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?

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.

Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
News
Brand said he
people
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit