What the French really think of Brexit (and the British) – an expat's view
The French have a view on the British. But Brexit? Not so much. CREDIT: GETTY
Anthony Peregrine, FRANCE EXPERT
16 October 2018 • 9:14am

It’s the second most frequent question I’m asked by British visitors. “So what,” they say, “do the French think of us, now we’re slamming the door?” (The most frequent query is: “Will the shops be open on Sunday?”) The answer generally disappoints.

In the main, the French don’t think of us very often – they’ve got their own country to think about – and they think of Brexit a great deal less. I have yet to meet a French person with any sort of view on the Irish border question.
That said, and in so far as the French do consider us, Brexit hasn’t materially altered their view of Britain and the British. Our departure is seen simply as another example of national idiosyncrasy, like punks and black taxis. And it’s this idiosyncrasy which intrigues, well beyond the reach of contemporary politics. Having mislaid their own, for instance, they are besotted with our royal family. Weekly magazines are full of Windsors. They pretend the interest is ironic, but it isn’t.
“What are they really like?” I am often asked, for many assume the royals move among us like health visitors. “First rate!” I always say – eliciting envy from a people whose recent figureheads have included Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy.
But puzzlement follows. One moment we appear to be a nation of easily-shocked gentle-folk, taking our lead from the monarch and speaking stiff-lipped like Sir Alec Douglas-Home; the next, a ruthless ultra-liberal economy sending robber bankers out to pummel the proletariat into poverty – and then a bunch of overweight yobs excited only by binge-drinking, take-away chicken and drive-by shootings.
Britain gave the world Alec Douglas-Home and binge-drinking. Confusing. CREDIT: GETTY
The image is further confused by betting shops – “You can bet on snow for Christmas?” – and a continuing disdain for British food: overcooked meat, coffees big enough to dunk babies in and fruit jelly. My French neighbour once said: “Any nation which eats fruit jelly cannot reasonably be called serious.” Of Christmas pudding, she said: “In France, we’d use this to fill holes in the road.” There’s little doubt that, in dispensing instruction in gastronomy, the French feel they are paying us back amply for help in two world wars.
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  Shake all hands; make to kiss any advancing cheek, male or female. Such formality means that greetings for a soirée often outlast the soirée itself. Maybe no bad thing.
  Cry “Bonjour monsieur-dame” on entering smaller retail premises. If you did this in Britain at the mini-market – “Good day, ladies and gentlemen!” – they’d think you were introducing elephants or some other circus act. But it oils wheels in France.
  Outside major cities, keep vegetarianism secret.
  Go easy with irony. The French generally take things at face value. You chirp, “What-ho, you four-eyed fascist so and so”, and it will end badly. Especially if the four-eyed fellow in question is sticking up National Front posters.
  Think twice before binge-drinking. The French don’t throw up in the street, collapse on pavements with skirts around their necks or chuck beer bottles at the war memorial. Not even on Saturday nights. No, really.
  If you want to talk about Rimbaud or Proust, go right ahead. The French have no equivalent of “too clever by half”. In Britain, you mention Keats or George Eliot, you’d better follow up damned quickly with a reference to the QPR back four. In France, they have philosophers on television.
  Understand that the gap between what’s said and what’s done is bigger than in Great Britain. To hear them speak, French people never enter fast-food joints or supermarkets, and are entertained only by ballet, opera or Molière. So you have to ask who are the hundreds before you in the queue at McDonald’s, the Carrefour checkout or the ticket-office for the Abba tribute show.
  No French person ever says “sacré bleu” or “zut alors”.
  Note that we agonise about different things. The French haven’t yet sorted out whether it’s OK to delve into the private lives of public people. They are, though, pretty cool about sex.
  They do not, as we do, react as if it’s rediscovered weekly, perhaps because they lack a tabloid press to raise the alarm.
  Make the most of being British. Politics aside, the French admire us – and with the Beatles, Stones and Mott the Hoople (stacked against Johnny Hallyday), Manchester United (vs FC Sochaux) and HM The Queen, you can see we’ve serious cards. Play them ruthlessly. The average French person wants to believe that you’re a chum of David Beckham, Keith Richards and Prince Philip. You’ll be fighting off invitations.
Anthony Peregrine
But doubts creep in elsewhere, where we’re clearly superior. Even the French suspect that the world would kick Molière, Racine or Corneille – indeed, all three – off a life-raft to make space for Shakespeare. The nation which accorded a state funeral for Johnny Hallyday knows it can’t hold a tambourine to British pop music. (Only a state funeral for Billy J Kramer would indicate otherwise.) And, though funny themselves, the French genuflect before the British comedy. “Monty Peeton!” they cry, with glee. Then again, they would say, and have said, a nation faced with fruit jelly and Christmas pudding needs a sharp sense of humour. It might also explain our dress sense. (Another neighbour, on returning from a weekend in Bristol: “Do all British women get dressed with their eyes closed?”)
Most French people, though, meet most British people when we are on holiday in their country – and, as tourists, we rate very highly indeed. We are thought to be polite, easily impressed and agreeably diffident. “In restaurants,” says a tourism worker I know, “the Germans act as colonists and we French are marking the place out of 10. But the British are sitting there quietly, wondering if they’re allowed to enjoy themselves.” And an aristocratic vineyard owner: “French visitors think they know everything already, so learn nothing. British visitors don’t pretend to knowledge they don’t have, so learn a lot. We much prefer them.”
Ici nous avons les diagrammes modernes d'un mouton anglo-français CREDIT: TELEVISION STILLS
Especially as, even with sterling round our ankles, we spend well. Thus are we indulged for the food, wayward dress sense (socks and sandals, doubtful cardigans) and belief that saying: “Bonjour” makes us bi-lingual.
After a millennium or more of near-neighbourliness, our image is therefore bitter-sweet – but more sweet than bitter these days. (Especially if we’re Scottish, but let’s leave the Auld Alliance alone). Our relationship has survived the Hundred Years War, the Duke of Wellington and Coldplay tours. Brexit will register as a blip and no more.
Et vous connaissez que ces idiots sont suffisamment
indomptables, ne vous?
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