Let’s all join Eva Green and celebrate the unabashed rudeness of the French

Donald Clarke: Our national stereotypes are only allowed to be cherished by ourselves

Are we allowed to call the French sullen? Can we call the English repressed? We can surely call the Irish boozy? Right? That’s our prerogative.

God bless Eva Green for brightening up the sodden last days of winter. The French actor has been in court resisting a counterclaim to her own suit against a production company for alleged non-payment of $1 million in fees. Counsel for White Lantern Films cited WhatsApp messages from Green describing one producer as a “f**king moron”, calling investors “arseholes” and identifying potential crew members as “shitty peasants”. The bit that interests us follows revelations that she referred to personnel as “weak and stupid”.

“I don’t know ... it’s my Frenchness coming out sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes you say things you don’t actually mean. Of course they are not weak and stupid.” (Court reports do not reveal if Green actually shrugged or employed any variation on “Oo, la, la!”)

There hasn’t exactly been outrage in France, but a few of Green’s compatriots have popped up to bristle. “Merci pour l’image à l’international ... ” Frédéric Says, a journalist for Radio France, wrote sardonically on Twitter. We can’t know what Green meant. But she must have suspected the comment would be read as admission of a supposed Gallic tendency towards ... How shall we say? Unfiltered frankness? Habitual uppitiness?


I have primary research to draw upon. Six years ago, I talked to my great friend Eva Green in London. Then resident in that city, she volunteered what we can now treat as prescient gloss on this week’s comments. “People judge you a bit less in London,” she said. “In Paris they are really like ...” In the subsequent published interview, I reported her then offering up a “look of withering, snobbish disgust”. Those of us from elsewhere could not, I suggested, say such things about the Parisians. “No, no. Well, I will say it for you. Ha ha!” she chirped back. I will not hear a word against her.

We are allowed to refer to our own family as slovenly hooligans, but heaven protect anyone else who suggests our relatives have combed one hair in the wrong direction

About 82 per cent of French readers, fuming for the first few paragraphs, will now feel themselves vindicated. Within that nation, this stereotype of the standoffish scold – the waiter who treats you like a lunatic for ordering snails after Bastille Day (or something) – is generally reserved for residents of the capital. As I understand it, the rest of the nation is thought to bubble with bonhomie and unpretentious charm. Yes, a Time article from 2015 identified Lyons, Marseilles and Nice as three of the unfriendliest cities on the planet, but that magazine is based in New York. So, who are they to gripe?

Well, to be fair, Time did place the Big Apple at number six – just one place behind Los Angeles. We are allowed to refer to our own family as slovenly hooligans, but heaven protect anyone else who suggests our relatives have combed one hair in the wrong direction. There is a long tradition of nations celebrating the negative stereotypes that have been imposed upon them. The English are forever laughing about their fanatical predilection for queues and their inability to complain in restaurants. Scottish comics play on that nation’s supposed taciturnity. We Irish go on about our affection for our fussy mammies, our taste for creamy pints and our inability to give good directions without talking visitors through our entire life stories.

The more you think about this, the more a disingenuous pattern emerges. Nobody expects the Irish to laugh along with the notorious Punch caricatures that depicted out forebears as violent apes. The English can hardly be expected to extract yucks from their historical tendency to colonise blameless peoples throughout the globe. But these supposed comic self-owns most often constitute poorly concealed auto-congratulation. The Irish castigate themselves for their unstoppable conviviality. The English berate their nation for its discipline and restraint. The Scottish rather like to be seen as unpretentiously forthright. Why would they not?

The joking suggests the often-imagined job interviewee who, when asked to name his or her greatest weakness, cynically replies: “I am too much of a perfectionist” or “I am obsessed with punctuality”. We love our mammies and we’re always jabbering to strangers. Well, fair enough. Genuinely negative stereotypes rarely bring anything but discord. Best steer a course in another direction altogether.

Then again, even a cursory glance at French literature confirms the wealth of comedy that Eva Green’s people have drawn from national archetypes. Yes, yes, I am sure there is some of this in Balzac and Zola and Céline and those fellows. But the real wealth can be found in classic Asterix comics of the 1960s and 1970s. The British are phlegmatic. The Spanish live off olive oil. The Corsicans are less than energetic. Maybe if Asterix had got to Hibernia, we wouldn’t find that tendency quite so funny.