Why Do the English Hate the French?

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It's practically a fact of life here in England, like rain half the summer, painfully congested Tube traffic, and conversations about the weather: The English hate the French.

They've written songs about this centuries-long enmity "“ like Rowan Atkinson's 1980 Live in Belfast comedy show, which included a performance of the plainly titled "I Hate the French," they've dedicated articles and blogs to the topic, and they've even published books on the subject.

Even, of course, if most English people don't actually hate the French. Some of them love the French, renounce their Englishness, and go spend a year (or years) in Provence, then write books about it.

In any case, a few years ago, the Telegraph put together a list of 30 reasons why the English hate the French, which was handy, but a bit cheeky "“ after all, there's got to be more to Anglo-Franco antagonism than the fact that the French bathe less than the English (and many other nations), don't change their underwear everyday, and wear silly flat hats. So, with the Telegraph as a jumping off place, we've come up with a few more answers to the question why the English hate the French.

Because they're always fighting

It all started back in 1066, when William the Conqueror "“ the one that was so fat he couldn't ride his horse, so then he went on an all-liquid (read: liquor) diet "“ trounced the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. Armed with some relatively spurious claims to the English throne and a force of more than 15,000 infantry, cavalry, and archers, William, Duke of Normandy, won the throne and engendered a long line of nobility and rulers, and, of course, a bitter rivalry between the proto-English isle and the Continental French.

In the early years, the Norman kingdom was somewhat confused: Anglo-Saxons led by French-Norman nobility, even Richard the Lionheart, prototypical "English" medieval king, spoke mostly French and spent most of his time in France. Subsequent to the Norman Conquest, the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons essentially merged to become a rather new culture "“ even the French and the Anglo-Saxon languages combined, then became something different all together "“ the precursor to modern English (this could be why the English call zucchinis "courgettes" and eggplants "aubergines").

But despite their Frenchy origins, the new(ish) Norman kingdom was created as distinct from the kingdom of France, and relations between the two were troubled. Just about 300 years after the initial conquest, the now nearly English House of Plantagenet battled the very French House of Valois over the French throne during the Hundred Years War. This was the war when teenage Joan of Arc led her people to victory and gave voice to how the French felt about the English right around then: "Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there." The struggle ultimately didn't go well for England, which lost Normandy and became, finally, the island nation we now know.

French-English relations never really recovered, but they never really got a chance to, with all the time spent fighting. In all, England has fought 35 wars with France since 1066; England won 23, lost 11, and determined a mutual defeat after the American Revolution.

Because the French are rude

The English aren't quite the world's most polite people, but they're close and they do take a certain pride in their manners and reserve (but don't mistake that reserve for unfriendliness, advised one American GI guide from WWII). So the famed French rudeness "“ mostly famous in England "“ is somewhat of an affront to their existence.

The English are quick to produce evidence of French rudeness: In London restaurants, it takes an average of 3.4 minutes to get a glass of water after the waiter has been alert, compared to 17.9 minutes in Paris; many French people don't clean up after their dogs, leaving around 6,438 US tons of canine crap on their streets each year; and with some, there's an odor problem "“ 40 percent of French men and 25 percent of women don't change their underwear every day and only 47 percent bathe every day.

mrrude.jpgThe idea that French people are rude has become so indoctrinated in English culture that a recent remake of the Mr. Men cartoons (Mr. Grumpy, Mr. Tickles, etc.), featured a character named Mr. Rude, who farts, blows raspberries, and speaks with a French accent. Oh, snaps.

And then there's the fact that there is an actual recognized medical syndrome describing the psychological breakdown that occurs when a foreign traveler to Paris discovers that the city of romance and light isn't all its cracked up to be. It's called "Paris Syndrome" and it appears to particularly affect Japanese tourists not accustomed to a society where it's acceptable for a waiter to yell at a customer if they don't speak fluent French.

Because they're food snobs

michelin.jpgFrance has long been convinced not only of their cuisine's superiority over that of every other country, but in particular, over its near neighbor, England. And that stings.

Frustration with and dismissal of French food snobbery has become part of English life, but in recent years, as English chefs have been working hard to revamp the sorry state and image of English cuisine, it's become more pointed. And it's a conversation that happens each year, when the Michelin guide, a restaurant guidebook featuring the actual Michelin man on its cover that's been a European standard for more than 100 years, is published. While it's odd enough that a tire company could be such a long-respected arbiter of luxury, taste and refinement, British restaurant circles are more attenuated to the fact that it's a French institution. And in 2009, though there were 26 three-star rated restaurants in France, there were only three in the UK. Coincidence? The English think not.

Because they're wine snobs

In the wine world, the English had a wonderful time gloating over the famous defeat of French wines during a blind taste test at the Judgment of Paris in 1976 (see the film Bottle Shock). While it was a Californian wine that did the honors, toppling the French wine crown, just watching someone, anyone, beat the French was incredibly satisfying. And of course, the English are very happy to remind you that it was an English wine merchant who brought the Californian wine to the expo.

Because they're fashion snobs

A French woman (or man, for that matter), as countless catwalks and fashion magazines have reinforced, could walk out of their pied a terre attired entirely in brown burlap and make it seem enviably fashionable. Fashion in England, on the other hand, tends to be, well, strikingly unfashionable. (Witness English designer Stella McCartney's recent lace jumpsuit mess at the Met's Costume Institute Gala.)

In her ethnographic study Watching the English, anthropologist Kate Fox discusses England's inability to reliably dress well and relates a tale that probably sums up French snobbishness toward English taste: "On one occasion, when I protested that singling us out in this way was a bit unfair, a rather grand French lady replied, "˜It is perfectly fair. One does not expect much from the colonies, but you English are supposed to be civilized Europeans. You really should know better. Paris is what, an hour away?'" This particularly scathing conversation took place, Fox said, at Royal Ascot, a horse race that primarily serves to showcase well-dressed and heeled Englishwomen in their "smartest frocks" and hats.

Because French women "don't get fat"

According to French woman and author Mirielle Guiliano, French women don't get fat. Yes, despite all those rich, full fat dishes like fois gras and charming desserts stuffed with chocolate and cream and sugar, French people are still arrestingly thin, beautiful, and well, French. It's just like The Brady Bunch: England is Jan and it's always "France, France, France."

However, recent studies have thrown a bit more light on the phenomenon: With an average body mass index of 23.2, French women are in fact the thinnest women in Western Europe (French men are also the slimmest in Western Europe). But that might be because they worry much, much more about it than their other Western European sisters. According to the same study, though France harbored the highest proportion of underweight women, only half of those women believed they were underweight.

On the other hand, British women maintain the highest average body mass index, at 26.2 "“ yet most believe they're just the right size.

Because the French hate the English, too

But perhaps the best explanation for why the English antagonize, dislike, make fun of, and are humorously intolerant of the French is because the French do it to them. Just as the English brand things that they are moderately intolerant of as "French" (a "French letter" among the WWII generation, for example, was a condom), so too do the French term unacceptable things "Anglais" (the French word for condom, accordingly, was "capote Anglais").

French Rugby player Sylvain Marconnet summed it up pretty well, just before the fiercely competitive Six Nations Rugby tournament this year: "I'm French and I cultivate a kind of hate for the English," he said. "This hate has been passed on to me and I'll pass it on."

May 13, 2009 - 10:28am
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