8:28PM GMT 29 Nov 2012
French men aren’t too sure what they think of les Anglaises (this includes the Welsh and the Scots in the national perception) but, pace the shrewd Ms Géraldine Lepère, who advises unrestrained use of the word “petit” to mark your approval, they are very, very fond of les petites Anglaises.
They know exactly whom they mean by that: Jane Birkin, la petite Anglaise par excellence, reigns at the pinnacle of this pantheon, flanked by the young Charlotte Rampling and Kristin Scott Thomas. There was even a hugely successful 1976 rom-com, À Nous Les Petites Anglaises, that features a trio of hapless young Frenchmen sent to Brighton to learn English, who fall in love with the exotic, alluring, incomprehensible geishas of East Sussex.
Naturally, French women were all set to take umbrage – until we realised that very few Anglaises are, in fact, petites Anglaises. The rest are still largely incomprehensible to us, but in a far less threatening way.
They are – what’s the word? Bizarre. They laugh all the time. They often stay in gaggles of women, rather than flirt with the men. (Yes, we are relieved, of course, but this still seems unnatural.) Rather than cleaning their homes, they garden.
English women think beer is a major food group and that Pimm’s contains all the vitamins you need. They prefer their dogs or their horses to their boyfriends (or husbands). They don’t seem to take anything seriously, especially those things we consider with due respect: work hierarchies, their French husband’s friends (when they’re married), the proper way to give a formal Parisian dinner-party, French politics, fashion.
Especially fashion. The things an English woman wears would never pass the threshold of a French woman’s closet: Ugg boots; thick opaque black tights; lots of Bedouin-like scarves; unmatching underwear of dubious provenance; baggy jumpers and gumboots worn in the country, even in Provence (which, as we know, is Paris’s extended formal garden, not – shudder – farmland); or, suddenly, a far too grand taffeta balldress, never entirely ironed, with old-fashioned jewellery in need of cleaning.
But I will admit to playing both sides against the middle in this – as a martyred French child shipped off to a Shropshire boarding school when I was 11, I actually grew up to understand, and like, English women – in fact (shhhh!), often more than my compatriots.
English women make far better friends than French women. The high tolerance for eccentricity that pervades English society makes them fun, sisterly, unconventional. They don’t care if they lose face – something that turns your proper French Mademoiselle into a taut-skinned bore by the time she is 35. But I do sometimes wish they’d lose the Ugg boots.
© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012