David Randall: What did France ever do for us?

Quite a lot, actually, in medicine, the arts and daily life

Share
Related Topics

This cross-Channel squabbling is starting to get silly. What with the froideur between David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president calling the former "an obstinate kid", George Osborne's sneers, various Gallic ministers wanting London to be downgraded, and eurosceptics putting on their 'Allo, 'Allo accents to crack clichéd jokes, things haven't been this bad since de Gaulle said "Non". If ever we needed further proof that the emotional development of politicians stops somewhere around the mid-teens, then the last few days have provided it.

This has become like one of those splendid over-the-top neighbours' disputes in which cats are poisoned, night soil tipped over the fence, and communications reduced to the hurling of insults from a window which is immediately banged shut. The impression these past few days – aided by the gleeful jeering of the red-tops – is that here are two countries which may be adjacent but which live in total isolation and in perpetual ignorance of each others' virtues.

Au contraire, as the bilingual Derek Trotter might say. France and Britain have had their fates entwined for more than 1,000 years, and, certainly since 1815 (when we stopped trying to kill Johnny Frenchman), we have been ententing with a certain amount of cordiale, and enriching each other's lives in ways all too rarely recognised. And what have the French ever done for us – apart from laying down the foundations of parliamentary democracy (Simon de Montfort, French born and speaking), the modern Olympics, all those talented Huguenots, art, Braille, brie, crêpes, camembert, croutons, denim, fetching fashions, art, roulette, croque monsieur, and bras?

First stop on the road exploring French contributions is house-numbering. Introduced in Paris in 1463, only 300 years later, London saw the advantages. France was first with driving tests, too, introducing them in 1893, 42 years ahead of us, which was why Miss Vera Hedges Butler crossed the Channel in 1900, and so became the first British woman to take her test. She passed; first time. And the French also gave us the bus (1662, with coaches carrying a maximum of eight passengers, and all the idea of Blaise Pascal), motor caravans, ambulances (conceived by Dominique-Jean Larrey while serving as a surgeon with Napoleon's army), and neon signs. These, demonstrated in 1910 and soon called "liquid fire", were the brainchild of Georges Claude, subsequently a Nazi collaborator – proof that his brilliance did not translate to other fields.

French ingenuities have penetrated our lives in more ways than we shall ever know. Some of us owe our lives to them: antibiotics, the baby incubator (1891, courtesy of Alexandre Lion), blood transfusions (1667, by Jean-Baptiste Denys who used sheep's blood on a boy who, amazingly, recovered), and stethoscopes (1816). Among the triumphs of French foodies are clementines (bred by a missionary in 1902), margarine (1869, a mixture of beef tallow and skimmed milk), and canned food (1795, as a way of preserving meals for the army). They gave us the raincoat (in 1747), dry cleaning, IQ tests, reinforced concrete (the invention of a gardener, of all people), and the hairdryer.

And then are all those French artists and writers. For every Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham and Sylvia Pankhurst who went there, we have hosted Victor Hugo (Guernsey), Claude Monet (The Savoy), Camille Pissarro (Penge), and Emile Zola (Upper Norwood). The last-named I know of because I once went to the Queen's Hotel and saw the wall plaque proclaiming his residence The then manager told me proudly: "We had that Emily Zola here. She stayed for years" – words that somehow synthesise a certain sort of British response to anything French.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executives - B2B

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Genius Ltd continue...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executives - B2B

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Genius Ltd continue...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you have the right attitude,...

Ashdown Group: Client Services Executive - Enfield, North London

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Client Services Executive - Enfield, North London ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: how come Ed Miliband’s tuition fee ‘cut’ is so popular, then?

John Rentoul
Carrie's son Jack on holiday in the Carribean  

As a parent of a child with autism, this is what I want you to know about my family

Carrie Cariello
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn