David Randall: What did France ever do for us?
Quite a lot, actually, in medicine, the arts and daily life
Sunday 18 December 2011 01:00
Top deck: Blaise Pascal devised the omnibus ( Getty Images )
This cross-Channel squabbling is starting to get silly. What with the froideur between David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president calling the former « an obstinate kid », George Osborne’s sneers, various Gallic ministers wanting London to be downgraded, and eurosceptics putting on their ‘Allo, ‘Allo accents to crack clichéd jokes, things haven’t been this bad since de Gaulle said « Non ». If ever we needed further proof that the emotional development of politicians stops somewhere around the mid-teens, then the last few days have provided it.
This has become like one of those splendid over-the-top neighbours’ disputes in which cats are poisoned, night soil tipped over the fence, and communications reduced to the hurling of insults from a window which is immediately banged shut. The impression these past few days – aided by the gleeful jeering of the red-tops – is that here are two countries which may be adjacent but which live in total isolation and in perpetual ignorance of each others’ virtues.
Au contraire, as the bilingual Derek Trotter might say. France and Britain have had their fates entwined for more than 1,000 years, and, certainly since 1815 (when we stopped trying to kill Johnny Frenchman), we have been ententing with a certain amount of cordiale, and enriching each other’s lives in ways all too rarely recognised. And what have the French ever done for us – apart from laying down the foundations of parliamentary democracy (Simon de Montfort, French born and speaking), the modern Olympics, all those talented Huguenots, art, Braille, brie, crêpes, camembert, croutons, denim, fetching fashions, art, roulette, croque monsieur, and bras?
First stop on the road exploring French contributions is house-numbering. Introduced in Paris in 1463, only 300 years later, London saw the advantages. France was first with driving tests, too, introducing them in 1893, 42 years ahead of us, which was why Miss Vera Hedges Butler crossed the Channel in 1900, and so became the first British woman to take her test. She passed; first time. And the French also gave us the bus (1662, with coaches carrying a maximum of eight passengers, and all the idea of Blaise Pascal), motor caravans, ambulances (conceived by Dominique-Jean Larrey while serving as a surgeon with Napoleon’s army), and neon signs. These, demonstrated in 1910 and soon called « liquid fire », were the brainchild of Georges Claude, subsequently a Nazi collaborator – proof that his brilliance did not translate to other fields.
French ingenuities have penetrated our lives in more ways than we shall ever know. Some of us owe our lives to them: antibiotics, the baby incubator (1891, courtesy of Alexandre Lion), blood transfusions (1667, by Jean-Baptiste Denys who used sheep’s blood on a boy who, amazingly, recovered), and stethoscopes (1816). Among the triumphs of French foodies are clementines (bred by a missionary in 1902), margarine (1869, a mixture of beef tallow and skimmed milk), and canned food (1795, as a way of preserving meals for the army). They gave us the raincoat (in 1747), dry cleaning, IQ tests, reinforced concrete (the invention of a gardener, of all people), and the hairdryer.
And then are all those French artists and writers. For every Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham and Sylvia Pankhurst who went there, we have hosted Victor Hugo (Guernsey), Claude Monet (The Savoy), Camille Pissarro (Penge), and Emile Zola (Upper Norwood). The last-named I know of because I once went to the Queen’s Hotel and saw the wall plaque proclaiming his residence The then manager told me proudly: « We had that Emily Zola here. She stayed for years » – words that somehow synthesise a certain sort of British response to anything French.