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France V England


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France and England: 1,000 years of cross-channel rivalry

Nothing unites the English like their traditional hatred of the French. From the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to the 2012 Olympics, Cahal Milmo traces an old enmity

14 June 2005

The Norman Conquest

The grounds for many a bar room bore's protest that the French started it, the arrival of Guillaume, Duc de Normandie, on the Sussex coast on 28 September 1066 heralded the start of 900 years of bloody Anglo-French rivalry.

Duke William, the son of Robert le Diable, at least had a claim to the English throne by asserting that his relative, Edward the Confessor, had bequeathed him the title. But the defeat of King Harold and the English army was largely a victory for the mercenary theory of war.

The invasion force, which was aided by Breton and Flemish allies, was commanded by Norman nobles who had been promised lands and materials in return their support for William.

Despite the apocryphal tale that King Harold, fresh from defeating a Norwegian army, was killed by an arrow in the eye, his defeat was largely due to the superiority of the Norman cavalry and the poor discipline of Harold's forces as they broke formation to chase the retreating Bretons.

William, a man whose talent for turning disaster into triumph was demonstrated when he fell flat on his face as he disembarked at Pevensey, only to stand up, grab a handful of sand and shout: "I now take hold of the land of England", rapidly conquered the rest of England.


For the confectioners of France, it was the line that could not be crossed - the appearance of British chocolate on their shelves. For 27 years, France - supported variously by Belgium, Italy and Spain - resolutely refused to allow the likes of Cadbury's Dairy Milk to be sold on the grounds that its 5 per cent of non-cocoa fat meant it was not chocolate.

In the corridors of Brussels, various attempts were made to foist a new name on British confectionery, from "household milk chocolate" to "surrogate chocolate" to "vegelate". The ban, which originated from a loophole in the 1973 accession agreement for Britain and Ireland, was finally lifted in 2000 after an agreement that such perfidious products as Cadbury's Flake carry a label stating: "Contains vegetable fats in addition to cocoa butter."

Je t'aime ...

Rarely can a song containing a line about kidneys have caused so much controversy. On 16 August 1969, the BBC announced that it had banned the French language hit "Je t'aime ... moi non plus" on the grounds that its Hammond organ, heavy breathing and orgasmic moans were "not considered suitable for play".

The song, by British singer and actress Jane Birkin and her French boyfriend Serge Gainsbourg outraged the British establishment. One line, "You come and you go between my kidneys", was alleged by critics to be a reference to *spam filter*. The record company, Phillips, promptly announced it was dropping the record from its catalogue.

Not that the British public was bothered. The song was rapidly reissued by another label and became the second-biggest selling single of the year.

Agincourt and Henry V

Alongside Trafalgar, the Battle of Britain and Liverpool's European Cup victory last month, Agincourt has long enjoyed a place in the pantheon of popular British triumphs over nominally superior foes.

The defeat on 25 October 1415 of the cavalry-heavy army of Charles VI of France by the archers and pikemen of Henry V of England provided material for jingoistic propaganda from Henry himself to Shakespeare. As the Bard put it in Henry V: "Proud of the numbers and secure in soul/ The confident and over-lusty French/ Do the low-rated English play at dice."

In fact, it was the blood thirst of the English that helped to carry the day and assert control over the French throne until defeat at the hands of Joan of Arc.

At least part of the English victory in a muddy field in northern France was due to the ruthlessness of Henry, who ordered all French prisoners to be slaughtered after fearing that his rear was under attack.

Recent research suggests English boasts of defeating a French force up to four times the size of the more lightly armed invasion force, have been somewhat exaggerated. A study by Southampton University has found that although the 12,000-strong French army was numerically superior, the English numbered 8,000 - far more than previously thought.


From its redoubt on the banks of the Seine, the Academie Française has spent much of the past 50 years fighting what it considers the most insidious threat to French culture - the English language.

The Academie, legal guardian of the French language, has the power to expunge "les anglicismes" from official documents and publicise gallic alternatives. In this vein, "le weekend" has become "la fin de semaine", "le Walkman" is "le balladeur" and "l'airbag" can only be expressed as "le sac gonflable".

It's an uphill struggle. As one leading French newspaper commented: "You cannot stop the ocean with your hands."

Trafalgar and Waterloo

For many historians, the Napoleonic War from 1803 to 1815 represented the clash of French global power at its height with the nascent British Empire. It was also a time when mutual French and British loathing was at its most visceral. As Admiral Horatio Nelson himself put it: "You must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil."

The Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 found Nelson's 27-strong Royal Navy fleet facing a combined Franco-Spanish force of 33 ships under French command.

Nelson's tactical guile allowed him to disrupt the enemy line and tear apart the French and Spanish vessels and by the end of the fighting, Franco-Spanish losses stood at 22 ships and 14,000 casualties. The British lost no ships and had only 1,691 dead or wounded.

The victory, which cost Nelson his life, put an end to any French plan to invade Britain and established British naval domination for a century. But it was not until the battle near the Belgian village of Waterloo a decade later that Napoleon's expansionist project finally foundered.

The victory that the Duke of Wellington himself classed as "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life" has been immortalised ever since in the popular imagination as the definitive British triumph over France.

In fact, the last open battle between the two nations involved seven countries and principalities, and the British merely formed the largest part of a coalition that included the Prussians, Hanoverians and Dutch.

The British victory was also only largely achieved after the Prussian general, Blucher, arrived in the dying hours of the battle on 18 June 1815 with 25,000 reinforcements.

Sinking of the French fleet at Mers el Kebir

In the aftermath of Dunkirk and facing defeat by Hitler in the summer of 1940, Britain turned its offensive capabilities against what it saw as the greatest threat to its naval survival - the French.

The British were concerned that the terms of surrender accepted by France would allow the French fleet to be used against the Royal Navy by the Germans and Italians, so Winston Churchill ordered a force to sail to the Algerian port of Mers el Kebir to secure the surrender or co-operation of an 11-strong French fleet, including four battleships.

When the French admiral, Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, refused the British terms, battle was joined on 3 July with the French ships still within the confines of the port. The Royal Navy force, consisting of three battleships and an aircraft carrier, exploited its advantage ruthlessly: by the end of the battle 1,297 French sailors were dead and four French ships, including three battleships, sunk or disabled. There were no British losses.

Churchill is said to have noted that the French had finally fought "with all their vigour for the first time since the war broke out". The battle and the tremendous loss of life was exploited by the Nazis, who produced propaganda denouncing the murderous and traitorous British.

A Gallic pitch invasion

As if their recent victories in the World Cup and European Championship were not enough, the French have taken over the British market in handsome and talented footballers. While, in the absence of David Beckham, Britain makes do with the pugilistic features of Wayne Rooney in the roll-call of world-class players, France has consistently exported good-looking men to seduce the footballing masses.

From the careful coiffure of David Ginola, formerly of Tottenham, to the va-va-voom of Arsenal's Thierry Henry, Gallic football has staged something of a take-over when it comes to the ability to make both sexes go weak at the knees.

Along with the admittedly less alluring Eric Cantona (the Manchester United star banned for nine months for delivering a flying kick to an abusive fan) and a host of current talent such as Arsenal's Robert Pires, the French seem to have cornered the market in players with flair and creativity for much of the past decade.

As one French sports commentator put it: "We have taken over your clubs, we have won your cups and you must ask yourself, whose pictures do your women look at in the magazines? You even secretly enjoyed it when Cantona did his kung fu."

The French influence on English football, reflected at managerial level in the success of Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, is all the more complete for the fact that no key British players ply their trade on the other side of the Channel.

Instead, it seems that, when it comes to football, the British appetite for all things French is undimmed. A poll of television adverts last year voted Thierry Henry's efforts for Renault as the most watchable.

Général de Gaulle

The complex relationship between the pre-eminent French leader of the 20th century and Britain's political elite reached its nadir in January 1963 when Charles de Gaulle delivered his famously abrupt verdict on the proposal that Britain join the Common Market. Asked to countenance the idea of London joining the then six-strong group of nations, the French president said: "Non."

De Gaulle later elaborated on his reasons: "England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries ... She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions."

The Olympic bid

In less than a month, the latest forum for a millennium of Anglo-French rivalry will reach its conclusion when the venue for the 2012 Olympics is announced. Under International Olympic Committee rules, all bidding cities must refrain from criticism of their competitors and - outwardly at least - London and Paris have been the epitome of good conduct.

Behind the scenes, however, there have been fractious moments. During the crucial evaluation visit by IOC officials to Paris in February, claims originated from London that France was breaking the rules by deploying police outriders to accompany the convoy.


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