Bruni and Sarkozy disarm the British in cross-Channel charm offensive
France's first couple breeze past centuries of British-French antagonism on two-day state visit.
(Page 2 of 2)
So when France dug in its heels over the Iraq war, it was a cue for British tabloids to rush out all the old jokes, including the one about the number of gears on French tanks (five reverse and one forward, in case of attack from behind).Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The relationship has not been helped by some particularly explosive personal chemistry. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Mr. Mitterand famously did not get on, he once describing her as "an impossible woman." Tony Blair and Mr. Chirac were not much better. The French leader once reportedly told Mr. Blair he had been "very badly brought up" after he challenged him on a policy point. Chirac was later overheard joking that "we can't trust people who have such bad food."
Yet within that last remark lies a delicate hint of the origins of rapprochement. Britain can no longer be dismissed as a nation of "bad food." Hundreds of French chefs have seen to that. French citizens have moved in the thousands to Britain in recent years, such that London is now, as Sarkozy remarked, the seventh-biggest French city. French accents are ubiquitous: at the school gates, in restaurants, on trains, in clubs and bars.
In return, hundreds of thousands of Brits have moved in the opposite direction and are so numerous in parts of rural France that they are running for office. Cultural barriers, once steep, are being eroded.
A neat example: Thursday's summit was at the Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal Football Club, which for several years has boasted as many French internationals on its books as English. And it has a French manager, Arsène Wenger. Few fans are complaining, even if it does relegate British players to lower leagues.
Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian and professor of European studies at Oxford University, says old enmities have become "irrelevant" in a world where "we are both medium-sized European powers, where Britain is increasingly a European country, and France is increasingly globalized, and we are all mixed up together indifferent ways including commercially."
But he cautions that Sarkozy's grand overture may not result in a glorious era of Anglo-French bonhomie. At the heart of his appeal was a call for Britain to become more closely engaged with the EU. Britain may be a more European country these days, but political discourse is still dominated by Euroskeptics unconvinced by the case for closer affinity with the 27-nation bloc.
"The political class in France and Germany assumes that the other is their first partner in Europe," he says. "The political class in Westminster certainly doesn't assume that. It assumes that its first partner is the US, and still has quite a lot of reservations about Europe."
Brits would, he adds, be misguided if they thought Sarkozy's offer was about replacing France's long-term partner Germany with a new paramour. "It would be very foolish to understand that it's us instead of Germany," he says, "it's us as well as Germany. A ménage à trois."