“The British don’t like the French, and the French don’t like the British.”
Have you ever heard this sentence uttered? Whether or not it’s true will obviously come down to personal experience and opinion, but chances are, if you’re from one of those countries, you have heard it. Just last year Cameron and Sarkozy met with the sole purpose of reminding us that the ‘Entente Cordiale’ between our two nations following centuries of colonial conflict, war, and disgruntled Eurostar immigration officers was still just as strong as it ever had been and won’t be changing anytime soon.
The bizarre mix of fondness and wariness with which we Brits look towards our neighbours seems mostly to be reflected back at us from across the Channel, and this has led to some fairly well-established cultural exchanges. Grabbing a croissant or a pain-au-chocolat on your way to work would not be considered out of the ordinary in London, nor would asking for a cup of Earl Grey in a café in Paris. A mother in Manchester says “allons-y!” to her children as she ushers them out the door, as a teenager screams “let’s go!” to his friends in Bordeaux on their way to a party.
Most of these exchanges I can understand — one culture has discovered something delicious, practical, funny, or enjoyable about the other which they can import into their own. Funny, then, that one particular cultural phenomenon has surprised me so much, and that is what would appear to be the adoption of the British flag by the people of France.
Within my first few weeks here in Lyon, I had seen more Union Jacks than I think I’d ever seen in my entire life, and I should point out that I was standing on The Mall for Kate and William’s kiss (and their cheeky second kiss). It is plastered on t-shirts, handbags, headphones, scarves, jackets, socks, bras, hanging in shop windows, painted on the roofs of cars, repeated over and over again on folders, and chewed to bits on erasers on the ends of pencils.
I’ve seen a girl with a Union Jack ribbon in her hair, a boy with a pair of Union Jack boxers peeking out of the top of his shorts, and a dog pulling on a Union Jack leash. Often, the image is accompanied with arty prints of various London landmarks, or superimposed over the caption “London, England.” It’s not just the French who are wearing it either — the Spaniards in my grammar class have Union Jack iPhone covers, and my Russian History lecturer’s laptop case is covered in them. You would be forgiven for mistaking the place for a High Street in the UK (that is, of course, until you see someone in double denim, which left Britain circa 1997).
When I first arrived at university here, friendless and alone in a never-ending sea of French-speaking strangers, my heart would leap at the sight of a person with a Union Jack t-shirt strutting towards me. Perhaps I would finally meet another British person who I could speak English with and give my poor brain a rest from the spluttering, staggered conversations I was having with my French flatmates. Perhaps we could talk about Eastenders and have a cup of tea and say sorry to each other for things that were clearly the other person’s fault. But no. They would waltz straight past me, kiss their friend on both cheeks, start arguing about the economy, and immediately go on strike.
The thing is everywhere here in France. It still surprises me to see it, and it also surprises me that this is something I should be surprised by. I’m sure an American wouldn’t bat an eyelid at seeing their flag on a t-shirt, and yet for some reason I’m still shocked to see the Union Jack on clothing; wearing the flag in Britain, unless done extremely tastefully, would almost certainly be viewed with an air of mistrust.
Sadly, I suppose this is the product of being part of a generation that has learnt to associate the displaying of a national flag with such atrocities as the British National Party (the extreme-right political party who use the flag as their emblem). I’m sure the girl who sits two seats down from me in my geopolitics lecture isn’t a racist eurosceptic with a penchant for scathing nationalistic rhetoric, she just thinks the Union Jack goes really well with her new skinny jeans.
In the end it all comes down to accepting that the red, white, and blue flag that represents the union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland is more than just a flag — it’s a fashion icon. Anyway, enough about that; I’ve got to go. I’ve just seen some Union Jack tea-cosies on sale and I’m always up for a bargain.
Vive la France!