[Photo] Monique

An Irregular French Letter

A bit of war-time respect

War. Not a great subject for a blog article. War and dignity? Is that possible? There is no doubt that the “War on Terror” has produced more tension than usual between France, my county of birth, and Britain, my country of adoption. That tension has been made worse by successive stories of inappropriate conduct by American and British soldiers on duty in Iraq. I guess mistakes will always be made and a few rotten people can always grab the headlines.

Of course, there was a time when Occupied France and Free France were on different sides, Free France was on the same side as Britain and Britain had to invade France, its old ally. I had grown up accepting that British and American servicemen had landed in France as liberators not as invaders.

It had never occurred to me that anyone had given any thought to how the liberating soldiers should behave and so I was intrigued recently to find a small book in a bookshop called “Instructions for British Servicemen in France 1944”. Covering only 50 small pages, this treasure is published by the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. It is the original text put out by the British Foreign Office in 1944. It is fascinating as a piece of history, and it feels so needed today. Who knows whether the Western troops in Iraq have been provided with such a book?

This book provides a respectful potted history of France and a summary of French law, politics, culture and manners. It is thoughtful and generous. It is generous to the Germans as well. The logic behind this statement sets out to be fair and is hard to fault:

“The French are our friends. The Germans are our enemies and the enemies of France. Remember that the Germans individually often behaved well in France. We have got to behave better.”

There may well have been a propaganda element to this book, but its sense of honour, chivalry and old-fashioned respect makes it a very interesting read. It is full of advice about how not to put prices up for the French by buying on the black market and how to respect the traditions and expectations of the French.

There is a wonderful words and phrases section at the back which includes some phonetics said to reproduce “as nearly as possible the sound of the French”:

“Good morning – Bonjour – Bonjewer”

I also smiled at this one:

“I like this very much – J’aime beaucoup ceci – Shame bocoo sirsee”

And this piece looks almost Scottish:

“Where is the Town Hall – Ou est la mairie – Oo ay lah mary”

Quite apart from the respect and restraint that the book seeks to establish, there are some passages which are fun and illuminating, and some remain relevant today.

On nationalism...

“The French accept foreign visitors, which includes us, pretty readily, and they had before the war 3,000,000 foreign residents living among 39,000,000 French people. But they were not particularly impressed by foreigners, or very interested in them. What interested Frenchmen was, and is, France: they think that France is a very great country, with a great record of civilization – and they have every reason to think so.”

“All the same, you can make certain generalisations about the French, and the first is their attachment to the land.”

On class and courtesy...

“Class distinctions are not very obvious in France. The old social castes were largely swept away by the French Revolution, and the Revolution’s key-words, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, have at least reduced social snobbery to a minimum. Every Frenchman likes to feel himself as good as his neighbours. He would consider himself insulted if a stranger did not call him “Monsieur”.”

“The French are more polite than most of us. Remember to call them “Monsieur, Madame, Madamoiselle”, not just “Oy!”

On Alcohol...

Presumably British soldiers drank beer in Britain even if they didn’t drink wine. They may even have drunk spirits. I was a bit surprised to read the following passages:

“The French drink wine as we drink beer. It is the national drink and a very good drink, but there was far less drunkenness in peacetime France than in peacetime England.”

“Wines and spirits and, in parts of Northern France, the rough cider are the staple drinks. To-day they are rationed, and the Frenchman who gets his full ration is lucky. If you should be offered wine or spirits, remember that this will be stronger drink than you are used to.”

“Don’t drink yourself silly. If you get the chance to drink wine, learn to ‘take it’ …”

On sex...

“It is also as well to drop any ideas about French women based on stories of Montmartre and nude cabaret shows. These were always designed as a tourist-attraction for foreigners … If you should happen to imagine that the first pretty French girl who smiles at you intends to dance the can-can or take you to bed, you will risk stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself – and for our relations with the French.”

“French women, both young and old, are far from shy and you will, if you are a man of sense, make them your friends. But do not mistake friendship for willingness to give you their favours. The same sort of girl with whom you can take liberties in England can be found in France, and the same sort of girl whom you would grossly offend in this country would be greatly offended if you were to “try anything on” in France.”

I recommend you buy this little book. Bookshops stock it or will order it, or try www.bodleianbookshop.co.uk.

Why not share your own thoughts with me and other readers on these topics through my blog.

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