Why is There a Cultural Rivalry Between England and France?

19th century English playwright Douglas Jerrold cheekily said, “The best thing I know between France and England is—the sea.” The two countries share access to the English Channel. They have however, contested almost everything else, from land rights to linguistic primacy. Below is a list of reasons for the continuing cultural rivalry between England and France.

10. The Hundred Years’ War

The period referred to as the Hundred Years War actually lasted from roughly 1337 to 1453, but England and France were not continuously at battle for 100 years. Instead, the series of conflicts historians call the Hundred Years War is regarded as the most intense part of a longer period of unrest, dating roughly from William the Conqueror’s Norman Conquest of 1066 to the 1904 signing of the Entente Cordiale (Cordial Agreement), the name given to a series of agreements between England and France. The Hundred Years War was a medieval conflict between England and France with two major catalysts: a contested right of succession and seizures of contested territory.

In 1328, Charles IV, a king of France, died without fathering a male heir. Charles IV’s official successor was his first cousin, who became King Phillip VI. King Phillip VI’s coronation was not universally lauded. Some nobles believed Charles IV’s nephew, Edward III of England, should have had the French throne, as he was Charles’ closest male relative. When King Phillip VI seized the duchy of Aquitaine in 1337, he was essentially contesting an English claim to the territory dating from 1127. Incensed, Edward III decided to assert his claim to the French throne.

England won the Hundred Years War… sort of. The English king, Henry V, seized Paris, Normandy, and much of northern France. He married Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI. With his marriage, Henry V coerced Charles VI into accepting him as France’s regent and rightful heir, but both Henry V and Charles VI died in 1422. Henry V’s son, Henry VI, was the only English king crowned King of France. Unfortunately, Henry VI, who was prone to mental disturbances, was never an effective king. By 1453, the French had recovered Paris, Normandy, and Aquitaine. In 1453, the French took Bordeaux, which had been England’s for 300 years. When England’s War of the Roses, a war between the English royal houses of Lancaster and York for the right of succession to the English throne, began in 1455, the English army could not sustain battles both abroad and on the home front.

9. Shared Monarchs

The monarchs in the English royal line of Plantagenet were the villains in many of Shakespeare’s history-based plays. In truth, the Plantagenets were the richest family in Europe for most of their reign, and the line produced many powerful rulers. From 1154 until 1399, the Plantagenets ruled all of what is now England and half of what is now France. In 1399, the Plantagenet line divided into two houses, York and Lancaster. As previously mentioned, those two houses fought the War of the Roses for the right of succession to the English throne. Before 1399 though, the Plantagenet line was primarily a French line by marriage. Plantagenet marriages were symbolic land contracts. Likewise, any personal betrayals within Plantagenet families had geopolitical and sociopolitical consequences for any subjects living in the areas they controlled.

The first Plantagenet king, Henry II, married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, eight weeks after the annulment of her marriage to the French king, Louis VII. This marriage was a bitter betrayal to Louis VII. Aquitaine was a desirable French duchy. Eleanor had not given birth to any sons during her marriage to the French king. If she had a son with Henry II, that son would become Duke of Aquitaine, invalidating any claims by Louis VII or his daughters. Henry and Eleanor had five sons, which strained their relationship with France.

Worse yet, Eleanor and her sons formed various alliances with the French king in order to dethrone Henry II. Henry II’s wife and his heirs opposed his plan to divide his lands equally amongst his sons upon his death. Henry II’s sons Henry (“the Young King”) and Richard rebelled against their father, assisted by the King of France. Henry, the Young King, demanded to be granted England, Normandy, or Anjou. Henry II defeated Henry and Richard. He imprisoned his wifeEleanor, for her part in the rebellion.

8. Competing Empires

The British Empire had roughly 412 million inhabitants. It included North America, Australia, Africa, and Asia. Currently 53 nations make up the British Commonwealth, nations connected by shared values, culture, history, and languages developed under the (unsought) rule of the British Empire. The British Empire became the largest in the world, but Britain and France competed for sociopolitical and geopolitical superiority from the 16th through 19th centuries. Two ideologies were cited to justify colonial expansion: manifest destiny and social Darwinism.

According to manifest destiny, a Christian God who favored white Europeans commanded them to expand their territory, bringing Christianity and European sociopolitical and sociocultural structures to non-white populations. According to social Darwinism (itself a misapplication of Charles Darwin‘s theories about genetics), some humans were “naturally” superior, and they were therefore more likely to prosper socioeconomically, socioculturally, and sociopolitically than others. As Edward Said points out in his 1993 collection of essays, Culture and Imperialism, both the power mechanisms deployed to sustain imperialism and the culture justifying their deployment are inherently racist.

The Seven Years War (1754-1763) was a war fought between England and France for control of North AmericaEngland controlled 13 colonies, stretching to the Appalachian Mountains. France’s territory, New France, stretched from Louisiana through the Mississippi Valley, to the Great Lakes and Canada. The Seven Years War was fought for control of the Ohio River Valley, among other territories. The British won the war, gaining all French territory east of the Mississippi River, but it was a costly victory. The taxes the British levied on their North American colonies to pay their war costs were one factor that caused the colonies to declare war on Britain to begin the Revolutionary War.

7. Contrasting Relationships To America

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1784, 13 former British colonies that had declared their independence from Britain in 1776 had officially formed a country, the United States of America. In North America, Britain maintained control of Nova Scotia, Quebec, Newfoundland, and its Caribbean colonies. Britain’s defeat in the Revolutionary War exposed the weaknesses in Britain’s policy of “salutary neglect,” the intentional lack of enforcement of British trade laws in British colonies. Colonists who were used to benefiting from the lack of enforcement of British trade laws were unwilling to pay increased taxes for British goods to pay the cost of the Seven Years War. The tension between Britain and the United States increased during the War of 1812. The British resented Americans’ protests of the British impressment of American sailors into the British Royal Navy. The British government suspected the American government’s real reason for declaring war was a desire to capture Newfoundland and Quebec.

Tensions between Britain and America eased after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. However, the French were supporting the colonists long before Britain and America signed a peace treaty in Ghent. Sympathetic to the colonists’ fight against the British, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, also known as the Marquis de Lafayette, secretly joined the Revolutionary War. He fought from 1775 until 1781. He provided George Washington’s untrained militia with much needed military discipline. Washington and Lafayette formed a lasting friendship. When Lafayette returned to France in 1779, the French king, Louis XVI, had him arrested for disobeying the king by aiding the colonists. His formal punishment wasn’t severe. He spent eight days under house arrest in a hotel.

French politician Édouard de Laboulaye proposed presenting a monument to the United States, because he hoped the new country’s commitment to democracy would inspire the French. In 1886, French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi presented the Statue of Liberty to the American people. French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States in 1831, touring the country by steamboat. Though he originally intended to evaluate the country’s prisons, he recorded his admiration of its stable economy and its commitment to egalitarian ideals in his 1835 essay collection, Democracy in America. The Revolutionary War was only one of Britain’s colonialist defeats, but it was one where individual Frenchmen played a decisive role in assisting the colonists’ victory and mythologizing their ideals.

6. The Second Persian Gulf War

Unlike the Gulf War (1990-1991), wherein a U.S. led coalition invaded Iraq after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Iraq War (2003-2011) had neither a large coalition nor the backing of the United Nations. The U.S. and Britain were the most powerful countries supporting the war, while the French government strongly opposed it. Regardless of whether President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair believed they were justified in declaring war on Iraq, the British government’s 2016 Chilcot Report condemned Blair’s actions.

Not only did the report find the war unjustified, but it also found the lack of military equipment during the war left the British military dangerously vulnerable. In an editorial for the French newspaper Le Monde (The World), Blair is accused of going to war “against the wise and prophetic advice of [French president] Jaques Chirac.”

5. Post-Colonial Influence

Both Britain and France colonized many countries. However, each country approached colonization differentlyBritish colonizers tended to think of the non-white natives to their colonies as racially inferior, while the French assimilated colonists who spoke the French language and adhered to French customs. Colonialism in any form is potentially infantalizing to those who are under colonial rule, but the two approaches to the institution had different outcomes.

The British practiced “salutary neglect,” the intentional lack of enforcement of British trade laws in British colonies, in all of the colonies, since they never regarded non-white colonists as British citizens. Because of this, former British colonies, such as Ghana in Africa, sometimes possessed an independent governmental and socioeconomic infrastructure before they formally declared their independence from Britain. By contrast, the French government stayed involved in its African colonies long after they declared independence. Both approaches have had lasting socioeconomic, sociocultural, and sociopolitical effects for former colonies. The French language and French culture still have a strong presence in France’s former colonies, while limited studies indicate African countries formerly colonized by the British may have more developed socioeconomic infrastructures.

4. Different Culinary Tastes

In 2008, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who called French cuisine “the best gastronomy in the world,” lobbied for French food to be declared one of the United Nations’ Unesco world treasures. The United Nations decided France’s cuisine didn’t meet its criteria for a world treasure. Meanwhile, Britain’s restaurants had only been awarded a total of 163 Michelin stars as of 2017. By contrast, France’s restaurants had been awarded a total of 600 stars as of 2017. On the other hand, a 2010 headline in The Guardian declared“Official: British Are Better At Cooking Than The French.” To be fair, The Guardian is a British newspaper.

To be even more fair, whether or not a food is appealing is largely a matter of individual taste. Broadly, British food is hearty and savory, while French food is rich, but light. Still, there is a historical basis for debating the superiority of British versus French cuisine. British royals who served food from France were flaunting their sophistication by showing guests they knew what was popular on the continent. Charles II developed a fondness for French food during his exile in Paris. French dishes were served in the palace kitchen when Charles II claimed the throne in the Restoration of 1660. Queen Victoria’s chief cook, Charles Elmé Francatelli, was English, but he received his cullinary training in France. His culinary credentials strengthened his reputation and helped to sell his cookbooks. Royals may not be culinary experts, but they are arbiters of cultural taste.

3. Different Sociocultural Values

Courtly love, a medieval tradition idealizing a (sometimes) chaste love between knights and married noblewomen, originated in France. By the 14th century, courtly love was idealized in English royal courts as well. Neither French nor English lovers in the 21st century idealize chaste, romantic love. However, sex and infidelity are regarded differently in British culture than they are in French culture. In a 2013 Pew Research Center Survey, only 47% of French people surveyed said marital infidelity was morally unacceptable, versus 76% of Britons surveyed.

The French reputation for smooth seduction is partially a myth based on the relative sexual freedom and social mobility of 18th century male libertines in France. According to writer, lecturer, and medical doctor Dr. Jaques Waynberg, that reputation still isn’t entirely undeserved. In a 2008 article for The Independent, Waynberg says that the French, take a [more] relaxed, balanced and healthy view of sex, as mutual enjoyment” than the British.

2. The French Revolution

A July 1789 article in the newspaper The London Chronicle contained this warning about the French Revolution: “[B]efore [the revolutionaries] have accomplished their end, France will be deluged with blood.” The English nobility understood how much sociopolitical instability could be caused by what scholar Richard Bonney called a “bourgeois revolution,” a term he used to characterize both the French Revolution of 1789 and the English Civil War of 1649.

The short version of each political conflict: The English king, Charles I, regularly disregarded Parliament’s authority. His taxing and spending were often unapproved by Parliament, and Charles disbanded the legislative body to avoid negotiating with its members. The English Civil War lasted from 1642 until 1646. The Royalists were defeated by the (primarily, but not exclusively) Puritan Roundheads, led by Oliver Cromwell. King Charles was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1649.

The French Revolution began in 1789. The Jacobites objected to the French monarch’s luxurious lifestyle, in contrast to that of the French peasants, impoverished by increasing inflation. The French king and queen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, were executed in 1793. Heroes of the French Revolution, such as Georges Danton and Maximilian Robespierre, were executed at the guillotine as traitors.

The French Revolution unnerved the British. British citizens were urged to sing patriotic songs in public in order to show their loyalty to the crown. Unlike the English Civil Wars, the geopolitical consequences of the French Revolution were international. Authoritarian general Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of France after the French Revolution. From 1803 to 1815, Napoleon’s soldiers marched across Europe, ruthlessly expanding their emperor’s empire. Though Napoleon was eventually defeated, fighting him was costly for the British. In addition to the inherent violence of warfare, the British economy was destabilized by the lengthy war effort.

1. Language

English is the primarily language of the business world. Roughly 1.5 billion people speak English worldwide. Of these, only 375 million are native speakers. English may be a prominent language internationally, but the French make sure it will not become a prominent language in France. In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu created the Académie Française to“fix the French language, giving it rules, rendering it pure and comprehensible by all.”

This organization of writers, linguists, historians, and philosophers still issues rules today. It issues French substitutions for English slang words, such as “email” and “spam.” In 2019, it formally clarified the definition of “salope,” the French word for “slut.” According to the Académie Française, “Etymologically, a slut is not a female bastard.”

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