I found a French army cliché;

“A friend when you’ re a first lieutenant, a companion when you’re captain, a colleague when you’re major, a rival when you’re colonel, the enemy when you’re general”

introduced in a Japanese translation of “L’ étrange Defaire – Témoignage écrit en 1940,” written by French historian and résistant fighter, Marc Bloch (1886-1944), who was arrested and killed by the Nazis in June 1944, only two months before the liberation of Paris by the Allied Forces.

I think it’s a very intriguing axiom to describe the nature of human race - the harder, the higher you climb up, which is common to the races / struggles in every field of politics, business, academy, sports, entertainment and you can name it.

Is this an axiom proper to French?

We have Japanese saying, “両雄並び立たず- Two heroes can never stand side by side (coexist),” which I think is akin to Chinese cliché, 両虎相闘 - liang hu xiang dou - meaning two tigers in a prairie are distined to fight to death, i.e. Caesar couldn’t stand together Pompeius, and Octavianus couldn’t live and let live Antonius. Both Japanese and Chinese cliché match only the last part of the French cliché.

Is there English version to the same effect?

  • What has been ascribed to Sun-tzu and adopted by the west sounds a little like it: "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer" – mplungjan Aug 8 '13 at 13:31
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    It doesn't have all of the levels of the French saying, but the saying "It's lonely at the top" means that as a person acquires power or stature in a field, they tend not to have many close friends because people are either afraid of the person in power, or the person in power assumes anyone befriending them really wants something from them. – JLG Aug 8 '13 at 17:38
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    @Yoichi Oishi - No, I don't believe any such phrase exists in English, but I see nothing specifically French about it. You could use the phrase as-is in English and it would be well understood, even if nobody recognized it. – Lynn Aug 9 '13 at 2:26
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    @mplungjan. The quote, often attributed to Sun-tzu or to Machiavelli, appears to originate in Godfather II, where Michael Corleone says it is something taught to him by his father Vito. Besides, it is in many ways the opposite of the French saying, which implies that you are likely to be farthest away from your fiercest competitors, which produces vulnerabilities Don Corleone's advice seeks to avoid. – H Stephen Straight Aug 13 '13 at 22:14

You could say "It's lonely at the top.", but it's not really the same. I think something that's closer in feeling is

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely

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    Vodka corrupts; Absolut vodka corrupts absolutely. – MT_Head Aug 8 '13 at 19:34
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    @jacobm001. I think French army proverb is about inevitable and accelerating rivalry in the struggle for the power rather than corruption attached to the power. – Yoichi Oishi Aug 9 '13 at 0:41
  • I agree they're not the same, but I think it's as close as you'd get in existing english proverbs. – Jacobm001 Aug 9 '13 at 1:23

I think the cliché can be interpreted in two ways:

  • Literally

    The person who has achieved success has changed. The phrase "poacher turned gamekeeper" might be appropriate here. For example, if a person showed a lack of discipline when a lieutenant but enforced strict discipline after becoming a general.

  • Tongue-in-cheek

    The person who has achieved success is regarded differently by other people. That is jealousy, envy, or begrudgery. If you Google for quotes relating to these keywords you will find lots of examples.

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