Why the French are fascinated by Elizabeth II and the British monarchy

The emotion aroused in France by the loss of Elizabeth II confirms the attachment, even nostalgia, of the French for the monarchy, 229 years after the beheading of Louis XVI.

On January 21, 1793, the French deposed King Louis XVI to cheer. Two centuries later, as the announcement of Queen Elizabeth II’s death generated nearly 1,834 tweets per second on Twitter, France seemed as depressed as the United Kingdom. It seems that Republican France has recently lost an important figure in its history.

The declarations of the President of the Republic and his Prime Minister only keep this paradox of a deep republican people attracted by the crowned heads. “Tonight, the French are also mourning,” said Elisabeth Borne, September 8, the day of the queen’s death. “His death leaves us with a sense of emptiness,” added Emmanuel Macron. According to a study carried out by the company Appinio, 60% of French people say they are affected by the loss of Elizabeth II.

Same story with artists. But the son of Sicilian immigrants, the singer Calogero took over on Thursday night during a concert of some notes of God Save the Queen. Behind him, a giant screen broadcasts the image of a United Kingdom flag. “The death of Queen Elizabeth II is a great pain for me and for the world”, reacted on his part on Twitter the actress Brigitte Bardot. “Sad to learn of the passing of our Queen…”, Arielle Dombasle also tweeted. Since childhood we know that there is a kingdom there, the United Kingdom and the revered Queen of England…”

Flags at half mast?

“We love him very much”, declared The Parisian after the death of the Queen. A front page echoing that of the July/August 2021 issue of Review of both worlds, which headlined: “The British model, the sacred we miss”. In an article published in the review, Stéphane Bern considered the United Kingdom and Monaco to be “our two alternative monarchies”. “The French have a taste for the prince, but they look for it abroad”, said General de Gaulle.

In addition to the Eiffel Tower, which came out on the night of the Queen’s death, the flags of official buildings were at half-mast on Friday, a practice reserved for special occasions such as national mourning or a tribute. Emmanuel Macron, who wanted to join the French in mourning the Britons, placed a British flag on the steps of the Elysée. The flags will be at half mast again on Monday, September 19, for the funeral of Elizabeth II.

This decision was not unanimous. Friday, the mayor of Faches-Thumesnil (North), Patrick Prois, refused to follow the president’s instructions. “Is it done for all the heads of state who have died? Does our Republic give preference to a monarch, head of a Church?”, he wondered. An anger shared by Yann Galutthe mayor of Bourges (Cher): “I respect the pain of our English friends but I will not put French flags on the pediment of municipal buildings.”

A love that goes back a long way

This French love for Elizabeth II, and more broadly for the British crown, goes back a long way. Queen Victoria’s official visit to the Château d’Eu in Normandy in 1855, forty years after the defeat at Waterloo, sparked “extraordinary popular enthusiasm”, recalls Philippe Chassaigne, professor of contemporary history at Bordeaux-Montaigne University. . Great Britain. “The French are very sensitive [au fait] that the queen and her eldest son would also go to the Invalides to gather in front of the tomb of Napoleon I.”

Relations between the two countries were established more precisely at the beginning of the 20th century. King Edward VII visited France in 1903, five years after the Fashoda Crisis, a diplomatic incident that almost led to war between the two countries. “The reception of the population of Paris was initially very cold”, says the historian. “Then Edward VII, by his good nature, his playful nature, his simplicity, was able to turn public opinion in his favor.

In 1936, Edward VIII’s abduction to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson also attracted the French. “France does not understand why the monarch cannot marry the woman he loves. The public does not know the religious and political obstacles to such a union”, added Philippe Chassaigne. In 1938, George VI went to Paris to recall the diplomatic relations that united the United Kingdom to France while the international situation was tense in the East.

Ten years ago, Princess Elizabeth II was not yet queen, but went to France in place of her father. “The press spoke of the ‘little princess’ in a paternalistic tone. She gave a speech in impeccable French. And when she left Paris, everyone shouted, ‘long live the queen!’ otherwise!”, laughs Philippe Chassaigne. In 1957, Guy Mollet, President of the Council, proposed joining the Commonwealth – but the proposal was rejected in London.

In France, a republican monarchy

Since June 2, 1953, the day of Elizabeth II’s coronation, every royal event broadcast on French television has met with great success with the audience. To attend the coronation, the whole of France was equipped with television. Millions of French people will also follow the wedding of Charles and Diana on July 29, 1981, then Diana’s funeral on September 6, 1997, in front of their television.

On April 29, 2011, 9 million French people followed the wedding of William and Kate. In 2012, almost 4 million watched the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. On May 19, 2018, 8.1 million French people attended the wedding of Harry and Meghan. On April 5, 2020, the Queen’s speech to give courage to Britons affected by the Covid pandemic attracted almost 2.5 million viewers. And on April 17, 2021, almost six million French people attended Prince Philip’s funeral.

This fascination was not rooted in the Queen’s Francophilia, but in the foundations of the Fifth Republic. The president has more institutional prerogatives in France than any of his counterparts. “With the Fifth Republic, the president is a republican monarch. We change monarchs every five or ten years”, analyzes Philippe Chassaigne. “Even though France is a republic, there’s this personalization of one person’s power. That’s why we can project ourselves more easily with a real monarch across the Channel.”

For historian Jean Garrigues, at Point, this enthusiasm confirms a “nostalgia for the monarchical figure”, which is “expressed by periodic recourse to ‘transcendental’ authoritative figures or, at least, to people who give life.” France has a love for this figure of the given hero, from Gambetta to Pierre Mendès-France through Clémenceau, Pétain and General de Gaulle. But Elizabeth II did nothing to take this role, especially since she did not plan to become queen.

Perverted image of royalty

Yaël Goosz, political columnist of France Inter, sees this expression of a “people who regret the beheading of the king”, “a repressed complex vis-à-vis a lost transcendence”: “So the Republican grandeur. The Elysée is a palace,” he insisted. “If the British royal family is so popular in France, it is because it embodies this symbolic power that is able to unite an entire people and to which we feel orphan”, added Stéphane Bern to Review of both worlds.

For many commentators, this nostalgia is “consubstantial with the sentimental dimension that belongs to the monarchy”, analyzes Frédéric Rouvillois in Le Figaro. According to him, there is also “a deeper connection, which is due to the nature of the monarchy”: “The monarchical regime is composed of two contradictory principles: an extraordinary distance, which places the monarch in a historical continuity, and a familiarity that allows the embodiment of a family’s power.”

For Charles-Eloi Vial, author of various works on the monarchy, this interest refers more to aa misunderstanding of the past” and a “misunderstanding of the facts of the functioning of ancient monarchical systems [qu’à un] deficit in the embodiment of power in our Republic”, he explained in the blog News words.

However, the French were not completely fooled by the fairy tale images of the British monarchy. In 2016, according to a BVA survey. less than one in five French (17%) said they were in favor of the position of head of state held by a king.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *