France as continental hegemon
Though French history in the broadest sense extends back more than a millennium, its political unity dates back from the reign of Louis XI, who set up the basis of nation-state (rather than a dynastic, transnational entity typical of the late Middle Ages). In the last days of the Ancien Régime, only aristocrats and scholars spoke French in much of the kingdom, as about two-thirds of the population spoke a variety of local languages, often referred to as dialects. Henceforth, Eric Hobsbawm argues that the French nation-state was constituted during the 19th century through conscription, which accounted for interactions between French citizens coming from various regions and the Third Republic's public instruction laws, enacted in the 1880s, probably in parallel with the birth of the European nationalisms.
Anti-French sentiment in Britain
England and France have a long history of conflict, dating from before the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror claimed the English throne. Before becoming King of England, William found conflict with his liege several times and conquered some neighbouring fiefs. The relationship between the countries continued to be filled with conflict, even during the Third Crusade. The medieval era of conflict climaxed during the Hundred Years' War, when the House of Plantagenet fought unsuccessfully for control of the French throne and lost almost all French holdings, which resulted in future English kings being more culturally English. (Previously, they had largely spoken French and lived in French castles much of the time. Richard the Lionheart, who was famous for his feud with French King Philip, spent most of his life in France and as little as six months of his reign as King in England).
The modern history of conflict between the two nations stems from the rise of England into a position as a dominant mercantile and seafaring power from the late 17th century onward. Hostility toward and strategic conflict with France's similar ambitions became a defining characteristic of relations between the two powers. The time between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and Napoleon's final capitulation in 1815 has been perceived in Britain as a prolonged Franco-British conflict to determine who would be the dominant colonial power (sometimes called the Second Hundred Years' War). British hostility to the Catholic Church, which dated back to earlier conflicts with Spain and the Catholic Habsburg dynasty, contributed to attitudes towards the French because France was also seen as a Catholic power, and the majority of the British people were Protestants. Britain assisted continental European states in resisting French ambitions to hegemony during the reign of Louis XIV and the Napoleonic Wars. Britain also resented France's intervention in the American Revolutionary War. The repeated conflicts spawned deep mutual antagonism between the two nations, which were only and partially overcome by their alliance to defeat Imperial Germany in the early 20th century.
The dimensions of the conflict in Britain were as much cultural as strategic. Indeed, British nationalism, in its nascent phases, was in large part an anti-France phenomenon and the attitudes involved extended well beyond who won what on various battlefields:
- A growing group of British nationalists in the 17th and 18th centuries resented the veneration that was often accorded the French culture and language.
- France was the strongest Catholic power and "Anti-Catholic" sentiments had been widespread in Britain since the Act of Supremacy in 1534.
- The permeation of anti-French sentiment throughout society, as epitomised by the apocryphal story of the Hartlepool monkey hangers, whose belief that the French were literally inhuman led them to have allegedly executed a pet monkey in the belief that it was an invading Frenchman, but the story is based upon the disputed premise that those involved had never seen a Frenchman before.
Robert Graves wrote shortly after the First World War during his time at Oxford University as an undergraduate that:
The eighteenth century owed its unpopularity largely to its Frenchness. Anti-French feeling among most ex-soldiers amounted almost to an obsession. Edmund, shaking with nerves, used to say at this time: "No more wars for me at any price! Except against the French. If ever there is a war against them, I'll go like a shot." Pro-German feeling had been increasing. With the war over and the German armies beaten, we could give the German soldier credit for being the most efficient fighting man in Europe ... Some undergraduates even insisted that we had been fighting on the wrong side: our natural enemies were the French.
The revolutionary ideas that emerged in France in 1789 during the French Revolution and subsequent years were not well received by monarchists and aristocrats on the rest of the continent and in Britain. France, the leading European power for two centuries, had suddenly and violently overthrown the feudal foundations of continental order and, it was feared, the revolution might spread. Objections were many:
The concerns were not unique to Europe. Despite the positive view in some of the United States, the revolution awakened or created anti-French feelings among some members of the Federalist Party.
Age of Napoleon
Goya painted several famous pictures depicting the violence of the Peninsula wars during the Napoleonic Era. In particular, the French actions against Spanish civilians during the Peninsular War drew a large amount of criticism, as illustrated by The Third of May 1808 painting.
Anti-French sentiment in Germany
Beginning with the French invasions of Germany in the late 18th century, France became the century-long rival of Germany. The rising German nationalist movement also considered France their greatest enemy because France not only had temporarily conquered much of Western Germany during the Napoleonic Wars but also was the country most strongly opposed to the idea of a unified German empire and wanted Germany to remain divided into many individual states.
In this time, the myth of the so-called hereditary enmity (German: Erbfeindschaft) came into being, according to which the Romanic French and the Germanic Germans had been antithetic enemies ever since the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, a notion that was inherently unhistorical. In the 19th century, anti-French sentiment became commonplace in German political discourse even if the deep cultural interrelation between the two could never be blanked out completely. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe poked fun at this in his epic Faust I with the verse: Ein echter deutscher Mann mag keinen Franzen leiden, doch ihre Weine trinkt er gern. "A real German man likes no Frenchy, but he likes to drink their wines.")
Several German nationalist anthems were written against the French, most prominently Die Wacht am Rhein. After the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the anniversary of the decisive Battle of Sedan was made a semiofficial national holiday in the German Empire.
After the culminations of Franco-German enmity in both world wars, the two actively gave up their mutual animosities in the second half of the twentieth century. The most prominent symbol of this development is the picture of heads of government François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl holding each other's hands at a ceremony at the military cemetery in Verdun in 1984. Today, Germany and France are close political partners and two closely connected nations. A joint Franco-German television network, Arte, was founded in 1992.