Perhaps the best known thing about French history is that they guillotined their own royals back in 1793. There were a couple of brief returns to monarchy, plus a self-crowned Emperor, but these days France is a firmly republican country.
But that doesn’t stop the French from showing huge interest in, and affection for, the royals on the other side of the English Channel.
In addition to fulsome tributes from president Emmanuel Macron and other high profile figures in France, the Union Jack was added to the flags outside the president’s Elysée Palace and the lights on the Eiffel Tower were turned off on Thursday night after the announcement of the death of the Queen, at the age of 96.
French TV channels on Thursday afternoon showed rolling news updates from the UK, while TV historian Stéphane Bern presented a specially recorded tribute programme to the Queen.
On Friday, three of France’s daily newspapers made the royal death their front page story, with Le Parisien using the headline Nous l’avons tant aimée (we loved her so much), Le Figaro saying L’adieu à la reine (farewell to the queen) and Libération opting for La peine d’angleterre (England’s pain, but also a pun on La reine d’angleterre).
The French papers this morning
— Sophie Pedder (@PedderSophie) September 9, 2022
But this wasn’t a one-time event sparked by the death of such a long-reigning and much-loved figure, royal fever frequently strikes France, especially during royal weddings.
In 2021, 6 million people in France watched the funeral of Prince Phillip, 4 million watched the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and the royal weddings of princes William and Harry attracted 9 and 8 million French viewers respectively.
Charles de Gaulle once remarked: “The French have a taste for princes, but they will always look abroad”.
French presidents, such as de Gaulle, are both the political leader of the country and the head of state, and have quite a few semi-monarchical trappings to the role, such as accommodation in the very grand Elysée Palace.
Emmanuel Macron, who began his presidency styling himself as an almost royal figure before being forced by public pressure to adopt a more down-to-earth governing style, called the French “a nation of regicidal monarchists” – yearning for a strong leader yet always keen to tear them down.
One of his predecessors, François Mitterand, also remarked on this difficulty, reportedly saying in 1984: “I must be both Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth.”
Although the monarchy is far from an uncontroversial subject in the UK, where a significant portion of the population believe that the royals should have no official role, in France they are seen as a force for unity.
TV presenter Stéphane Bern, himself an ardent royalist, wrote a special essay in April 2022, to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. He said: “How can we explain this French infatuation with everything related to the British monarchy Nostalgia of the sans-culottes [French revolutionaries] for the monarchic splendor? Curiosity for this unchanging institution which is not afraid to conjugate secular rites in the present? Or a formidable symbolic force that gives hope to an entire people, who believe themselves invincible as long as the queen (or king) watches over them?
“How many events in our country are still capable of bringing crowds together, across political divides, religious beliefs or social affiliations? Apart from the football World Cup, when France wins, moments of national communion are rare and, even on July 14th [France’s Fête nationale] the principle of unity does not always prevail.
“If the British royal family is so popular in France, it is because it embodies the symbolic power capable of bringing together an entire people and of which we feel orphaned. The crown, which unites in diversity, seems to allow the British to find themselves and to commune around the timeless values of their nation.
“Unconsciously, there must be a kind of nostalgia, tinged with a sense of guilt, in this look of admiration and envy.”
French journalist Nicolas Domenach, speaking to The Local during the royal wedding celebrations in 2018, also emphasised the sense of unity, saying: “English royalty serves to maintain the unity of the country. It has immense symbolic power, but no concrete power.
“This monarchical permanence in a democracy fascinates us because we cut off the head of our king and our queen.
“We are proud to have accomplished our Revolution, but we maintain a nostalgia, if not a remorse.”