The French are citizens of a nation state, unlike us, who are mere subjects of a monarchy. Moreover, that nation was forged out of palpable ideals and values: liberté, égalité, fraternité , whereas Britain was cobbled together to make its sovereigns a bit more money.
Unlike Britain, they have a written constitution. Based on the same principles enshrined in the Magna Carta and borrowed by the two new republics of France and the United States of America.
Born in the French Revolution with the seminal Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, its powerful and moving opening statements include as ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights’ and ‘All citizens, being equal in [the eyes of the law], are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments’. The constitution has been through numerous drafts, each one an expansion and refinement of the predecessor. Indeed, France is now into the fifth version of, well, itself. Having been through the wars – literally – it’s a nation continually redefining and improving itself. The country also boasts the most stirring national anthem I think I’ve ever heard, the nerve-tingling, blood-racing triumph that is La Marseillaise. Just hearing it sung in whatever context, regardless of whether you understand the words, sends shivers down your spine.
Remember the scene in the film Casablanca? The collective patrons of Rick’s Bar, led by Humphrey Bogart, see off the close-harmony drone of a bunch of Nazi officers by striking up La Marseillaise and singing it over and over until they’ve deafened the Germans into submission. It’s one of cinema’s greatest moments. It’s also testament to the power of national fervour wedded to a dynamite tune, neither of which we ever seem to match successfully on this side of the Channel, except on the last night of the Proms!
They have trains that run on time, serve decent food, have clean carriages and travel ultra-fast. Despite having a shorter working week they have a higher productivity per person than in Britain. They have a civic pride with people employed to wash the streets of all the major cities in France first thing every morning. Why does this not happen here?! They have a civilised attitude towards drink which seldom, if ever, sees drunken louts rampaging through town centres of a weekend. They do get the odd drug addict cycling around the country though . . . . !
Eleven things you didn’t know about France
1. France’s motto, ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’, was not adopted until the Revolution of 1848.
2. Louis XIV (1462-1515) hated washing and only took three baths in his entire adult life. Not bathing was a sign of prestige at the time, and people covered up the stink with perfumes, oils and spices.
3. It is 4847 miles (7800 km) or 4212 nautical miles from Paris, France to Paris, Texas as the crow flies.
4. For centuries, a rite of passage for French gourmets has been to eat the ortolan bird. These tiny birds are captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac, then roasted and eaten whole, bones and all, while the diner draped his or her head with a napkin to preserve the aroma, their manners, and some say, to hide from God. It is now illegal to eat ortolan in France.
5. The battle of Agincourt was fought on October 25 1415 in northern France as part of the Hundred Year’s War (1337-1453). Henry V’s English army, although outnumbered, gave the French a good kicking – 12,000-18,000 French dead or wounded to a trifling 150-250 dead English.
6. France fits in an almost regularly shaped hexagon, three sides on land, three sides on the sea. So much so that France is very often called l’hexagone.
7. Louis XIX was King of France from breakfast until teatime on 2 August 1830, at which point he abdicated.
8. There are 40 Appellation d’origine contrôlée approved cheeses in France. The Auvergne has five of these, more than any other region in France. The five are:- Cantal, St.Nectaire, Bleu d’Auvergne, Fourme d’Ambert and Salers.
9. John Balliol, king from 1292-1296, tried to escape his reliance on Edward I of England by signing a treaty with King Philip of France in 1295. This became known as the Auld Alliance. In 1428 James I sent troops to help Joan of Arc and from 1422 until 1792 the French king’s bodyguard was made up from Scottish soldiers.
10. In some regions of France the locals still believe that if a bachelor steps on a cat’s tail, he won’t find a wife for at least a year.
11. 200 years ago, Napoleon signed the first european community treaty. France, with its possessions in Spain and Italy, joined with the western German states of Bavaria, Wurtemberg and Baden, in a treaty of co operation and trade, named the Confederation of the Rhine.