Few nations fascinate the British as much as France. And few countries are as scrutinised by the French as Britain. I should know. It has been my work and my raison d’être since I first set foot in London in the autumn of 1995.
Every day, I step into my British shoes or put on my French hat in order to understand and explain why we do things differently, and why we, more often than not, think about the world in diametrically opposite ways.
I must have experienced all the subtleties of feelings when it comes to Franco-British relations: alienation, bewilderment, amusement, acute irritation, abyssal frustration and, let’s admit it, deep admiration. And love too.
France and Britain are two faces of the same coin. Best enemies. Contrarian twins joined at the hip. We could have become one country, a thousand years back. The English court even spoke French. Fancy that. But this was not to be. And thank heaven. Instead we have grown, side by side, under each other’s watchful gaze, always measuring ourselves against the other, with occasional impulses of invasion, before settling for peaceful competition.
For many in Britain, France remains mysteriously attractive. They don’t know exactly what it is, they can’t quite put their finger on it, so they often resort to a French expression to define it. France has this “je ne sais quoi” that is so charming, endearing, thrilling, even. It feels sometimes as if the French way of life represents an unattainable ideal. Some call it the French secret, others the French exception. I’d call it the French paradox.
Style and Beauty
Take style and beauty, for instance. French chic is always referred to as both effortless and terribly sophisticated. French movie stars, be they Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve or Juliette Binoche, are famous all over the world for their elegance and an impossible combination of gamine insouciance and Olympian beauty.
Innovation and pleasure, invention and beauty in all things, are carved into French DNA
International bestsellers such as French Women Don’t Get Fat and, more recently, French Women Don’t Get Facelifts convey the same idea in print of almost organic perfection. Such perfection may be seen from abroad as “natural”; however, it has had some help from a world-leading cosmetic industry which has astutely built an image of luxury, refinement and ease.
French cuisine offers another enigma. Here is a country on a rich diet of saturated fats boasting low rates of cardiovascular diseases and the lowest obesity levels in the world. French gastronomy has certainly evolved since the time of chef Auguste Escoffier, who elevated sauce to an art and was the man who brought “high dining” to 1890s London.
However, creativity and pleasure are still the key ingredients of a gastronomy which, after a lull in the 1980s and 1990s, has recently seen new blood and new talent, sometimes from far-flung places, rejuvenating French terroir and France’s culinary traditions.
Innovation and pleasure, invention and beauty in all things, are carved into French DNA. The quest for novelty, from engineering to fashion and design, goes together with a deep concern for aesthetics. What is useful must be beautiful.
Think about cinema. This French invention, made into an industry by Hollywood at the beginning of the 20th century and viewed merely as entertainment, was elevated to an art form by both French critics and the French public. France calls cinema the “seventh art”, a reference to Hegel, who had identified the first five arts as architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry. Then came dance. France added cinema.
Quality of Life
The French paradox extends to almost every facet of life in France. Decade after decade we hear that France cannot afford the quality of life it is providing for its citizens, that the French state is on the brink of financial collapse.
Yet, miraculously, it keeps doing just that, spoiling its citizens with great public services, from state-of-the-art and heavily subsidised super-fast trains, linking Paris to Marseilles in just three hours and costing as little as €30 for a return ticket, to the most generous, efficient and high-tech of health systems, the best in the world according to the World Health Organization.
The terrible irony, of course, is that pampered French citizens, enjoying a life expectancy that is among the highest in the world, are mostly unaware of how lucky they are, always asking for more and taking to the streets at the slightest whim to defend their much-cherished way of life.
One day the French may have to wake up from their dream life, which many predict can’t go on for ever; but before they do, let’s cross the Channel and bask in La douce France.