Parisians: ‘We love Britain’s culture, its energy, its people. It’s sad you don’t love us too’

By Peter Allen and Kim Willsher

At the Châtelet branch of Boulinier, a Paris bookshop that has stocked English language books since 1845, shoppers were yesterday reflecting on a spate of British newspaper headlines threatening to send Royal Navy gunboats to board invading French trawlers in the event of a failure to agree a trade deal.

Anglophiles like Didier Aubert, 72, a retired civil servant, said the threats were “ridiculous”.

“That’s not how Britain used to behave. Civilised countries who are meant to be close allies should not be reduced to this. I completely understand Britain leaving the EU, and I’d love to see France do the same, but this Brexit drama is now absurd. It appears that some British, people I normally respect enormously, have no idea what they are doing,” Aubert said.

He added: “Who would have thought the British would be threatening France with their military because nobody can agree on a trade deal?”

Of all its European neighbours, France has long been the country Britain – minus Scotland, still loyal to the Auld Alliance – loves to hate.

In France, this animosity is not widely reciprocated. On the whole, the French like the British, and, while they may be fed up with interminable Brexit negotiations hijacking the news agenda, they regret that Britain apparently cannot wait to see the back of them.

Jacques de Roquefeuil
Jacques de Roquefeuil: ‘The people I know there were not supporters of Thatcher and they’re not too impressed with Boris Johnson either.’ Photograph: Peter Allen

Neither do they understand why Britons swoon over the Netflix series Emily in Paris, and love to settle in their countryside, snapping up property in Normandy and the Dordogne, but do not, apparently, like the people they find here.

“I absolutely love England, and especially London. Everything from the sense of style and energy to the underground is very impressive,” Redouane Belkacem, a 16-year-old student, told the Observer. “London is also a city where lots of different people come together to get the best out of life. It doesn’t matter what your culture is – you are welcome.”

Lilas Farré, 18, a Paris art student, was sad that Brexit was ending free movement. “The sad thing for people my age is that Brexit will make it much harder for us to spend long periods in Britain. Students will certainly find it a lot more complicated, and that’s very sad. I’ve been to England lots of times, mainly to London and Exeter, and I love it there. I love the culture, the atmosphere, the rock music and most of all the English themselves,” Farré said.

Jâcques de Roquefeuil, 65, a former employee of France’s SNCF state railway, had just returned from a visit to Northumberland and said he had often stayed in Grantham, the birthplace of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, or as the French call her, La Dame de Fer (Iron Lady).

“The people I know there were not supporters of Thatcher and they’re not too impressed with Boris Johnson either. Of course I want things to go well with Brexit, because a smooth transition is very important for Britain and the EU. Sadly, the Brexit process is not proving to be smooth.”

He added: “I have lots of friends in Britain and I love the civilisation and the countryside, so all this is very sad to me.”

Imad Attahiri, 34, a social worker, said he believed Brexit was about economics not culture. “It’s really all about the choice of the British people.”

Apart from concerns about the future for French trawlers if they are excluded from British coastal waters, Brexit is not high on the country’s news agenda. The French have other fish to fry.

Like Britain, France is struggling with the economic, cultural and social fallout from the coronavirus, and also faced recent protests – involving Black Bloc agitators who clashed violently with police – over a new security law.

Even Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) – among the fiercest critics of the EU in France – has seen the way the Brexit wind has blown and stopped even mentioning Frexit.

“The British are naturally obsessed with Brexit, but that doesn’t mean we are,” Bruno Thomas, 63, a Paris café manager said. “We have too many problems of our own.”