Just like chalk and fromage

What's up with the French? Aside from the disaster of their defeat in the World Cup final, they have been have undergoing paroxysms of self-doubt for years.

by Matthew Gwyther, MT editor
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A bestseller last year was entitled La France Qui Tombe ('France in Free-fall'). Their capital failed to land the Olympics despite being sure the 2012 Games were in the bag. As Charles Bremner writes in this month's cover feature: 'France's eternal mentality is one of civil war, the us-against-them belief that some menacing outside force is always trying to put one over on the people.'

We Brits don't help. From Agincourt to Trafalgar and 'Up Yours, Delors!', many elements in the UK have long harboured a festering antagonism towards the French. There's nothing we love more than scoffing at our Gallic neighbours - for the rioting unemployed youth in their suburbs, their refusal to play by the rules of the EU, their hauteur and their determined rearguard action against the undermining of their language.

There remains, however, much that is hugely seductive and attractive about the French and their homeland. The grass can look green and lush on their side of the fence, and that is precisely why the relationship is so complex and raw. I will never forget the first time I tasted coq au vin at a small restaurant in Rue Cadet in Paris, aged nine. For a kid living on a staple of fish-fingers and shepherd's pie, it was little short of an epiphany. I also remember the humiliation of my first trip on the Eurostar to Paris. Having boarded the wagon at Waterloo, we trundled, stopping and starting, at about 24 mph through Bromley South and past Maidstone towards the tunnel. You could have walked to the coast faster.

Then as we emerged into the French sunlight and accelerated like a sling-shot towards Paris, a smug controleur announced: 'Mesdames et messieurs, nous allons maintenant a trois cents kilometres a l'heure.' God, I hated him for that.

It's not just their trains that impress. Their world-class companies like LVMH, L'Oreal, Saint-Gobain and Axa are all very smooth operators.

For this month's interview I went over on the - now faster - train to talk to Franck Riboud, the chairman and CEO of Danone. Danone was embarrassed last year when the French government stepped in and forbade its sale to Pepsi on the grounds that the yoghurt-maker was deemed vital to France's national interest. Riboud is still licking his wounds after this debacle.

He's an interesting man: a passionate, slightly irascible, former semi-professional windsurfer who remains unimpressed by the Anglo-Saxon way of doing things. Mind you, he did say he admired our way of playing football. He must be fou.

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