Are the UK and France enemies, really?

I don’t know what it’s like to be at the receiving end of real racism. As in someone thinking I am less than them simply for the colour of my skin. I do not fully understand the anger, the frustration, the internal struggles of being different on the outside. Does it mean being different on the inside?   

What I do know is how I react when I see a cartoon representing the Prime Minister of the country I live in, surrounded by beheaded people from the country I come from. In 2018 Europe. Makes my blood boil. Might as well be me, decapitated, depicted at the feet of the enemy. In Brexit Britain. Sure my President was on a very tight rope when he offered to loan a tapestry that portrays a victory from one of his – and my- country’s regions, to the Kingdom that was defeated. 

Almost a 1,000 years ago. 

As a French woman interested in art, and having visited the Bayeux museum with my binational family about 10 years ago (and yes my sons do remember the long embroidered cloth), I thought the President’s gift to accompany his visit was a great idea. This is a stunning 1,000 year old work of art that has never travelled outside of France since it was made, even if it was made in Battle or Hastings. After Paris’ museums and Versailles, the Bayeux museum is the most visited in France. At 400,000 visitors per year, a majority of them British, this Unesco listed craftsmanship seemed to me to be a gesture of goodwill, of historic value that explains why a fair few people in the UK have Norman sounding names. 

A common history. 

Well, I was wrong. I realised my French perspective was misconstrued. I’m not Norman, so I had never heard of the Bayeux tapestry until I came to the UK, I don’t think many French people really care that much about 1066. Most won’t know the date, nor the artwork. But when I handed The Telegraph to the customer in my local village shop in deep Dorset and commented on the front cover and the tapestry loan: “That’s great, isn’t?”, with a big smile on my face, his steely stare and long face snapped me right back to my new Brexit reality. So much for small talk, I never was very good at it. It dawned on me that as a Brit, especially one who loves history, the empire and the exceptionalism of being British, what is more important than the craft of a piece of history, is the message. As Rees-Smog confirmed when he offered in exchange for the French gesture, a scrap of the flag flown by Nelson’s HMS Victory at Trafalgar. A scrap. Oh the choice of word. The embodiment of contempt in one sentence from his lofty height. 

No doubt even friends of mine found him funny. Hilarious, even, maybe. 

France offers to lend a Unesco listed medieval masterpiece that ties our countries for over 1,000 years, and in return ‘the Tory darling’ (as described in the Daily Mail) suggest a mere scrap of bleu blanc rouge cloth. Yes the union jack has great historical significance, of course, as does the Rosetta Stone, but why this insistence on gloating in British superiority when it comes to war? Is it a sign of strength, or is it weakness in the face of past glories that crumbled in a new world where dividing to conquer proves harder than in the days of old where diplomacy was solely conducted being closed doors? Yes Normandy is indeed an inescapable witness to the British troops who saved France from Hitler, along with allied nations oft forgotten from British stories who would still see France pay back for being saved. Ad vitam eternam. In 2018, as we mark 100 years of the end of “The War to end all wars” we can choose to remember what we have achieved together, 

our common past, or the wars we fought against each other. Forever more. 

What is striking, is that whilst the UK obsesses over leaving the EU, France and the UK work together in matters of defence with our armed forces, our security, including cybersecurity and terrorism, our information -including foreign and humanitarian aid and diplomatic services. When one of the reasons for leaving the EU was the threat of an EU army, it is worth noting that this cooperation is continuing, including with NATO over Iraq, within Europe. The UK and France agreed to continue working together on Iran, on North Korea, on the Middle East and a two state solution for Israel and Palestine with Jerusalem as a common capital, on Syria, on Lebanon, on Yemen, on Libya, on Russia’s foreign and defence policies. France and the UK have agreed to work together in the Caribbean when natural disasters strike British territories or french départements.

Where were all these details about cooperation in the British media?  

In 2017 French and British forces cooperated to take down 44 traffickers networks for migrants. It’s not just about the extra money the UK has agreed to pay France to help with policing the British border because the migrants stuck in Calais don’t want to stay in France, but want to come to the UK as they have for years. France deals with the British border on French soil. Surely a bit of extra cash is only fair? So no, 50 million euros is not the price to pay to get the Tapestry, as tabloids spewed, it is a fraction of what it costs France, the North Region, Calais, Ouistreham, Dunkerque for dealing with a crisis that is international. It’s human lives, it’s loss of earning for whole areas. The alternative is to let migrants come to Kent, how would that work? What has been agreed, for all concerned, is that rather than 6 months, migrants wanting to emigrate to the UK will have to be processed in one month by the Home Office.

Let’s see how that goes. 

Just imagine you live in Kent and have thousands of migrants living on your doorstep. But these people don’t want to live in the UK, they actually want to live in France, mainly because they have family there, yet because of international laws, because they don’t have any papers for officials to send them back to where they come from, because they come from war zones, because their life back home is so atrocious they travelled for months; just imagine they were stuck on your doorstep for months. How would you like the French on the other side of the border refusing to take them in, whilst you are dealing with what is actually their border? 

See, it’s difficult to imagine being someone else. I am not British, I’ve never had a Royal Family, I was not born on an island, I have no idea what it is like inside my psyche to be Anglo-Saxon. I lived with the aftermath of the Algerian war, as France still does, which does not make for pride in an empire or colonies, no Commonwealth, no common language with the master of the Planet that are, the United States of America. Are the USA still the greatest nation on Earth? Is the UK still as masterful as it was when it ruled the seas? 

France is a great nation. The United Kingdom is a great Kingdom, if a bit more complicated in its unity. Neither are perfect, nor evil. But together if they wish, they can achieve much greater things than separately. As indeed they already do. After his visit to the UK, the French President met the German Chancellor. Together they are travelling to Davos, together they want to build a better Europe, it’s in the interest of our countries, but apparently I can no longer include the UK when I say our, or we. 

Of all that has happened since my President’s visit to the UK, what saddened me most was not the British tabloids being their francophobe self, or the jingoist politicians, I’m used to these by now, it was seeing Macron and Merkel at a joint press conference a day later. Both presented a united front, they stood shoulder to shoulder, they were at ease with each other, they spoke, united, with Europe in mind. What saddened me most is the realisation that there is no British Prime Minister that wants to be part of this cooperation. What a force that would be when facing the rest of the world if there were the three rather than the two biggest economies in Europe working as a united force. Surely if Germany and France can work together when they were such enemies a mere few decades ago, why can’t the UK join in? 

If only the UK admitted that they will have to pay for access to that European market, that they will continue to cooperate (quietly) on defence (just don’t call it a European army), that they will continue to need immigration as they need workers of all abilities. If only the British people realised that other countries are no different, they also struggle with their Health Service as population grows older and we are more and better treated than when these services were created, they also struggle with the old industrialised areas where the working classes find themselves out of the loop of globalisation, their people also resent tax evading multinationals, their working classes also resent the establishment, as their establishment often resent their working classes.

And middle classes everywhere pay vast amounts of taxes. 

Are the UK’s economic and social realities really the ‘EU’s fault’ if problems in the US are not dissimilar? Will the UK be better off as the 51st American state? More American television, more YouTube, more Black Fridays, more Starbucks, more privatisation of health, prisons, schools. Will the UK reach an advantageous deal with China who have much to sell, whatever the safety or quality of the products? With India who would love easier immigration into the UK? 

Will the UK blame the EU for defending its interests (punishing the UK as the British translation goes)? Of course it will. Will that blame game be in the interest of the British people? As the world’s governments swing from harder right to the left and back again, as they always do, will an international progressive left finally manage to swing the playing field in their favour? 

If it does, will Britain’s colonial past catch up or match up with its intentions to go and conquer the world again? 

It will be years before we can answer that question. Or will it be months? Who knows in our current mad fast world.


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