International Papers

More Merde

The Mad Cow War between Britain and France is still the most interesting subject in the international press. It has brought out a Francophobia in the British newspapers that has to be read to be believed. The Times of London, once a byword for dignity, has a regular feature called “Centre of Attention” about the hot topic of the day. Wednesday’s column, devoted to French food, plumbed new depths of vulgarity. Beside a photograph of a French cow, the paper printed the words: “Pity lapauvre vache. Less succulent than her British sister, she’s been good only for cheese. Now we find she has been fed the bodily by-products of Europe’s least soap-conscious nation. Leaving her as tasty as a draught from a mud-wrestler’s jockstrap.”

Despite French denials that their cows are fed on human excrement–“No cow in the world would eat sewage,” a French agriculture official protested Tuesday to the Independent of London–this is the aspect of the dispute that has captured the imagination of the British press. The symbol of the Daily Mail’s campaign for a British consumers’ boycott of French food is a drawing of a cow with a beret on its head and a roll of toilet paper hanging on a chain from its neck. “England expects every shopper to do their duty,” the paper proclaimed Wednesday on its front page–evoking Adm. Horatio Nelson’s signal to the British fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, “England expects that every man will do his duty”–but also reflecting the decline in grammatical standards in England over the past 200 years. (Another Nelson exhortation to his sailors–“You must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil”–was not quoted anywhere, but was being widely followed in the spirit.)

The Daily Mail’s front-page headline, above a picture of French farmers halting British trucks with burning barricades at the Channel port of Calais, was “Merde! What a flaming cheek,” and inside in an editorial it said, “A million scientists proclaiming that beef from excrement-fed cattle is safe will only reinforce the commonsense view that animals fed in such a disgusting way cannot possibly be healthy.” So much for scientists. The Mail also quoted a French farmers’ leader as saying, “England is an island–it is easier to blockade than the Continent.” He was presumably unaware of a famous prewar headline in the Times: “Fog in Channel: Continent isolated.”

The Times headed its anti-French editorial Wednesday with the kind of dreary play on words that Fleet Street currently finds irresistible. “A reasonable beef,” it said, “The French should eat their words.” The conservative Daily Telegraph said in an editorial: “If French farmers really think they can force British consumers to buy their produce by blockading Calais, they had better prepare for a long and unprofitable winter on the quayside. … [T]rying to annoy your target market lacks the flair and subtlety for which the French traditionally pride themselves.” It also noted that the French national rugby team, currently in England for that sport’s World Cup, had ordered a meal of roast beef from room service at their hotel in Windsor with “absolutely no stipulations as to where it came from.” The paper wished the French team “all the best” in its semifinal on Sunday.

The mass-circulation Sun, now reportedly dumping its famous Page-3 bare-breasted pinups at the request of Rupert Murdoch’s new Chinese wife, used the small French farmers’ protest at Calais as the excuse for an attack on Prime Minister Tony Blair for his pro-Europeanism. “Is THIS what it means to be at the heart of Europe, Mr Blair?” it asked, beside a photograph of the burning barricade. “Come on, Mr Blair,” it said in an editorial. “Start kicking backsides in Paris and Brussels.”

The French press, by contrast, was rather restrained. Le Monde Wednesday even seemed to support the idea of a unilateral British ban on French food imports. It said Blair had the scientific justification for such a gesture and that if he had decided to make it (which he didn’t), it “would without doubt have had the merit of calming the enormous storm of Francophobia that is consuming the British Isles at the moment.” Le Monde separately reported that, according to European officials, the United States is expected to lift its ban on imports of French Roquefort cheese, pâté de foie gras, and mustards at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle at the end of next month.