For a people which rabbits on about republicanism as if they invented the thing, the French aren’t half obsessed with royalty – and, most notably, the British monarchy. Coverage of the present state visit by our royals has been extensive, notably as King Charles and President Macron presided over Wednesday’s remembrance ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe. They seemed to be getting on as pretty close friends. This followed wall-to-wall coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, its aftermath and the subsequent funeral last year.
Intense coverage kicked off again, earlier this year, for Charles’ coronation – going on, apparently, until even the most fervent French republican must have been beaten into submission.
Some thought the attention paid to royal matters overdone – one academic referred to “infobesity” – but it seems they were watching it on TV all the same. Granted, crowds on the Champs Elysées for Charles and Camilla’s 10 km/hour drive past were more sparse than the throngs which attended Queen Elizabeth’s visits – but what did we expect? Charles has been in the job for only five minutes, nowhere near long enough to build up the affection generated by his mother.
But the enthusiasm still outstripped that attending any other conceivable state visit. And why wouldn’t it? Having ill-advisedly shortened their own royals a couple of centuries ago, our neighbours seek substitutes wherever they are to be found. Juan Carlos came in handy in the past, but has slipped severely in the ratings of late. Meanwhile, the French consider Monaco’s Albert and Charlene almost as their own, notably since the birth of now eight-year-old twins Jacques and Gabriella.
There is interest, too, in the various Low Country and Scandinavian monarchies, not least because the Swedish royal family has French roots in Pau, in the foothills of the Pyrenees (long story). That aside, the interest surfaces only intermittently, at times of marriages, deaths and corruption scandals.
None of these has ever rivalled the Windsors for column inches and the continuity of fascination. Magazines like Gala, Point de Vue and Paris Match have long been bursting forth with pretty much weekly bulletins on William and Kate, and the various travails of Harry and Meghan.
They’re keen, too, on Charles and Camilla. I look forward to photos in all three magazines of our present queen trying to hold onto her hat in the Parisian wind yesterday. But our last queen – “The Queen,” said President Macron – stood apart and above. She was revered sufficiently to suggest that, were she to emulate her predecessor Edward III and claim the throne of France, there’d be a decent vote in favour.
This wouldn’t be quite as mad as it sounds. The lives of our royal families have been entwined with France (or what was to become France), since William the Bastard landed his Norman troops at Pevensey and swiftly became “the Conqueror”.
Later, our Plantagenets were HQ’ed across the Channel. Henry II was born in what is now Le Mans town hall, before marrying Eleanor, bagging Aquitaine and running an empire from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees. Later yet, during the Hundred Years War, our Henry VI was crowned king of France in 1431, though this didn’t work out quite as planned. Losing the war scarcely helped his cause.
Moving swiftly across the centuries, Queen Victoria was maybe more Francophile than expected so soon after the Napoleonic unpleasantness. She and Albert were great hits in Paris. Widowed, she took to spending winters on the Riviera where her extreme popularity was explained by her handing out of alms to all-comers, by her friendship with the likes of Sarah Bernhardt – and by the fact that having the most famous woman in the world among them was great PR for places like Hyères and Nice. On her deathbed, she allegedly said: “If I were in Nice, I would get better”. I’ve often wondered why the city didn’t adopt this as its motto.
Meanwhile, her son, the Prince of Wales, was man-in-charge-of-partying across the Côte-d’Azur. He also found time to pay his respects to festivities in Paris (with, among others, Giulia Beneni, celebrated as “the number one whore of Paris”), Pau and Biarritz – where, as Edward VII in 1908, he appointed Herbert Asquith as PM in his suite in the resort’s Hotel du Palais. Affairs of state were done differently back then.
Edward’s grandson, the fleetingly royal Edward VIII, took to the Loire Valley after abdication. There in June 1937, in the Château de Candé, near Tours, he wed his coat-hanger bride. The almost-royal couple were married in the library, music provided by Candé‘s three-storey organ. With a certain inevitability, they carved their Christian names on the organ’s wood panelling.
Which brings us to Elizabeth II, perhaps the most francophile and francophone of all recent monarchs. She made more state visits to France than to any other European country – plus numerous private jaunts. Her first official trip, and first trip outside Britain, came with Philip in 1948. She travelled in a railway carriage filled with flowers by French Rail (good luck asking for that sort of treatment these days) and was entertained by both Edith Piaf and Henri Salvador. Parisian crowds thronged by the hundred thousand. She allegedly reacted: “How could they have guillotined their own king?”
State visits started in 1957, the Elysée Palace being informed on this occasion that “Her Majesty has a small appetite but will eat just about anything, except caviar, oysters and shellfish.” Requests on later visits for foie gras set her apart from many of her subjects – as well as from her son who apparently asked specifically not to be fed foie gras on his present visit. At the Palace of Versailles last night, he made do with blue lobster and crab, Bresse poultry and a gratin of cep mushrooms – and the company of Sir Mick Jagger, Hugh Grant, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, among many others.
Back to Elizabeth II, whose private visits included, as you’d expect of a horse-woman, stud farms in Normandy. In other years, the Queen visited the Loire Valley – mainly Chambord and Chenonceau. As she said on one occasion (in French, of course): “A visit to France is never perfect if it doesn’t include the Loire Valley”. Quite. On this trip, she summed up cross-Channel relations brilliantly, saying Latin Europe was to Anglo-Saxon tradition as oil is to vinegar, “both are necessary to season the salad”.
In 1994, Her Majesty inaugurated the Channel tunnel with her (very) distant cousin, President Mitterrand. (The two apparently shared a noble 17th-century Poitevin ancestor, one Eléonore Desmier d’Olbreuse.) Ten years later, the Queen made her fourth visit and, ten years after that, her fifth and final official trip across the Channel.
After joining 19 other heads of state in Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, she returned to Paris to visit the Flower Market on the Ile-de-la-Cité. Henceforth, the market was to be known as Le Marché Aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The welcome extended to the Queen on all these occasions – and to the King at the moment – isn’t simply that accorded to a celebrity, though certain French commentators claim there’s little difference. Nor is the interest only ironic, as smarter folk like to pretend. Whatever these people say, it’s obvious that British monarchs have real status in France. Of course, there’s the entertainment value but they also embody so many of the things which the French admire in the British – and admire simply in general, never mind the British connection: the spirit of “fair-play” (for which there’s no French word), restraint, elegance and resolution under stress, the sense of duty and getting on with stuff without invoking personal trauma – plus a frankly outstanding taste in ladies’ headgear. Queen Camilla’s pink item of yesterday honours a find tradition.
And, somehow, their very presence and bearing suggested that Britain is a country worthy of respect as exemplified by the Champs Elysée parade, the Versailles dinner and King Charles’ address to the French Senate today. Certainly – listen up, British republicans – they generate a warmth and fascination within France which was experienced by no other person and no other nation. It goes without saying that the British also exasperate the French, as vice versa. But it’s the exasperation of close-ish relatives. As Queen Elizabeth II once said, we may drive on different sides of the road, but we’re going in the same direction.
Vitally, the royals in general, and Queen Elizabeth II in particular, constitute a living link with a shared recent past. France’s former ambassador to the UK, Bernard Emié put it well years ago: “With Queen Elizabeth II, we meet our own history, but also our liberty. For it’s to her people, to her father George VI, to the man who became her prime-minister, Winston Churchill that we owe the welcome extended to General de Gaulle and the Free French in London – and then, with the Allies, the liberation of France.”
There are ties which go beyond politics, trade – and the trading of insults. The Royals are their incarnation. And I’m pretty sure they’ll soon take to Charles as to his mother. Memories of his unhappy first marriage will fade. He’s a great defender of unpasteurised “smelly French cheeses”, he’ll be visiting a vineyard in Bordeaux on this trip – and, in 2004, one of his water colours featured on the label of bottles of Mouton Rothschild, commemorating 100 years of the entente cordiale. He speaks good French and evidently has an easy manner with the locals, from Mr Macron down. The British monarchy’s place in French esteem is, I’d say, safe for the foreseeable.