How the term Anglo-Saxon became French’s alter-ego and most feared enemy…

Emile Chabal (chancellor’s fellow in history at Univ of Edinburgh) has a piece on the Anglo Saxon identity and the French relationship with the term:

In the English-speaking world, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ usually refers to a specific period in medieval history. Occasionally, a residual contemporary usage creeps back into general parlance – such as the common expression ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’, used to describe a certain type of American East Coast elite – but this is unusual. Few English speakers today would describe themselves as Anglo-Saxons. It sounds too archaic and too awkward for the modern multi-cultural societies we live in.

It is quite the opposite in France, however. The very same term, usually deployed as an adjective, has passed into everyday language at all levels of society. The French breezily refer to les Anglo-Saxons when talking about the British, the Americans, the Canadians, the Australians or some mix of all four; they are more than happy to engage in vigorous arguments about the so-called modèle anglo-saxon, which has become a catch-all term to describe a variety of cultural, social and economic policies developed in the English-speaking world; and they are quite comfortable drawing stark contrasts between une culture anglo-saxonne and a wide range of countercultures. Even politicians and media pundits do not hesitate to describe a ‘model’, an ‘approach’ or an ‘idea’ as Anglo-Saxon – and they can be confident that the vast majority of French people will know what they mean.

How the did term capture the country?

Still, it is worth going back to the origins of the term in the mid-19th century to see when and how it took on the meanings that it did. Until around 1850, there is little evidence that the term Anglo-Saxon was used in France to refer to anything other than the early medieval period. It was only in the 1860s that a new meaning began to appear in the wake of Napoleon III’s abortive attempts to extend the French empire into Latin America. In learned publications such as the Revue des races latines, founded in 1857, ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ was juxtaposed with ‘Latinity’ in an attempt to place France at the heart of a global Latin world that stretched from South America and the Caribbean to Madrid and Paris. This global context laid the foundations for the elision between Britain and the United States that would become so central to the notion of the Anglo-Saxon in later years.

Over time, the term started to be used beyond the limited confines of French imperialist elite. A key indicator of its ubiquity was its inclusion in the revised edition of Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française (1877). In addition to its historical definitions as they related to medieval Anglo-Saxon history and language, Littré’s Dictionnaire indicated that ‘When we speak of the race to which the Americans of the United States and the British belong, we often say that they are “Anglo-Saxons”.’ By the late 1870s, the Anglo-Saxon had developed into a well-articulated transnational and ethno-racial stereotype.

That the term should have emerged in France in the 1870s is hardly a coincidence. This was a period of intense soul-searching for the French in the wake of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the violence of the Paris Commune. One of the most common strategies among the reformist and liberal elites of this period was to search beyond France for ideas about how the country could regenerate itself. For this, Britain was an obvious place to look. Whereas France was struggling with civil war and defeat, Britain seemed to be a triumphant imperial power, whose influence stretched across the globe and whose economy dominated Europe.

This vision of Britain – and, by extension, the Anglo-Saxon – was crystallised in one of the most vibrant public debates in France at the very end of the 19th century. The short book À quoi tient la superiorité des Anglo-Saxons?(1897) by the intellectual Edmond Demolins used a mix of rather alarming statistics, perfunctory observation, and racial typologies to argue that the Anglo-Saxon race was particularly well-suited to the modern world. Not only was it on the way to imperial dominance – a point made abundantly clear by the fact that many editions carried a map on the first page designed to show the Anglo-Saxons’ global sphere of influence – but it was also highly effective at promoting economic growth.


French use of the term Anglo-Saxon shows no sign of abating. The Google N-Gram graph ends in 2008 with a marked dip, but this was the year of the global financial crisis. Since then, Anglo-Saxon capitalism has come under scrutiny like never before. And, of course, the growth in Islamic terrorism in Europe has ensured that questions of integration, immigration and security remain at the top of the agenda. In the recent presidential election campaign, the leader of the far-Right Front National claimed that 2016 was the year in which the Anglo-Saxon world ‘woke up’ – a reference to Donald Trump and Brexit – while Emmanuel Macron was universally seen in the French media as an avatar of the ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ (for better or for worse, depending on the political opinion of the writer).

In these interminable debates, the realities on the ground are largely irrelevant. It does not matter that the US and the UK differ sharply in almost every way, not to mention the various other countries that sometimes come under the umbrella term of Anglo-Saxon. Nor does it matter that the clash between Anglo-Saxon and French ‘models’ rarely reflects complex sociological realities. Rather, the Anglo-Saxon in France is a placeholder, a mirror, an echo, a metaphor.

All of this will be familiar to students and scholars of nationalism. Cultural stereotypes are a powerful – and underestimated – tool in the way we construct the world around us. When the British nonchalantly refer to ‘the Continent’ or Americans talk about ‘Europe’, they are doing exactly what the French have done with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’. At times, English speakers can even fall into the same trap as their French counterparts when they lazily describe an idea or a way of thinking as ‘Anglo-American’ or ‘Atlantic’.

But, if the British and Americans continue to draw on a shared mythology of the Anglo-Saxon, they do not do so with as much zeal as the French. Today, French intellectuals, pundits, middle-managers, academics and workers happily use the term in much the same way as their late 19th-century cousins. Times have changed and few of these people would acknowledge its obviously racial origins, but this has not stopped the Anglo-Saxon from becoming a looming presence in French society. Perhaps we should just recognise that the concept of the Anglo-Saxon has been almost as resilient and adaptable as the Anglo-Saxons themselves?



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