Leading Article: Vive la difference - and let's keep on learning from each other

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The Full Monty is playing to packed houses in Paris while Sandrine Veysset's new film about life in la France profonde opens to acclaim in London. On the football field, the trade seems more one-way. In cuisine, our revolutionary restaurateur Sir Terence Conran takes to the boulevards, while, the softer franc in pocket, we stream across the Channel (roadblocks permitting) to sample French cooking old and true. French children come here to rave. The water they drink while they are here is British, but arrives thanks to French-owned companies. Nobody complains. These two countries are becoming steadily more intertwined.

And co-operation has further to go. The accord between George Robertson and Alain Richard signed at the Woolwich Arsenal yesterday indicates a level of military trust between Britain and France unknown since - sober memory - the First Battle of the Somme. No wonder Jacques Chirac said yesterday that British-French relations are in a state of ``permanent amelioration''. It sounds better in French, but the sentiment is good in either language.

Let us not, however, get too carried away. Who was M Jospin dining with a deux on Wednesday night? It was Chancellor Kohl, who visits France so often (and is in turn visited in Bonn) that heads barely turn. If, behind the scenes, there are Foreign Office types thinking about "rebalancing" Europe by detaching France from Germany - forget it. The French themselves this week made a fair stab at offending the Germans by peremptorily putting forward their central bank governor Jean-Claude Trichet as head of the new European Central Bank. Just to remind everyone that another permanent ingredient in French diplomacy is rudeness, the French finance minister then told the Germans off for seeking to reserve a seat on the Central Bank council for the British.

But isn't that why we love our neighbours? It's for the scale and unashamedness of their amour-propre. French conduct is a standing reminder to all those duped Eurosceptics that you can integrate currencies and construct a great European architecture - but you are not going to change national self- regard. Nor should we try. If the French did not behave this way, what would our diplomats have to pit their wits against, and why would our schoolchildren struggle with French (when there are at least three other foreign languages they might profitably be set to learn first)? It is because they continually emphasise la difference that we admire them. And, sometimes at least, vice-versa. We do have a lot to learn from one another.

Take yesterday's bash at Canary Wharf. A lot of imagination went into preparation - take a bow, Robin Cook and Doug Henderson. It is easy to mock a government spokesman having the cheek to suggest that the president of the French republic was "on message" in praising our dynamism and modernity. But it was a cheering change to have the British state presenting the country in a favourable light. There is a lot to be proud of. Conran design on the 38th floor of a tower block may not entirely capture the efflorescence of modern British culture, but it points in the right direction - towards the pulsing energy in British popular music, fashion and the other urban arts. This was Labour spin-doctoring put to patriotic purpose.

At the heart of British-French relations, though, is the idea of alternatives, not mimickry. We are unlikely ever to have quite their dash or gastronomy. They are unlikely to achieve our state of political order. Instead, the two countries look at one another as perpetual, if gentle, rebukes. We learn from their education system. They learn from our industrial relations. We learn from their self-confident and constant diplomacy. They learn from our openness to world markets. And both countries are better places because of that other country, both alien and familiar, so close at hand.

Or at least, they have the capacity to be better if they learn the lessons well. For instance, as they sauntered around the Canary Wharf tower, Tony Blair no doubt pointed out the scored circle and soaring yellow cranes of the site of the Millennium Dome. The truth is that this huge project, which will either make a fool of Britain in 2000 or (as we hope) be a great source of national pride, would not have been thought of without the grand projects of successive French presidencies. Though President Chirac has, so far, not indicated what he wants his physical monument to be, President Pompidou bequeathed the Beaubourg centre (designed by a Brit); President Giscard d'Estaing put the Grande Arche de la Defense in train; President Mitterrand has the Louvre pyramid and the high towers of the new Bibliotheque Nationale to his credit.

That sense of public splendour influenced Conservative politicians like Michael Heseltine and Labour people, including the architect and peer Richard Rogers. Mr Blair's sense that style matters and can cheer a country up, and his administration's understanding of the need for public symbolism, derives heavily from French presidential politics. That doesn't mean that the designers whose work adorned the summit were any less British or that the Dome will be any less of a native success (if it is a success). But these examples of New Labour patriotism wouldn't have happened without the French example. There is nothing new or embarrassing in that. It is a constant theme in British history; and on the day after the summit it is perhaps a useful truth to remember.