The French are still overcome with Brexit schadenfreude

Robert Taylor

How long does it take a French hotel manager to blame a rainstorm on “the English”? Well, I can tell you. Because I researched that very question ten days ago as I dashed from my car through the lashing downpour towards my Normandy hotel, with suitcases and the rest of the Taylor clan in tow. As a storm propelled us, soaked, over the threshold and into a charming old-world hallway, I pondered whether the answer could possibly be less than half a minute.
I was way out. It actually took fewer than six seconds for the manager to examine my drenched state, gesture towards the storm-battered front door, and, with the most disgusted of gallic shrugs, declare: “English weather”. What cheek! The temptation to retort that I’d left Kent in glorious sunshine was almost intolerable. But I held my tongue. Best not to get on the wrong side of a guy who has your morning coffee and croissant in his gift.
As it happens, the manager was delightful from that point on – helpful, friendly and hospitable. It was ever thus with the French. Faced with holidaying Brits, they’ve always mixed charm, warmth and humour with occasional rudeness.
Has Brexit changed much? Well, on the political level, of course it has. Relations are as bad as at any time since the war. And even on summer holidays the most ardent Brexiteer must admit it takes longer to get through passport control (though Newhaven to Dieppe was as smooth as you like). Of course, the French can no more steer clear of mentioning Brexit than Basil Fawlty could stop blathering on about the war. They know it’s potentially explosive, particularly when we’re just trying to have a holiday. But they can’t help themselves, delighting in the phrase “la folie”, as though our leaving the EU was anyone’s business but our own. They regard the whole thing, and the Brits who “fell for it”, with pity bordering on contempt.
Well, frankly, if the manager had called Brexit “une folie”, I’d have launched into a diatribe about how it gave us the freedom to deviate from EU policy, as we did with sending weapons to Ukraine faster, and that his serious case of Europhilia totally blinded him to reality. But, taken as a whole, given how much has happened since my last French holiday back in the old days of 2019, I was struck less by what’s different than what’s the same.
The tourist experience has hardly changed at all, and the biggest shake-up in our relations since 1973, when we joined the EEC, has been negligible. As always, far too many of us rock up with little more French than oui, non, s’il vous plait and merci, while the French, pointedly responding in English, delight, amuse, irritate and rile. “We’re leaving the EU but not Europe,” Theresa May used to say – something I always considered history’s most meaningless expression. But perhaps she had a point. We still flood into Europe each year, especially France, and get the same old treatment.