“De Saint-Malo j'avons parti

Sur une frégate bien jolie

Pour s'en aller dedan La Manche

Dedam la Manche vers Bristol

Pour aller attaquer Les Anglais”.

“From Saint-Malo I had gone

On a right pretty frigate

To sail away down the Channel

Down the Channel for Bristol

To go and attack the English”.

French Sea Shanty (Eighteenth Century)

In 1989, Salman Rushdie wrote a book called The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Khomeini believed it to cast aspersions on Islam and called upon any one of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims to kill the author. Rushdie sat out the 90s in a shack on the moors of Scotland, so jumpy he tested the postman with bacon sandwiches before opening the front door. He learned his lesson, legend has it, because a proposed sequel was never published, Buddha: What A Bastard.

The point is that these days it’s just not in anyone’s interest to flip off any social, political, racial or religious group with access to an AK-47, which is pretty much all of them not including the Amish but they’re more lawyered up than the NRA.  All in all, we live in a world of different cultures, different peoples and different opinions where hate of almost anything, thank God, is taboo. 

Except, of course, France and the French.

For all the magnificence of the Louvre and the Arc De Triomphe, for all the cultural joys of Debussy and Cezanne, for all the achievements of Joan of Arc and Napoleon, there just is something fishy about the French.

The desire to think better of the world only conceals reality, it doesn’t change it. The reality of it is, my reality as an Englishman in the 21st Century, is that France and the French are different, and many of those differences are less than likeable. Around the world, animosity towards the French is still the dislike that dares to speak its name.

This is not just un anglo revulsion that you might find in Americans outraged that while Jacques Chirac was touring the United Nations to whip up opposition to intervention in Iraq, Jean-Bernard Merimee, France’s former UN ambassador and a special advisor to Kofi Annan, was receiving $165,725 in payments from Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Foreign Minister. It’s not even the perennial dislike you find in a Briton from “albion perfide” angered that 40% of the taxes paid into the agriculture budget of the 25-country European Union goes straight to French farmers. It’s not even the delayed reaction of former French colonies, like Algeria which has no income tax except for French residents. It’s everywhere. As a young student, I once visited a ruined fort in Penang, Malaysia. A rusty old cannon still stood on the collapsed battlement. After wiping off the dust and weeds, I read the words engraved upon it: “This gun was positioned here to fight the French”.

I have family in France and a home there. Where other writers, glad to have left the city life behind them for the slow Gallic lifestyle, relish the experiences of pleasant peasant neighbours, my reality left me wanting.  In St Martin de Lerm le Bourg, in the Dordogne, one dinner with French locals in this small village soon descended into a drunken row. Iraq. Algeria. The headscarf ban. Anti-Semitism. Collaboration. Corruption. Camembert. Personal hygiene. Gerard Depardieu. Rudeness. Little yapping dogs. Le rock and roll. Le Roi Soleil. Napoleon. The UN. The EU. Stuffed geese. Suppositories. Strikes. Speedos... My boozy French “friends” drank all my wine and left. With the exception of the local mayor, who collapsed in the garden. We left him under a blanket next to his dog. It all got me thinking about France’s place in the world, past and present. 

Why do the French condemn Coalition actions in Iraq while their own army rampages through the Ivory Coast?

How do they reconcile being such animal-lovers that Michelin-starred restaurants let dogs eat at table yet, every summer, they go hunting for songbirds to crush with large stones?

What exactly do they mean by “Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité” and how did they lead to the world’s first guillotine-powered, slave-owning, totalitarian dictatorship?

When did the French, the most unhygienic nation in Europe according to their own newspapers, become home to some of the world’s most fabulous scents?

The French are different, believe it. And no amount of wishful thinking or relativism makes all those differences congenial. That truth struck me the next day. Work needed to be done on the house, and it became apparent that I needed a wheelbarrow. 

“No problem” I thought, I can borrow one off the farmer next door who was at the party. I knew he had three. He had spent half an hour the previous evening describing every last detail of his machinery to me. 

“Puis-je empreinter votre brouette” I asked politely as he stood by, I need it for, “juste une demi-heure?”.

“Non”, came the shortest of replies and off he went to fill in his forms to claim more European Union subsidies. That’s the reality of living in France and dealing with the French on a daily basis.

This book explores fifty such realities across French history, politics, culture, sport, show business, food, geography and cuisine. They don’t make up a complete picture of the French but, who knows?, – next time you meet a French person and walk away from the experience thinking “Was that guy for real?”, you’ll find the answer in here.

Jules Eden, Dordogne

Well, yes, it’s wrong. The premise is wrong, the method is wrong, the conclusion is wrong. A book about hating any country, even France, is morally and maybe even legally wrong. In fact, the only thing right about this book is the facts. 

Though France may be a western democracy, a consumer society and a liberal economy, it is somehow distinct from other countries of the type. The French themselves take this difference as a given. They call it the “l’exception française”, that special something that separates them from the rest of the world. 

The facts we lay out in this book highlight that difference. True, they’re selective and slanted. I’m sure any French reader with all the humor, modesty and generosity of their nation will see this book is intended as a gentle joke. And, yes, we could have looked at these differences and interpreted them in a different way to produce a book called 50 (or 500 or 5000) Reasons to Love the French. Then again, we wanted to produce something that would sell.

Alex Clarke, London


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