Perfidious Albion Non Plus

France Faces Facts About Its Neighbour

For a thousand years of history, the French have hated the British. But now, as the world enters the twenty-first century, is France throwing in the towel on its age-old rivalry?

It’s like some terrible dream. You run through a wood, shadowed by a relentless, hateful thing. You hear mocking laughter, smell breath rotten with beer and poor dentistry at your neck. It’s going to leap...! You jolt awake but, . calmes-toi, you’re in bed at home and, why, here is maman with your cafe au lait and your blue blankie. Wait, that’s not ma... It’s the thing. It’s back and you’re still trapped in a dream. It’s deja vu all over again! The French have a word for this kind of nightmare; the British. 

For a thousand years. Britain was at almost perpetual war with France, blocking Europe’s domination by the Sun King, the Jacobins or Napoleon, or at the least stopping France escaping into the outside world. 

Between 1689 and 1815 alone, Britain took her on in seven major world wars. Peace, even when France was nominally an ally, was like a cold war. Various British justifications were given at various times. Sometimes it was God, gold, the flag, the slave trade or the anti-slave trade or the basic belief that the principles of “Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité” were the same in practice as “Arbeit macht frei” or “Workers of the world, unite!”. The underlying geo-strategic theme remained consistent; screw the French.

As a result, French is not the common language of modern Germany, Italy, Holland, Spain, India, America, the workable parts of Africa or (despite an persistent sore on its north-west side) nearly all of Canada. "If it had not been for you English”, said Napoleon throwing in the towel at last to a Royal Navy captain, “I should have been Emperor of the East; but wherever there is water to float a ship, we are sure to find you in our way.” He was then carried off to perpetual exile on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic.

In the twentieth century, the rivalry faded away. In the real world wars, as far as the French were concerned, the United Kingdom proved a useful but not decisive ally, and after them, it was all played out. With its domination of the European Union, for France to worry about what the British did or thought would be to acknowledge them as some kind of equal, like comparing a noble Alpine eagle to a bluebottle. 

From time to time, naturally, some slaps had to be administered to the British. President de Gaulle happily vetoed the U.K.’s entry into the European Union twice and even when it finally got in in 1973, Margaret Thatcher had to negotiate until 1983 to get a rebate on the British payments made to the Union (which, if left alone, would have left the country, then the third poorest member, paying fifteen times more than France). Even so, the French felt confident enough to ignore EU laws when it suited to remind the British who was boss, allowing its farmers to hijack trucks coming into France in the 1980s carrying Welsh lamb while the gendarmerie looked on bemused. 

And yet, as the millennium dawned, France began to wake up from its deep dream of neighbourly superiority to find perfidious Albion not only level but ahead in every field about which France cares. 

For a start, the French have discovered that the EU doesn’t belong to them any more. As soon as the wily Brits finally got through the gates they threw the keys over the wall to other nations still waiting outside. The UK’s quiet but concerted campaign for enlargement has seen the French-speaking majority of the original seven founding nations diluted into a polyglot twenty-six. 

Just how diluted became clear in June 2005, at a grand summit in Brussels, when the French proposed that Britain’s €3 billion ($3.7bn) annual rebate be cut. Britain agreed but only so long as the French renounced their 22% share of the total European agriculture budget, a far heftier €12 billion ($15bn) pay-off. To its fury, France found the Brit-led majority agreed. and Chirac stormed out to tell reporters how ‘pathetic and tragic’ it all was that France’s vote now counted only as much as, say, Estonia’s.

These budget squabbles are a sign of larger struggle for the soul of Europe, the confrontation between Britain’s free-market economy and France’s “social model” with its high taxes, big spending welfare and tight regulation. And France appears to have lost the upper hand to those dirty fighters over the Channel. Despite its smaller population and landmass consisting mostly of rocks, the freewheeling UK now outweighs its neighbour not just in domestic product but in economic growth. Most of the continent, emerging from decades of central planning and creaky welfare states, no longer considers France as a good model with its 10% unemployed and the highest tax rates in mainland Europe despite the pleas of President Chirac: “I do not think the British example is one we should envy”. “If the French model is working so well”, snapped back one EU Commissioner referring to the recent economic unrest that broke out across the country in late 2005, “why are their cities on fire?”

Anyway, the French shrug, who cares about vulgar money? We may be poor (and France is the only country where “peasant” is actually a compliment) but at least we have “l’art de vie”, while all les sales anglos have, according to one recent Parisian newspaper, is “knitting jumpers and breeding rabbits”. 

The French government has quoted figures produced by itself and its British opposite number in Westminster comparing poverty levels; only 7% of the French live in ‘poverty’ compared to 17% of the British. Poverty is measured in different ways either side of the Channel: British calculate integers such as two household televisions and a cellphone as placing you above the poverty line while the French set the marker at in-door plumbing. 

The French themselves feel they are failing in comparison with their bumptious next door neighbours – except in taking antidepressants, at a rate out-consuming Britain by five times. In May 2005, the conservative newspaper Le Point summed up what a whole wave of French books, articles and media programmes have been insinuating since the turn of the millennium: “Albion, for the moment, is causing us envy rather than pity. Britain is displaying insolent economic health and British diplomacy is exerting its influence over a Europe... increasingly shaped to its wishes’. The lament was developed by its counterpart on the left, Le Nouvel Observateur, touted as the weekly bible of the thinking classes, in a series of articles called simply: ‘Why are the British better than us?’

In July, Nicolas Sarkozy, a senior government politician, deliberately needled his bitter rival President Chirac by summing up the comparison by asking: “Who would have thought in thirty years, Great Britain would have become a leading light in the world? They have modernised the country, fundamentally revised their values, abandoned taboos and achieved great ambition.”

Chirac made no answer but flew out to Singapore to finish off the four-year French campaign to persuade the International Olympics Committee to make Paris the venue for the 2012 Summer Olympics, to not only provide much needed commercial boost but help restore the morale of the country. "We think our country needs the Olympic Games for its development, for lasting development, to make it attractive”, he schmoozed. “We have presented the assets of France but also the desires of France.” Paris was the obvious choice. Where else could possibly they hold the games?

The IOC deliberated and then decreed:

London in 2012.


“Perfidious albion” The insult traditionally thrown at Britain by its so sadly unfulfilled friends over the English Channel (the name France is officially forced to call this sea by the 1763 Treaty of Paris, ending another unsuccessful war against its neighbours) has a long history. It originates in a ballad from the Hundred Years War by Eustache Deschamps, bailiff of Senlis, after Henry V’s men burned his castle down. He wailed the destruction of  “this crude island of the giants/Which we must call Albion” (a medieval term for England derived from the Latin word albus (white), said to have been given by Julius Cæsar alluding to England’s white cliffs seen from France). The term “la perfide Angleterre” (perfidious England) was used in 1702 by Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, bishop of Condom (and incidentally father of three), in his Sermon on the Circumcision. During the Napoleonic wars, the Marquis de Ximenès called hopelessly for the French fleet to “Attack in its very waters, that perfidious Albion”. The phrase caught on and was used in an 1809 poem by Henri Simon celebrating a French victory at Essling: “Quiver, tremble, you perfidious Albion”. By 1842, British author Thackeray, noted while travelling in Paris that almost every news from over the Channel “evokes ferocious yells of hatred against perfidious Albion... uttered by the French press”. The epithet has stuck and even today almost every discussion in the French media about the comparative status of the two countries works as a kind of stock joke. French humour, eh? Not for export, really.

Britain vs. France

Major conflicts between France and the UK over the last 1,000 years (smaller wars excluded)



Norman Conquest (1066)


Wars of Henry II (1152-1189)


The Hundred Years War (1337-1453)


The Italian Wars (1542-1559)


War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697)


The War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714)


The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748)


The Seven Years' War (1754 and 1756–1763)


The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)


The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802)


The Napoleonic Wars (1802-1815) Britain


In WW2, Britain, though initially an ally of France, sank France’s Mediterranean fleet and invaded Vichy North Africa.

The French on the British...

“The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1702 Swiss-French philosopher and chronic masturbator

“Britain is always the Machiavellian Albion.” Honore de Balzac, 1844, hugely prolific French author, died of addiction to espresso one-shots

“Impious England... executioner of all that France holds divine – murdered grace with Mary, Queen of Scots, inspiration with Joan of Arc, genius with Napoleon.” Alexandre Dumas, 1855, historical novelist, lover, syphilitic and writer of an estimated 25% of his own books

“France must always be at war with England…”, President de Gaulle, 1963

“The land across the channel is in danger of becoming an underdeveloped nation”, Jacques Attali, 1983, former advisor to President Mitterand and disgraced former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

“The only thing [the British] have ever given European farming is mad cow disease... You can't trust people who cook as badly as that," he said. "After Finland, it's the country with the worst food.” Jacques Chirac, July 2005, French president, promptly provoking the Finns to switch their vote from Paris to London as the preferred venue for the 2012 Summer Olympics

...And the British on the French

“Being French amounts to a farcical pomp of war, parade of religion, and Bustle with very little business. In short, poverty, slavery and insolence with an affectation of politeness.” William Hogarth”, 1750, artist, cruel cartoonist and much-loved hater of everything

“Frenchmen are like gunpowder, each by itself smutty and contemptible, but mass them together and they are terrible indeed!” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1815, poet, radical and originator of the all-opium diet

“France is and must always remain Britain's greatest enemy.” Marquess of Salisbury, 1890, nobleman, eccentric, mild autard and British prime minister (1885–1886 1886–1892 1895–1902)

“Perfect – without the French.” DH Lawrence, 1922, chippy British author  of provincial art-porn

“There's always something fishy about the French.” Noel Coward, 1936, actor, playwright and professional pantywaist (amended in 1941 by Ivor Novello, another actor, playwright and professional pantywaist, to: “There’s something Vichy about the French”)

“The rulers of France hate the British, and our freedom-loving ways, because they consider us, and our example, as an insidious threat to their grip on the French masses.” Paul Johnson, 1989, thunderous commentator, journalist, moralist and spanking afficianado


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