Tuesday 5 October 2010

Divergent English attitudes to the French

Following on from the previous post about the Norman Conquest, I have noticed that attitude to the French is a major cleavage point in the English class system.


The English upper class are, and always have been, pro-French (presumably because they - originally - were culturally and linguistically French, and used to hold lands there).

They like to speak French, holiday in France and own homes there - maybe retire there, regard the French as more sexually attractive than English (upper class English men regard French women as more beautiful and sophisticated; u-c English women regard French men as more charming), regard French food as the best in the world, and the upper classes are pro-European Union (which the British regard as an essentially French thing).

The upper middle class (professionals - doctors, lawyers, professors, senior civil servants and senior public sector managers, the media etc) mostly have the same views as the upper class - and presumably adopted these in emulation of the upper classes.

But the majority of people below this level, in so far as they have any views at all, are somewhat anti-French - but especially the lower middle class (trades and crafts, private sector workers etc).

For Tolkien to be anti-French was therefore unusual for an Oxford Professor - and was probably related to Tolkien's unusual, impoverished, 'scholarship boy', Roman Catholic and lower middle class up-bringing. 


(The anti-French feeling in England is pretty mild - mostly a kind of impatient irritation - it is not a gut-level hatred or fear: that is reserved for really alien nations. For example, after the experience fighting in the Far East in WWII, there was a real visceral horror and incomprehension at the behaviour of the Japanese - for example the treatment of English inmates in the Japanese prisoner of war camps - which surpassed that of any attitude towards other enemies or allies.)


Reciprocal to this is the attitude to America (the USA): the English upper- and upper-middle-classes are anti-American, while everybody else is reflexively pro-American.

The English lower classes tend to favour American women and men (e.g. movie, pop and films stars), emulate US culture, adopt US slang, tend to buy American food (pizzas, burghers etc.), would visit the US (eg New York City or Florida) in preference to France.

In the military, the rank and file would rather fight alongside 'Yankees' than 'Frogs'.

If they had been asked, the lower class English would have preferred to become the fifty-first state of the USA than to join the European 'Common Market'.


You could see this immediately post-9/11 - ordinary lower-class English people had a spontaneous and attitude of sympathy and solidarity with the New Yorkers; the upper classes had a highly 'nuanced' response, and (within a few minutes of the atrocity) swiftly recovered from their transitory shock, and then were clearly much more worried about a possibility of a US retributive 'backlash' than they were about the thousands killed and injured.


Interestingly, post-WW II, this negative attitude to the French persisted, even (or especially) among the military who had served overseas. The French allies were blamed for their incredibly-rapid capitulation to the German invasion, which stranded the English Army in Dunkirk; while the German enemy were (despite everything) grudgingly admired for their exceptional military discipline and courage.


Of course the Anglo Saxon English were Germanic, while the Normans were (culturally) French - so maybe this 'us and them' distinction has persisted in an underground populist way for a thousand years since 1066?

1 comment:

xlbrl said...

From Orwell's essays--

In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the
general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.