Where the British were once favoured targets of French satirists, now we are ignored or pitied, says Have I Got News For You writer Nathaniel Tapley
Come with me into the toilets. Specifically, into the gents’ toilets in Eurotunnel’s Folkestone terminal.
The décor is designed to get you in the mood for going to France: the walls are adorned with line drawings of baguettes and 2CVs. Everywhere French place names loom over you in enormous fonts.
You can micturate as never before with the word Nîmes above your head. You can rid yourself of your last fluid ounces of British fluids (mild ales, Bovril and some of the looser mustards) while gazing at Perpignan. Drain your dong in the Dordogne.
Along with the place names and maps and typically-French articles, there are also portraits. Portraits of French heroes, men and women who typify everything we love about our infuriating Gallic cousins. They’re all there. All the greats. Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir. Brigitte Bardot. Charles de Gaulle. Eric Cantona. And René Artois.
Yes, if the decorators of the Eurotunnel are to be believed, what represents France best for the British is Gorden Kaye and Vicki Michelle and the rest of the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo! shrugging their shoulders at the camera. Nestled between Thierry Henry and Émile Zola, they scream to us that all human achievement is valid, whether it’s inventing existentialism, winning the World Cup, or hollowing out a cheese into which you can insert The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies.
It’s also confirmation, were any more needed, that, when it comes to Europe, and in particular France, the English are terrible at distinguishing fact from fiction.
We believe Napoleon was short. We still really, truly believe it. Despite the fact that he was a smidge under 5ft 7in, which was taller than average for a Frenchman in the early 19th century (or for a Welshman at any point in history).
We’re just wrong. We know we’re wrong, and the information about how wrong we are has been available for centuries, but we’d prefer to believe propaganda that flatters us than the truth.
Boris Johnson made a career at the Telegraph exploiting the willingness of the English to suspend their critical faculties when talking about Europeans. The people of Hartlepool hanged a monkey because they found it easier to believe that it was French rather than not actually a human at all.
One of the big, stupid, obvious lies that seemingly clever people pretended to believe during the Brexit campaign was that our dependence on imports from the EU put us in a strong position, because they wanted to keep selling to us. It was a thing of great beauty to behold politicians who had spent their lives as fiscal hawks suddenly start to sing the praises of a trade deficit.
If we actually made anything anyone wanted, the argument went, it would put us in a weaker position, because our value is as a market for other people to sell to. By the logic of which, if we want to really strengthen our hand, we should just refuse to make anything at all and lie in our rooms with our foreign-made duvets over our heads becoming a really important market for everyone.
You’d think even ape-crazy Hartlepudlians would have been able to spot this as something that clearly wasn’t true. But still, apparently serious politicians went around saying that our inability to be self-sufficient was the source of the power that would bring us self-sufficiency.
You can tell a lot about what’s weighing on a country’s mind by the cartoons and comic strips in its satirical magazines. Here we have Private Eye and Viz. In Spain they have El Jueves.
In Germany they just chuckle at mis-spellings in technical instruction manuals. In France, however, they have Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchainé, Siné Mensuel, Fluide Glaciale, Psikopat, L’Echo des Savanes, and more Hebdos of various persuasions than you can comfortably carry to the till in one go.
So, what do they think about Brexit? Are there acres of cartoons about worried-looking champagne-farmers quailing before a rampant David Davis? Well, no. For countries desperate to trade with us their editorial cartoons don’t even seem to have noticed Brexit is happening.
There is a small mention in Fluide Glaciale’s guide to dangerous holiday venues that you might end up stuck in Britain when the tunnel gets filled in after Brexit, but that’s about it. In Charlie Hebdo’s map of the brains of France and the surrounding area, showing chip-eating Belgian brains, skiing Swiss brains and bull-running Spanish brains, Britain doesn’t even get mentioned. It’s almost like they think we don’t have brains at all.
This year it does feel as if the British are naughty children who are being ignored. Whereas in the past, French cartoonists loved having the Brit in their repertoire of idiots you might see on holiday, this year we’ve disappeared completely.
When we do show up, we’re seen differently now. After 7/7, Charlie Hebdo and others had page after page of bowler-hatted tea-drinkers being hit by the airborne scrotums of bomb victims, all the while saying that it wouldn’t change their way of life. We’re no longer stupidly calm and resilient. Our only appearance this year is as an angry-looking bulldog on a raft.
For all of our bluster and our threats, the French don’t even seem to have noticed we’re leaving. In this part of the south of France, a Frenchman who’s worried about Brexit is a rarer sight than an unexploded goose.
This morning we visited Gourdon (presumably named after the French’s most-esteemed hero Gourdon Kaye), as they celebrated their past. We chatted to a man who was showing off a vielle d’archet, a mediaeval forerunner of the violin. He said he was a volunteer, and we suggested he put his hat down and busk, and he laughed and said that we were British and he wouldn’t want our money because it was worthless now and we all laughed.
And he said ‘I think you have made a very great mistake, but…’ And he shrugged. And we laughed again. But it was a sad laugh.
And we realised that here was a man dressed in rags and felt shoes, covered in imaginary lice, not being paid for his time, who was playing an instrument that wasn’t even advanced enough to be a lute, and he was feeling sorry for us.
We thought of all the trouble those Eurotunnel toilets had caused and all wanted to have a little weep.
Although that may have been partly because of the sound of the vielle d’archet…
Nathaniel Tapley is an award-winning comedy writer-performer, who has worked on Have I Got News For You, The Revolution Will Be Televised and The News Quiz. He regularly performs on the comedy circuit and on social media as Tory backbencher Sir Ian Bowler