Six French Frizeurs

David A. Bell

  • The Perfidy of Albion: French Perceptions of England during the French Revolution by Norman Hampson
    Macmillan, 210 pp, £40.00, June 1998, ISBN 0 333 73148 4
  • Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders by Don Herzog
    Princeton, 472 pp, £18.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 691 04831 2

The moment in the 18th century when Anglo-French relations reached their lowest point was probably 29 May 1794 – 10 Prairial, Year II, as the French then styled it. On that day, the Jacobin Bertrand Barère delivered a typically long-winded and overheated speech to France’s National Convention on his favourite subject, English perfidy. He accused English soldiers of unprecedented atrocities in Europe, North America and India. He denounced English spies for trying to assassinate his dear friend Maximilien Robespierre (two months later, in Thermidor, the politically nimble Barère voted to condemn Robespierre to death, but that is another story). He called corrupt, commercial England the new Carthage facing France’s new Rome, and added that the sooner it shared Carthage’s fate, the better. ‘National hatred must sound forth,’ he trumpeted. ‘Young republicans should suck a hatred of the name Englishman with their mother’s milk.’ The English were ‘a populace foreign to Europe, foreign to humanity. They must disappear.’ It seems that he meant this last sentence all too literally, for he concluded by proposing a pithy little motion, which the Convention approved unanimously and without debate, instructing French commanders in the field to take no English or Hanoverian prisoners alive. Fortunately, the commanders mostly ignored the order, although Norman Hampson, in his valuable new book, has found a couple of unfortunate instances where they followed it to the letter.

Not a date to recall at official functions of the European Union, you would think. Yet, in a twisted way, Barère’s motion was actually something of a compliment to the English: the Convention approved no similar action in regard to the Prussian or Austrian forces with whom France was also at war. The reason was that, according to Revolutionary dogma, Prussian and Austrian soldiers were slaves, forced at bayonet point to fight for the loathsome despots who ruled them. The English were different. They were, if not exactly a democracy, still a sovereign people. They had control over their own destinies. If they were governed by that ‘enemy of the human race’, William Pitt, this was not their misfortune, but their fault. They had earned the right to extermination.

The motion carried by the Convention illustrates the resemblance between Anglo-French relations and the sort of marriage-gone-sour in which the partners indulge in extravagant public quarrels. The French and the English (as opposed to the Scots, with whom the French have traditionally had a more companionable relationship) treat each other to the highly-concentrated venom that only comes from love betrayed: the English should have known better. Aren’t they a free people? Couldn’t they have served as a model for France, as numerous French politicians hoped they might do at an earlier stage in the Revolution? Why don’t they treat us the way we deserve?

Of course, this peculiar pattern of love and hatred predated the French Revolution. During the Enlightenment, French writers developed the sort of inflated opinion of the English that was bound to lead to crushing disillusionment. England, Voltaire rhapsodised in Letters Concerning the English Nation, was the country of religious toleration, robust self-government, vibrant commerce and advanced ideas. Montesquieu’s dithyrambic praise of the English constitution in The Spirit of the Laws, like Diderot’s for Samuel Richardson (‘O Richardson, Richardson ... I will keep you on the same shelf with Moses, Homer, Euripides and Sophocles’) caused French hearts to beat even faster. A steady supply of political pilgrims made their way across the Channel to observe the miracle of English government in action, while a fast-spending set around the younger princes of the French royal family turned English-style horse-racing into a fad. Words like ‘le club’ and ‘le jockey’ entered French, and Franglais was born.

The disillusionment was not slow in coming. One wave began on 28 May 1754, in the woods of the Ohio Valley, when British colonial militia killed a French-Canadian army officer, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who had supposedly been travelling under a flag of truce. A short time later, a large French force led by Jumonville’s brother defeated the British, and forced their cocky commander – a 22-year-old Virginian named George Washington – to sign an embarrassing confession that nearly brought his promising military career to an end. War was on with a vengeance, and French propagandists exploited the incidents for all they were worth, pummelling the English as ‘barbarians’ whose cowardly and perfidious behaviour had shocked even savage but honourable Indians.

Soon, the Anglophile literature of the Philosophes was being pushed off the booksellers’ shelves by such robustly patriotic novels as Robert-Martin Lesuire’s Les Sauvages de l’Europe (1760), in which a young French couple travel to England, the land of advanced philosophy, only to hurry back home after near-fatal experiences with English riots, prisons, highway robberies and insane asylums, not to mention the dreadful cooking. ‘The only difference I see between the English and the savages of Africa is that the latter spare the fair sex,’ Lesuire’s hero concluded. (Rather bizarrely, an enterprising London publisher rushed an English translation into print, perhaps thinking the novel a joke.) French poets and playwrights, stirred by an agreeable combination of patriotic indignation and generous government pensions, produced reams of verse about the ‘martyred’ Jumonville and other examples of English beastliness. Predictably dreadful, this literature nonetheless made a lasting impression. The now-forgotten poet Lebrun got his ‘Ode aux Français’ off to a rousing start with the line ‘Aux armes, citoyens!’ while his colleague Lefebvre de Beauvray told the English: ‘Et de ton sang impur [tu] abreuves tes sillons’ – lines that the military engineer Rouget de Lisle later adapted in the Marseillaise. It is fitting that the most bloodthirsty line in the French national anthem was written with the English in mind.

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