Copyright The New York Times
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2005
MONTICELLO, Corsica How to celebrate a victory among the vanquished? Friday was a heroic date in my country’s history, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, when the Royal Navy destroyed the French and Spanish fleets off the coast of Spain.
But I am not in England. I am in France, where Trafalgar Day most decidedly wasn’t celebrated, and where, as I have learned, it is still a sore subject.
Not that this is surprising. Any current animosity between France and the United States is nothing compared with the ancient fraught relationship between France and England, from the Hundred Years’ War to Napoleon.
Even now, French politicians wince when they reach London by way of Waterloo Station and look up Whitehall on their way to Downing Street toward Trafalgar Square, with the battle’s victor, Admiral Horatio Nelson, atop his column.
Last year was the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, the somewhat decorative agreement of 1904 between London and Paris, but the time since has not seen the most cordial of Anglo-French relations. Iraq has driven a wedge between the two countries, and President Jacques Chirac quite lost his temper with Prime Minister Tony Blair when Blair last raised the question of farm subsidies.
Anyone can learn about these difficulties on a personal level. When I say I am in France, I am to be exact in northwestern Corsica: Monticello is a hill village overlooking the sea not far from Calvi, where my family and I come on holidays, and where we have many friends.
Nelson himself is far from hated on this island – “un bon mec,” a good guy, says one of my friends in the Pasturella, Jo-Jo Martini’s hotel-café here – but that’s because of local history. In that 1794 operation, the British were supporting the Corsican patriots led by Pasquale Paoli, whose luster still reflects on Nelson among a later generation of Corsicans who would like to break away from France.
But Trafalgar is another matter. When I gently or jocosely raise the subject, the reaction is either unprintable, or the conversation is switched darkly into the local patois, or, from one acquaintance, there comes a sarcastic allusion to the “great English naval victories” from Trafalgar to Mers el-Kebir in the summer of 1940, when Winston Churchill, with supreme ruthlessness, ordered the Royal Navy to sink the fleet of the French, his allies only weeks earlier.
Although all of that might have a ring of English arrogance, there is another side to it.
Plenty of Englishmen over the years have suffered from what the Bloomsbury gang called French flu, an infection of morbid Francophilia, a feeling that they ordered things artistically and intellectually better in France.
But now it is France that is passing through a crisis of confidence, culturally as well as politically. Rather than “Bloomsberries” with French flu you are now more likely to find French people admiring the vibrancy of English-language literary culture.
There is something almost touching about Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s hero-worship of Napoleon, but plenty of Frenchmen find it absurd.
And while Chirac still insists on the superior virtue of the French “social model” of high taxes and the all-embracing welfare state, an answer comes from Nicolas Sarkozy, the capable and remarkably ambitious politician who was Chirac’s protégé and is now his rival: The so-called social model is scarcely social if it means more than 10 percent unemployment, and it isn’t a model at all since no one else wants to emulate it.
Shifting to the sports arena, always a litmus test for national pride, for all that Lille held Manchester United to a tedious goalless tie on Tuesday, few people think that a French team will win the European club competition, while even fewer believe that les Bleus will repeat their great victory in the 1998 soccer World Cup.
And although Lance Armstrong has departed, with some nasty kicks as he went, no one thinks that a French rider will win the Tour de France in the foreseeable future.
Plenty of Blair’s own compatriots think that he was wrong and Chirac was right about Iraq, and yet Blair has clearly outmaneuvered the Frenchman in their latest jousts.
Sometimes, indeed, and for his vaunted attachment to the “European idea,” Blair seems to echo Nelson’s great contemporary the Duke of Wellington, who said (in a line I donate to the Bush White House), “We are, we always have been, and I trust we always shall be, detested in France.”
Not my own view; and yet I know from experience that this on-and-off friendship will always be awkward, not least because of long memories. Why, in 10 years it will be time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, as well as the 600th of the British victory at Agincourt. And by “we,” hélas, mes amis, I’m afraid I don’t mean nous.
(Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of ”Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France” and, most recently, ”The Strange Death of Tory England.”)