Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Demeaning statistic shock!

I haven't decided which of the following statistics is more concerning:
a) 60 percent of Britons cannot name a single living French person.
b) 33 percent of Britons believe Benito Mussolini never existed.

The former statistic, The Guardian opines, "will no doubt confirm the French view, held by 56%, that we are insular". Quite right. Sixty percent? Think of it like this: six in ten Britons failing to name a single living Frenchman or woman is a little like six in ten New Zealanders failing to name a single Australian. Arsenal wouldn't even be in the Premiership, let alone leading it, if it were forced to play without its Frenchmen. I'm pretty sure that more than 40 percent of New Zealanders could name a living Australian rugby player, let alone a living Australian fullstop. Maybe rugby makes things easier for us, but soccer (er, sorry, football) also offers Britons an easy way out. For God's sake, most of the good players in England's Premiership are Frenchmen. Arsenal wouldn't even be in the Premiership, let alone leading it, if it were forced to play without its Frenchmen.

To be fair, the French did have the option – when asked to name a living Briton – of saying simply, "La Reine". Accepting this as an acceptable answer, and as evidence of cross-Channel awareness, is like allowing an Englishman to answer, "the geezer I bought a baguette from". Hectoring aside, The Guardian's survey (conducted with its lefty French cousin Libération was part of a splurge of coverage afforded the centenary of L'Entente Cordiale. Signed in, well, 1904, it was essentially a deal the two colonial powers reached to keep out of each other's way as they enjoyed the fruits of raping and pillaging the globe. We can both enjoy this game, okay?

The Queen is even in Paris, lapping up Jacques' hospitality. Meanwhile, Blair – who is said to be about as uncomfortable spending time with Chirac as with Libya's president – is thinking, Rather Her Majesty than me. There are some perks to not being President Blair, after all. This isn't exactly an apt time to be celebrating Anglo-Franco relations. As a German tourist in the French capital said: "A year ago the French and the British were insulting each other. Now I come to Paris and what do I find? The whole city is stopped to let the Queen of England drive up the Champs Elysées. It's crazy."

Well, the tourist should relax. The French still love the Germans best. Asked which people from a list of six they felt closest to, the French went for (in order) Germans, Belgians, Spaniards, and Italians. The English came last equal, along with the Swiss and "None". The Independent reported this result sniffily, reminding its readers how unfair this preference seemed, given the historical record: "the French feel closest to the Germans, who invaded France three times in 70 years up to 1940". Old Europe sticks together, I guess.

Meanwhile, key Kerry ally Ed Kennedy is rolling out the entirely unoriginal Vietnam analogy in an effort to scupper Bush. The Democratic congressman Jim McDermott interviewed on Today – the BBC’s equivalent of Morning Report, and the show that first aired Andrew Gilligan’s 'sexed-up' allegations – this morning offered, "The President is in the fight for his life." One assumes we shouldn’t take McDermott’s pronouncements too literally. (Kerry in assassination plot shock!) Then again, Kerry is trying frantically to match Bush’s Wild West schtick. If I hear him say “I have three words for the President: Bring! It! On!” again, I’m going to consider joining the Campaign to Re-elect.

Anyway, having just watched Errol Morris’ excellent documentary, The Fog of War - about Kennedy and Johnson’s secretary of defense Robert Strange McNamara - I found the Iraq/Vietnam comparison rather odd. I get it: the US is getting sucked into a ‘civil war’ the ferocity of which it didn’t anticipate, violence seems to be escalating and uncontrollable, more American troops may soon be needed, etc. But the differences far outweigh the similarities. In Vietnam, the Americans jumped into an existent civil war and turned it into a war against a foreign occupier. As McNamara found out when he re-visited Vietnam in the 1990s to meet his former adversaries, for the Vietnamese it wasn’t a Cold War struggle, but the latest in a series of independence wars against foreign occupation. “If only you’d read a history book, Mr McNamara,” they told him. In Iraq, the Americans have undertaken a war that the majority of Iraqis now believe was justified, but have singularly failed to put something in the void that Saddam’s removal created. Matthew Parris, who recently spent time in Iraq, told Today exasperatedly that he had been taken aback by the total lack of civil service and the nuts and bolts of government that help bring about social order.

No, Iraq’s history probably offers a better analogy. It was called Mesopotamia back then, but as Robert Fisk notes: “The British took three years to turn both the Sunnis and the Shias into their enemies in 1920. The Americans are achieving it in just under a year.” Actually, any introductory course in Middle Eastern history should have given Bush and co pause for thought. The past few centuries have involved little more than Western meddling with traditional power structures, none of which has done the region much good. Unfortunately, Bush's chief source of foreign affairs advice - Condi Rice - is no expert on the Muslim world. She was more interested during her academic career with Russia and great power relations. If only you'd read a history book, Mr Bush.

So, pessimism all round. My two lefty staples, The Independent and The Guardian, managed to respond to recent violence in Iraq with the same front page headline this morning: “On the brink of anarchy”. Quite.