British girl celebrates
Adrian Dennis  /  AFP - Getty Images
A girl celebrates in Trafalgar Square Wednesday as Olympic officials announce that London will host the 2012 Olympic Games.
By London bureau chief
NBC News
updated 7/6/2005 6:27:11 PM ET 2005-07-06T22:27:11

It is an interesting twist of language that some of the best words we Brits use to describe our particular national characteristics are French.

Take, for instance, our natural sangfroid and our aplomb, two fine, borrowed terms that sum up our inherent “cool.”

We are, as everyone knows, generally unflappable. We show little emotion. Stiff upper lip and all that.

Except at 12:46 on Wednesday afternoon.

It was then that hundreds of thousands of my countrymen and women burst into spontaneous and prolonged cheering. In Trafalgar Square they were dancing in the streets.

It was a moment we truly felt a certain je ne sais quoi. An undeniable joie de vivre.

Snatched the Olympics
For it was, to put it bluntly, the moment we stuck it to the French. The moment we snatched the 2012 Olympics right from under their garlic-sniffing noses.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am no Francophobe. Au contraire. I love their country. It is my vacation destination of choice. I went there just a couple of weeks ago and had a splendid time.

I dream of living there, of spending lazy days doing not very much, punctuated by long lunches washed down with gallons of crisp sauvignon.

But reality sometimes intrudes on my reveries, like a noisome neighbor.

Which, come to think of it, is what the French are to us British.

Sometimes they get right on our nerves. And vice versa.

It all started back in ...
Take 1066 for a start, when that bossy Norman William the Conqueror and his French army pushed his way across the channel, shot our King Harold in the eye and made themselves right at home.

A couple of hundred years later or so — just when you think we might have begun to get over it — along came a little scrap between France and England known in history as the Hundred Years War. Actually, it lasted 116 years, but who’s counting. 

The French sneakily kept their best quarterback out of the game until 1429 — a young madam called Joan of Arc — and dealt us another nasty defeat.

You’re getting the picture, right?

This went on through the centuries. Sometimes we won, sometimes they won.

But in 1815 things truly took a turn for the better — at least, for this side of the channel, when one Napoleon Bonaparte came face to face with a certain Arthur Wellesley, duke of Wellington, and met his Waterloo. The French were trounced.

Ten years earlier, Adm. Horatio (Lord) Nelson had inflicted another telling defeat on the pesky French and Spanish fleets in an historic sea battle at Trafalgar.

He was the nation’s hero — and was honored with his very own square and column  in the center of London. 

So no surprise that we Brits — knowing the French were our main rivals for the Olympics — decided to stage our official celebrations right under Nelson’s statue on Wednesday. We know how to rub it in.

By now, you will probably understand why it took us a couple of hundred years to agree on linking our two countries with a tunnel.

And while, for the most part, we get along just fine, it doesn’t take much to set us against each other.

Oh, Mr. Chirac
British newspapers like nothing better than a little "Frog" bashing. The last few days it’s been open season, provoked by French President Jacques Chirac. 

But instead of shooting bullets at each other, we’ve been firing bad jokes and insults.

It started when Chirac was overheard at a recent lunch with his German and Russian counterparts making what passed for merry about British cuisine. “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that,” he said, this on the eve of his G-8 meetings with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

As for agriculture, quipped Chirac, our biggest contribution was Mad Cow disease.

The British newspapers spat back, running anti-French articles and jokes like this one. Question: Where’s the best place to hide your money from a Frenchman? Answer: Under the soap.

Not exactly classy repartee, but after what’s gone on between us over the years, hardly surprising.

But if Chirac’s jokes were bad, his timing was even worse — right in the middle of a supposed Gallic charm offensive aimed at persuading the International Olympic Committee to choose Paris over London.

Chirac, who went to Singapore to lend his personal weight to the pitch, instead spent his time ducking questions and canceling news conferences.

So it seemed only poetic justice when the votes went against France.

Chirac’s popularity is on the wane there — he’s been president for 10 years — and he needed an Olympic victory to boost his popularity. He won’t be laughing much now.

Last laugh
But Tony Blair and we fellow Britons will. We’re delighted to have won the right to host the 2012 games. It’s going to be great.

And there’s something else to make us smile.

Over the next couple of days, at the G-8 in Scotland, the leaders will be tucking into the best of British food.  

You can be sure crow will be on the menu. Just for Monsieur Chirac.

A la carte, of course.

Chris Hampson is the NBC News London bureau chief.

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