As France prepares to elect its next President, we have been digging in our archives to find out what the British public have thought in the past about French politicians, and indeed about the French people and French culture.
With the precarious situation of the euro being so prominent in the news, it seems unlikely that many Britons will escape from hearing about the French President, whoever he is, over the next few months. But in the past, French Presidents have not been especially well known figures on this side of the Channel. Back in 1999, when we showed the public photographs of six world leaders (in a poll for the Economist
) around half knew or guessed that the picture of Jacques Chirac showed a French politician, but only 22% could put a name to him; 5% instead gave the name of his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand. By way of comparison, 39% in the same poll were able to name German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, though of course he had been in office much longer than M Chirac.
Going back even earlier, in 1984 the Sunday Times
had us ask the public whether they regarded a number of foreign leaders, including the aforesaid Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, favourably. President Mitterrand came out on the right side of the ledger (40% favourable views against 29% unfavourable), although again Chancellor Kohl's score was better (42% favourable, 13% unfavourable). Interestingly, though, on that occasion many more Britons had an opinion of the French leader than of the German one: only 13% didn't know what they thought about President Mitterrand, whereas Herr Kohl collected 32% don't knows.
In that same poll, we asked the public whether they regarded each country favourably or unfavourably. On that occasion, it appears that France was not very popular, for favourable opinions only outnumbered unfavourable ones by 44% to 36%. But ten years later, in a 1994 poll for the BBC Language Unit
, we found a much more positive reaction, with two-thirds (65%) of Britons saying they personally felt very or fairly friendly towards French people. They were also clear by a wide margin that French food and French railways were better than their British counterparts, though they preferred British films, British pop music, British television and British sport.
Not that this prevented them from picking Sacha Distel and Brigitte Bardot as the sexiest Frenchman and Frenchwoman respectively, in a question that is fascinating if only for the generational divides the answers bring out.
C'est la vie.
Though if you put it that way, only 32% of our respondents would have known what you meant.