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'The incredible English' - it really hasn't been a good week to be covering football in France

Double exit from Europe leaves hosts exasperated

By Ian Herbert

It's the way the French kill with their politeness that has made it an especially difficult week to be British and in their country. They talk about our xenophobia having been at work in the outcome of the EU referendum, though not in so many words.

"When you tell people to fear spiders for long enough they are afraid," said a woman who was wandering up the suburban back streets near the Republic of Ireland's training base in Versailles.

The front page of the 'Liberation' newspaper that day was more brutal in its assessment of what this nation plainly sees as the vote of Little Englanders. "Good Luck" stated the newspaper's front page headline - in English, to compound the ridicule. It accompanied a cartoon of Boris Johnson in tin hat and boots, winched to a rip wire and waving Union flags.

By Thursday, the French had become sensitive enough to know that this subject had assumed 'Don't mention the war' status for the English. "Do you mind talking about it?" said the hotel receptionist, sympathetically, in the Saint Antoine district. Her mother's mother was Scottish, she spoke good English and was curious.

"People here see the British as eccentric and this is why you have done this," she said. But the immigration… others fear the immigrants too. There are many here who feel that." She just didn't seem to be one of them herself.

The full extent of the British hubris was out in the open by then and you had to see that from their perspective it was laughable. One English European exit had been followed hard on its heels by another, to Iceland in Euro 2016, and if that did not reveal the hubris at the core of the splendid isolation, Tuesday's 'L'Equipe' was full of the stories that did.

It revealed how we want to raid their league to stock our high and mighty football system with their players and managers. The formal announcement of Laurent Blanc's departure from PSG had not even been announced when it surfaced that England might wish to make him their next manager.

But it was Crystal Palace's plans to pay out £31m for Marseille's Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi which seemed to encapsulate the English swagger.

Crystal Palace, l'incroyable offensive ('Crystal Palace, the incredible offensive') read the headline in 'L'Equipe', which was simultaneously digesting the goalkeeper Steve Mandanda's move to Palace. 'Incredible' was the term of the day, given that the same paper's description of England's humbling to the Icelandics was headlined (ital)L'incroyable fiasco anglais(close).

"You're like the Russians, strutting around the Riviera with their bling and no substance underneath it," said one French journalist at Stade de Nice on Monday night and it was hard to tell if he was joking. Pour les effets du Brexit, il faudra repasser. Ou attendre, un peu ('We need to revise our bets on the effects of Brexit, or at least wait a while),' L'Equipe said of the English assault on French football's best talents. "Despite the uncertainty which weighs on sterling, the English have an exceptional financial power." Palace missed out on Batshuayi, in the end. Chelsea got him instead.

For all that, the relationship with Britain and reaction to its decision seems complex. There is a sentiment for us, despite our desire to be out. "You have better music, better culture and that's why our children want to work in London," said the woman on Versailles' Alle Pierre de Coubertin.

Her sentiment was born out on the steps at Place d'Opera, on Thursday afternoon, where busker Miguel Angel rolled out his English songs in the sunshine. The Beatles, The Bangles and Oasis featured, with Nina Simone's 'I wish I could know what it means to be me' providing a rare North Carolina incursion. Not a single French number.

"As an island you have something different and some parts of culture we want," said Pierre Dore, a student, on the steps. "But Britain is insular and Britain is arrogant. You do not look out. Maybe being an island makes suspicions. There is worry about immigrants here but not the deep suspicions. Britain looks in."

The invasion of English supporters at those places where Hodgson's team descended appears to have caused less damage to our national reputation than it might, despite the deep embarrassment of hearing 20-year-olds singing about the "RAF from England" shooting down German bombers. For as long as England's hopeless tournament lasted, these people created the image of a nation of lunatic Brexiteer imperialists, intent only on reminding the world of what the British Empire once was.

The story may have been different had Hodgson's team ventured on towards the Stade de France this weekend, to provide their own inimitable soundtrack to the Somme anniversary. As things turned out, the politicians caused more than enough embarrassment for one week. "Bloody English!! How they have ignited Europe" declared the front of this weekend's Le Figaro's magazine, with Boris Johnson its designated cover star. "Brexit: Shakespeare en pire" was Liberation's latest offering. 'Brexit: Worse than Shakespeare."

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