France and Britain have officially been on good terms since the Entente cordiale was signed in 1904. But theirs is that special kind of relationship that comes about after what normally just feels like but is in their case literally centuries of discord, peppered with lengthy, brutal breakups and diplomatic makeups. The Middle Ages gave them the heaviest of their baggage—that they ever made it back from the Hundred Years’ War, which actually lasted 116 years, is a testament to the strength of their bond—but things have been pretty chill since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Certainly, the global conflicts of the 20th Century brought them closer together than ever, first as allies in the trenches and then thanks to Britain’s role as liberator from Nazi occupation. Aside from routine squabbles, usually pertaining to matters of the European Union, the past few decades have been plain sailing.
The omnipresence of the Union Jack in France is the single biggest giveaway of the nation’s growing love for their neighbors in the North Sea. You see it on billboards and in shop windows, on the clothing and accessories of people and their pets, on the stationery of children and on the mugs of office workers. There’s no escaping the red, white, and blue mash-up, which is frequently accompanied by a grainy image of Big Ben, a phone box, or a double-decker bus. And while Americans might be perfectly at ease with seeing their stars and stripes employed as a design motif, most Brits, famously squeamish when it comes to expressing national pride, can’t help but be vaguely alarmed.
This sensation is redoubled when said motif is emblazoned on an adult-sized onesie—or “unesie” as it’s called in France. That this most regressive of clothing items has been embraced by the French is cause for concern in itself. As anyone who has witnessed the school run in Paris knows, the French have a tendency to dress their children like mini-marketing execs, complete with tortoiseshell spectacles and briefcases. So why on earth, of all the possible British fashion trends, have they chosen to adopt the one that involves grown-ups dressing like babies? The answer is probably wrapped up in a Freudian nightmare so let’s move swiftly on.
Slogan t-shirts are a more recent, though equally baffling, fashion trend that highlights the countries’ awkward pas de deux. In the first half of 2017, the British high street was festooned with French vocabulary—Topshop, a beloved British import in France, even sold out of its “Merci” number—until Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson killed the craze with one sweaty jog. Out of its ashes, displaying just how inventive the fashion industry can be, has arisen the same trend in reverse: Parisians are now snapping up T-shirts bearing English phrases of the most nonsensical variety. “My favorite salad is book,” “A little pinch of bananas,” and “Love is like the wind, you can not see it feel” are among the best/worst of what’s on offer. Hot though the slogan t-shirt trend may be, the, shall we say, original use of English is something French people have been doing for a while.
France is notoriously protective of its language and of its culture, distinguishing itself during the 1990s as the primary promoter of the “cultural exception” in international trade agreements that allowed it to stem the inflow of American and British music, cinema, and television. However, with the expansion of global communication thanks to the internet, it has been fighting a losing battle against the Anglophone invasion. The Académie française, the official bodyguard of the French language, does its best, naming and shaming loan words and their users, but with diminishing effect.
What’s ironic about the linguistic establishment’s pushback is that the English it’s resisting is, more often than not, not English at all, but a uniquely French reimagining of the language. Admittedly, the habit of applying French grammar to English verbs as in “bruncher,” “liker,” “follower,” “Skyper,” and the slightly more problematic “googliser” is annoyingly uninspired but the unbridled enthusiasm for gerunds—such as “le pressing” for dry cleaners and “le relooking” for a makeover—and compound nouns—for example “le sex-friend” in the place of a friend with benefits or “le rugbyman” instead of rugby player—is commendably inventive.
France may have issues when it comes to giving British T.V. shows air time but it’s more than happy to copy their concepts. Classic shows like Antiques Roadshow, Strictly Come Dancing, and The Great British Bake Off have all been given a French”relooking.” While Vos Objets Ont Une Histoire is a faithful adaptation, making Danse Avec Les Stars palatable to French audiences involved removing all of the show’s good-hearted humor and not-especially-photogenic people. As for Meilleur Pâtissier, it seems incredible that a nation that has for centuries condescended to the world on all things baking should have so openly taken inspiration from a supposed rival whose culinary inadequacies it has never shied away from sneering at.
Now, rest assured, no one is trying to claim that the French are as mad for British cuisine as the Brits are for a spot of boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin but certain elements of the Great British menu are gaining a following. Take English cheeses, like stilton and cheddar: in 2001, their exports to France totaled €8,000 per month; in 2016, that figure was €750,000.
For many French shoppers, the place to pick up a nice block of cheddar isn’t their local fromagerie, where it would have some stiff competition from the 340 domestic varieties, but the nearest Marks & Spencer. This British high street chain has been in France for decades, though its presence in the capital has tended to fluctuate. Regardless, it’s seen by many locals as the place to find flavors that you can’t get elsewhere in Paris. At the store’s Beaugrenelle location, a record 70,000 Indian takeaway meal boxes are sold in a year, largely because the locals have developed a taste for the classic British dish chicken tikka masala.
As far as alcohol is concerned, British drinks like whiskey and gin have always been popular in France, whereas the culture of binge drinking most certainly has not. Nevertheless, the French are becoming increasingly anglicized in their habits, notably with the emergence of the “after work,” brought back, presumably, by some of the 300,000 French people living, working, and 5 p.m.-boozing in London.
Well, at very least, it means that France sees something good in Britain despite their current differences regarding the future of Europe. And, though it may be too soon to say that the two have fallen head over heels for each other, it is clear that that admiration is reciprocated: you only need to look at the shelves in WHSmith stacked with books about cooking, dressing, parenting, and even dating like the French to see that. And where does this mutual fascination stem from? All those centuries eyeing each other up across the battle lines, of course.