from the illustrations in the popular British press of the day.

Last week I went to another Legion d'Honneur award ceremony. The recipient this time was the Northern Ireland politician, John Hume, who received the medal for services to peace. He was not expecting to have to give a speech, but 200 people turned up for the ceremony, and he was obliged to talk off the cuff for 10 minutes in excellent French. (Mr Hume was a French teacher before he was a politician.)

He pointed out that the first half of this century had seen two cataclysmic European civil wars; the second half of the century - coinciding with the creation of common European institutions - had seen none. He said the Northern Ireland peace agreement had been modelled on the Treaty of Rome: the idea being to transform military blood into political and bureaucratic sweat.

This approach has not yet worked in Ulster, but it still may do so. It has worked, on the whole, in Europe. It is working, in its own muddled and clumsy way, on the beef issue, even if the row drags on, even if France is hauled into a legal action before the European Court this week.

Parts of the British media - and political establishment - decline to see things that way. They remain stuck in a different, more aggressive, more dangerous, flag-waving age.