Are the French secretly in love with Britain’s royals?
- 5 June 2012
- From the section Europe
In republican France, you might have thought that the fanfare of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee would have passed almost unnoticed.
Far from it. The pomp and pageantry of the British Royal Family hold a surprising degree of fascination for the French.
The Jubilee was extensively covered by the French media and some 3.6 million viewers watched a three-and-a-half hour live Jubilee special on France 2 television on Sunday afternoon.
"It's a very good score," said Yannick Letranchant, the executive behind the programme. "We got 26.3% of the audience, despite the French Open tennis tournament being on at the same time on another channel."
Since the Royal Wedding last year and the success of the film The King's Speech the British monarchy has been "a la mode" in France.
The wedding was broadcast live, not just on one but on three French television channels, and Mr Letranchant said it attracted huge audiences. Many offices in Paris all but came to a standstill as people took time out to watch it.
"Whenever we cover a royal event, we get pretty good ratings," Mr Letranchant said. "It's partly out of curiosity, it's picturesque and original, a bit exotic, a real-life fairy tale. And there's a certain respect for the Queen."
Despite the nation's revolutionary history, France's Fifth Republic, with its powerful president, echoes some of the trappings of monarchical grandeur.
The French have long been enchanted by the British royals - and their counterparts in Monaco. For decades they have been regular fixtures in the stylish celebrity magazine Paris Match.
In the days leading up to the Jubilee, several television documentaries and programmes about the Queen were broadcast in France.
"There is no doubt that the French are more interested in the British Royal Family than they are in other European royals," said Marc Roche, London correspondent of Le Monde newspaper and the author of two books about the monarchy.
"It is as if the French had never recovered from chopping off the heads of their own royal family," he said. "They don't know much about the Queen, but they like the pomp and circumstance, they like the grandeur of the institution."
Many French people also see it as a reassuring constant in a changing world, said Mr Letranchant.
"Times are hard in many parts of the world and it's a means of escape," he said. "The Queen has lived through history, while French presidents and British prime ministers have come and gone."
But Mr Roche said the French are distinctly uncomfortable with what they see as some of the "undemocratic" associations of the monarchy.
"For a lot of French people, it represents the class society, opposed to Europeanism," he said, describing the British monarchy as one of the "most anachronistic institutions in the world".
For Mr Roche, the Queen's position as head of state not just of the United Kingdom but of 15 other Commonwealth countries, most of them former British colonies, has been a "sizeable psychological obstacle" to the UK's attachment to Europe.
In a reflective article about the Jubilee in Le Monde, he argues that the Queen remains a symbol of the old imperial Britain, even if opinion polls show that she has never been as popular as she is today.
Desire for grandeur
Three years ago the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, found himself in a diplomatic spat after not inviting the Queen to the 65th anniversary of D-Day commemorations in France.
Mr Sarkozy's critics claimed he had wanted to make sure that public attention focused on him and US President Barack Obama, and the presence of the Queen could have detracted from that.
Many French people believe that Mr Sarkozy's personal style while in office failed to match the dignity they demand from a president.
"What the French really want is a president who acts with dignity and grandeur, in other words, a king," said marketing executive Therese Joly. "But these days, presidents can often be seen as mere celebrities, while the royals seem to offer something more."
Jean-Francois Lascaux, manager of a clothes shop in Paris, said the Jubilee was "mythical".
"It was splendid, the spectacle of a thousand boats on the Thames was like a painting by Canaletto or Whistler."