A history of mutual incomprehension

The English and French do not understand each other, especially when they attempt the other's language
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The England football team have drawn the mighty French in the group stage of next summer's European Championships, a draw festooned with irony, not least as 2004 sees the centenary of the entente cordiale, yet not a few Englishmen will enter the new year looking forward to the opportunity, on 13 June in Lisbon, to batter some French heads.

The entente cordiale, incidentally, featured in a sketch some friends and I wrote for a comedy revue a few years ago. OK, 25 years ago. The sketch had the English host of a television series called "Looking At Culture" welcoming a Frenchman, Claude, who was to talk about the delights of his holiday by the English seaside but spoke little English. The host duly undertook to translate, and the extended gag was that his command of French was pitiful.

At the end of the interview, when Claude embraced him and declared "entente cordiale", the host hesitantly explained that Claude had to leave now, having just remembered that he had left his orange squash in his tent. "So until next week," he added, cheerfully waving at the audience, "aujourd'hui!" Schoolboy stuff, I know, and I plead the extenuating circumstance that we were, at the time, schoolboys. But somewhere in that sketch there was the core of something profound. The English and French do not understand each other, even and perhaps especially when they attempt the other's language.

At the most basic level of that mutual incomprehension I am reminded of the father of a friend of mine, who once wandered around Calais trying to find the train station. "Ou est la guerre?" he asked a succession of passing French people. He meant, of course, "la gare". So it was no wonder that the passing French people moved on hurriedly, having been collared by a confused elderly English gent asking, with increasing urgency, where he could find the war.

Similarly, in an unsalubrious bar in a red light district of Paris, circa 1980, a girlfriend and I once drank pastis until the wee small hours with a raddled old Parisienne who wore, I recall, fishnet stockings. We conversed in French but she told us that she had "met" some nice English soldiers after "La Liberation", from whom she had learnt a few words of English. At around 2am we took our leave. She kissed us both affectionately and as we walked through the door, remembering what the Tommies had said to her, she cried, "Goodbye ... and good riddance."

And then there is the much higher level of Anglo-French incomprehension, as represented by Tony Blair, who speaks decent French, and Jacques Chirac, who speaks decent French too. Our leaders are never quite sure where their leaders are coming from, nor their leaders where ours are. Historians might like to direct me to a time when the president of France and the British prime minister perfectly understood each other's needs and motivations, but I can't think easily of one. Mitterand and Thatcher, perhaps? Certainly not Churchill and De Gaulle. "Goodbye and good riddance" might not be the parting words after Anglo-French summits, but it is usually the parting sentiment.

At least sporting confrontations between the two nations, who also met in the semi-final of the rugby union World Cup, are uncomplicated. Uncomplicated, that is, except for those many ironies about England being drawn to play France in Euro 2004, one of which is that the leading French players earn their living in England. It seems likely that Arsenal will have more representatives in the French team than in the English. As recently as 10 years ago, such a situation would have been unimaginable, just as it is unimaginable now that the English will ever warm to the French as the Highbury faithful have to the brilliant striker Thierry Henry.

In the meantime, I read that an honorary Frenchman, the author Peter Mayle, has been complaining bitterly about the "mean-spirited" British. Mayle feels that he gets a bad, if not vicious press in Britain, and that the success of his books A Year In Provence and Toujours Provence has unjustly been held to have "ruined" Provence for other expatriate residents. He also thinks it unfair that he is considered to have caricatured the Provencal peasant (on which subject, why does France have peasants while England has country folk?) Mayle has a point. The response to BBC's 1993, 12-part adaptation of A Year In Provence ventured beyond mere dislike into the realms of schadenfreude: the late John Thaw, who played Mayle, once told me he was bewildered by the antagonism engendered by a half-hour weekly TV drama.

By stark contrast, in France last year Mayle was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, the highest civilian award the nation can bestow, perhaps in recognition of his contribution to the venerable Anglo-French tradition of mutual incomprehension. Anyway, until next week, aujourd'hui.