Comparing France and the UK: Discourse on Method

When comparing France and the UK, the biggest mistake is to compare things and not relations between things. For instance, anyone can see that beer is cheaper in England than in France. But what conclusion can be drawn from this statement? “Oh, what a wonderful country this is, where you drink a pint for £3!” Such a comment seems to me a little shallow… It would be more interesting to complete the description, for example, by adding that wine in England is more expensive than in France. It highlights the cultural differences between a brewing country and a wine-growing one. But we could even go further and recall some figures about alcohol consumption: in 1961, 4.5 litres of pure alcohol was consumed per inhabitant in the UK, while 17.7 in France; in 2001, the numbers are respectively 8.5 and 10.7. These data show that the alcohol drinking practices tend to converge on both sides of the Channel – not only in quantity but also in quality: indeed, British people are steadily drinking less beer and more wine, while in France the share of beer in total alcohol consumption is slowly rising. Conclusion? Despite strong idiosyncratic traditions and some real differences, cultural practices in the two countries have gradually become closer.

The same comparison method should be implemented as regard politics. Instead of fruitlessly comparing point by point the particularities of each country, it is far more useful to find out and emphasize the functional equivalents between them. For instance, at the diplomatic level, the “special relationship” (in the UK) and the “Franco-German couple” (in France) have a similar function: thanks to a privileged alliance with a more powerful nation (the USA for the UK, Germany for France), both countries try to promote their own interests and defend their influence on the international scene. Another example: the anti-immigration discourse in France has its structural equivalent in the Eurosceptic discourse in the UK; in both cases, a demagogic, scapegoating rhetoric is used by political parties to evade the true issue confronting the country – i.e. the issue of a democratic government yielding its powers to financial markets. Even the opposition between a “monarchy” and a “republic” is more symbolic than significant, because it does not square with a notable difference in social stratification and class structure: according to a recent report of the OECD, the UK has the lowest intergenerational social mobility of OECD countries, followed by Italy, the USA and… France; it seems thus that the French “republican elitism” is almost as efficient as the British “aristocratic ethos” in contributing to the perpetuity of an unequal and hierarchical society.

In conclusion, differences are not present where they are supposed to be. Comparing is a difficult art.

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