‘Moi? J’adore l’Angleterre!’ said the Algerian, the newest friend I’d made that evening.
‘Le coup mondiale,’ vacations in Dubrovnik, Cambridge—all provided an enjoyable conversation at 1:00am in the café, over beer for him and his friends, and a Calvados for myself.
Paris remains a marvellous city. The great virtue of the French is that no matter how liberal or socialist their politics become, a sense of the dignity of Paris, of France, of the state remains. After our last State Opening, the Britpoppers took to Twitter to complain about golden chairs and the Prince of Wales. A couple of years ago, the French repatriated a general from Russia with full military honours. Unremarkable, except the general was two hundred years past—the French, unflinching, remembered with advantages one mort au service de la France—in a manner from which most modern Britons would recoil.
The same is evident in Paris. Flecks of modernity try to assert themselves, but the city cannot be displaced. Bridges bearing the imperial ’N,’ grand boulevards lined with the same elegant stone, churches lying forgotten but immovable, quiet and monumental. Paris is a monument to France itself, and the French understand it must be beautiful.
A good conservative must go abroad. Not because England is not sufficient—I could happily live and die in England and say I’d lived all the life I needed. But what do they know of England that only England know?
Travel on the continent—see what they do wrong. You don’t hear the church bells here, the ticket gates in the Metro are unpleasant, the plans for the restoration of Notre Dame subpar (I find that list easier to compile in Belgium). Yet see what they arguably do better. Where in Cambridge can you sit down with a Calvados at 1:00am, and have a relaxed conversation with three strangers? Where in England can you go to a party at six, leave at nine, and then begin your evening meal? Where in England can you get canned ice tea?
A good conservative will advocate the idea of Chesterton’s fence, having confirmed that, while the French fence is nice, he prefers the English. He might, however, steal a can of ice tea from their kitchen.
We can learn from the French. We are two very similar, yet very foreign nations—similar enough in self-regard, in history, in grandeur, in idiosyncrasy (when we throw off our embarrassment) for a firm and lasting friendship. Yet so diametrically opposed in the form of our government, our philosophy, our politics that union is laughable. We can’t—and shouldn’t—emulate their constitution, their laws. To emulate the code civil would be to cease to be English. We might, however, emulate their pride, their civilised eating hours and, fundamentally, their understanding that their country—its buildings, its spirit, its dignity—is worth fighting for.
And, of course, it’s worth ignoring the prophets of doom. The bores who insist that we are universally hated and resented. I am here on a celebration of Anglo-French friendship, true, but I cannot escape the feeling that the French still like England. We’re in a rough patch perhaps, but the Entente Cordiale is a firm friendship. Friendships forged under arms are lasting ones. Friendships which are underwritten by stories like my family’s—of a man captured by the Germans, befriending two Frenchmen in captivity, and passing that friendship down to his descendants—are friendships you remember.
We might remember, of course, that the USA is an increasingly unreliable world power. American politics can barely sustain a minuscule portion of their troops in Afghanistan—the French have been quietly fighting terrorists in West Africa for decades. Projects like Concorde, fuelled by an understanding that sometimes the Entente is more tangible than the ‘Special Relationship,’ must become all the more prominent in the coming years.
On another point, the good conservative (which is the same as the good traveller: one who can appreciate the world as he finds it, and delights in the knowledge that that which he holds dear truly is distinctive) should know a bit about football. The French aren’t quite capable of enjoying cricket, and if you run out of anything else to talk about, you can agree that Manchester City is too rich, Leicester is very good, and that the European Super League almost ruined football. I was at the very limits of my knowledge.
I should like, some day, to meet again a Conferon or de Launay (the families of my great grandfather’s friends in captivity). I last met Anne-Marie, Gaston’s widow, a decade ago. And, when I should do, I would like to be able to confirm that the friendship forged in the stalags of Bavaria is alive and well, and the sacrifices of our ancestors remembered. Vive la France, vive l’Entente Cordiale.
Image Source: Creative Commons, Getfunky Paris