Well, it would have to be a French referee, wouldn’t it? English rugby supporters are still raging about a decision by Pascal Gauzere in the match between us and the Welsh on Saturday, when he instructed the England captain Owen Farrell to tell his team to ‘change your behaviour’.
While Farrell gathered them around to do as the referee had ordered, Gauzere blew the whistle to restart play — and the Welsh zoomed past the bewildered English to score.
You might say the French have been telling us for about a thousand years to change our behaviour: they have always found the English perplexing. Agincourt and Trafalgar certainly didn’t help. And then there is World War II, in which our very different national experiences — Great Britain escaped invasion, while the French were conquered — still resonate.
As is made clear by the French ambassador to London at the time of the Brexit vote, Sylvie Bermann. She has a book coming out about her time here, Goodbye Britannia, and lets loose on this topic. She denounces what she calls the ‘partisans of Brexit’ for ‘reciting a history in which the UK is never defeated, never invaded’, and who ‘peddle the myth that the UK liberated Europe alone’.
Pascal Gauzere (right) in the match between us and the Welsh on Saturday, when he instructed the England captain Owen Farrell (left) to tell his team to ‘change your behaviour’
Mme Bermann says that although the French do have a debt of gratitude to the British ‘they were not alone and you cannot live with a history that stopped in June 1944’.
To use the language of the First World War trenches, Madame Bermann has gone over the top. I don’t know of any Brexiteers unaware of America’s role in the D-Day landings. And it would naturally be the case that France, having been invaded three times by Germany in the space of 75 years, would regard the idea of a European Union based on a Franco-German partnership as vital, in a way that the British simply don’t.
I was fascinated more by her use of the word ‘insolently’ to describe the way the Cameron government invited French entrepreneurs to move to the UK, when the then French President, Francois Hollande, introduced a wealth tax. Not just because their elites really do consider us to be insolent in usurping the glory of France, but also because they have long had a deep suspicion of what they call ‘Anglo-Saxon finance’.
Pascal Gauzere and the England captain Owen Farrell (left) during the match on Saturday
In President Macron’s case, it is a personally-felt rivalry. He was a financier by profession, and painfully aware of the City of London’s dominance of his trade. He has been assiduous in attempting to use Brexit to get such businesses to move to Paris, but without success.
Also, perhaps more even than his predecessors, Macron is driven by the desire to make French, rather than English, the planet’s dominant tongue.
During a visit to Burkina Faso in 2017, he declared ‘French will be the first language of Africa’ — well, maybe — but then added ‘perhaps the world’. Not in a million years; and I speak as one who loves to hear my wife speak in beautiful fluent French when we travel there (her education was in that language).
Perhaps Macron was merely pandering to the Académie Francaise, which devotes itself to preventing the pollution of its language by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ terms. It has been a losing battle. As a French newspaper observed: ‘You cannot stop the ocean with your hands’.
The French ambassador to London at the time of the Brexit vote, Sylvie Bermann (pictured), denounces what she calls the ‘partisans of Brexit’ in her new book Goodbye Britannia
I became aware of how much this vexes the French establishment when attending a conference in Lisbon some years ago. I noticed that a senior French civil servant, who had spoken in the same session as mine, was filling out a form.
Nosily, I asked what it was. She replied that French officials, whenever they attended such events, were asked to note which sessions were conducted in French, and, if they had not been, whether they had at least made efforts to ensure that they were.
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Our session had been in English — including her contribution. But, she said with a laugh: ‘I will put down that I spoke in French. It just saves trouble.’
But it’s not so funny if French antagonism towards British global reach constitutes a risk to public health.
For example, when Macron asserted that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was ‘quasi-ineffective’ in older people. Not only was this completely unsubstantiated, it will have added to the dangerously high levels of ‘anti-vax’ sentiment in France, especially among the elderly, for whom doses are most vital.
After it was shown that a first dose of the Oxford vaccine had reduced hospitalisations with Covid in the over-80s by 94 per cent, Macron did a volte-face, and said he would take it himself.
But the damage had been done: last week, the French medical newspaper Le Quotidien du Medecin reported on a surgery in Paris where half the patients with comorbidities offered the British jab had refused it.
Naturally, the haughty Macron was too proud to admit that he had made a mistake. As the UK-based French journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet observed of this incident: ‘You never admit to a mistake in France, a Latin heritage country.’
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a press conference after a European Council summit via video call at The Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France last month
Actually, British politicians are not known for their readiness to apologise for errors, so I would make no claim to cultural superiority in this respect.
The truth is that each of our nations regards itself as ineffably superior to its nearest neighbour. This will always stand in the way of a close relationship, even now a tunnel links us.
Perhaps this relationship was best expressed by the former finance director of Eurotunnel, Graham Corbett: ‘The French can only think in threes, the Brits without any structure at all; the French are more likely to keep you out of trouble, but the Brits will get you out of it once you’re in it.’
And we’re all in the same trouble now.
What’s Grant Shapps got that I haven’t?
How lovely for Grant Shapps to be the first member of the cabinet to get a Covid-19 vaccination. And if that sounds a little bitter, then it is.
The Transport Secretary is 52 years old, so how did that happen? He told his local newspaper, the Welwyn Hatfield Times: ‘I received my call from the GP surgery to come for my first vaccination.
‘I was so surprised to receive the call I actually called back and checked they got it right. Turns out it’s because a couple of decades ago I had cancer.’
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps becomes the first member of the cabinet to get vaccinated at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield
What? I had cancer, thankfully caught very early, much more recently than that. And I’m 64. But no call from our own local surgery for a jab. Which is fair enough, because having had cancer is not on the NHS vaccine priority list.
But I have been feeling increasingly left out. My elder daughter had the vaccine in December, as she works for the NHS and has been seeing patients throughout. My younger daughter was inoculated three weeks ago because she has a condition the NHS defines as one which makes her ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’. And my wife was vaccinated at the same time, because she is designated as a carer for our daughter.
Grant Shapps, 52, after being vaccinated this week. He had cancer ‘a couple of decades ago’
I couldn’t be happier that they are all now on the way to being fully protected, of course. I was less overjoyed, during a ‘Zoom dinner’ last week with some friends, who are younger than me, when all of them said they had just had their first jab. They are Londoners, and perhaps things are moving faster there than in rural East Sussex, where we live: even so, it was hard to express my delight at their good fortune with complete sincerity.
Then, on Friday, I had a call from our surgery inviting me to ‘come in for … a blood test, to check on your PSA levels’. Hopes raised and then dashed within a single sentence. What’s Grant Shapps got that I haven’t? Yes, I know: a Covid vaccination certificate.