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Does France want a king?

Will the real king of France please stand up? Credit: Getty

September 22, 2023 - 7:00am

That was worth waiting for. This week’s state visit to France should have happened in March, but was postponed for very French reasons (widespread rioting). 

In the event, it was rather splendid. The most significant moment was King Charles’s speech in the French Senate — the first by a British monarch — which received a standing ovation. Yet the highlight might just have been the King’s walkabout in Paris, accompanied by the French President. Cries of “Vive le Roi!” went up from the crowd.

Being half-French, I wasn’t entirely surprised. Growing up, my French relatives were bigger fans of the British Royal Family than their counterparts in the UK. Indeed, I’ve come to realise that both countries are deeply marked by monarchy — in one case by its remarkable continuity, in the other by its echoing absence.

Europe is a mix of monarchies and republics, and most of the latter seem happy enough without a crowned head of state — but not the French. For all their showy republicanism, deep down they know there’s something missing. France is just too grand not to have a king.

They try to fill the void. Their militarised pomp and ceremony is second only to Britain’s own. And yet it’s not quite the same. French Presidents do their best, putting on regal airs that British PMs couldn’t get away with. However, the role of monarch-substitute is forever at odds with the raw politics of the job.

Therefore, it’s time to stop pretending and send for a king. But which one? There are at least four choices. The last king — or, rather, emperor — of France was Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I. France could certainly do with some Bonapartist vigour, but European empires are rather out of fashion these days, so perhaps not.

What about the proper French royal family — the one that goes back to the Carolingians? That would be interesting, but there’s a little problem: the need to choose between the Legitimist and Orléanist claims to the French throne. It’s all terribly complicated and rather awkward.

Luckily, there’s another choice — none other than our own King Charles III (or Charles XI, as he’d be in France). Though the English claim to the French throne was dropped by George III in 1802, there’s no reason why the two countries can’t agree to share a king.

That doesn’t mean that Britain and France would enter into a political union (as Winston Churchill proposed in 1940). Rather, there’d be a personal union just as there is with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all the other royal realms in the Commonwealth. 

These proposals are not entirely serious, but there would be advantages. Firstly, France could become a fully-functioning parliamentary democracy. Secondly, sharing with the Brits would be a speedy way of rebooting the monarchy in France. We’ve already got the crowns and costumes, so if we restored the fleur-de-lis insignia we’d be all set. What’s more, it would make a political point. Geography might condemn France to partnership with Germany in the EU — but a joint monarchy would provide the French with a plan B. We’re here if you need us, Mr Macron.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
9 months ago

I think it’s far better to have a proper king than a president who is constantly pretending to be one. I mean, if you are going to do it – go the whole hog, right?
You might criticise Charles for stepping too far into the political arena, but he is a skilled statesman and orator. Britain could do far, far worse. (And let it be said that Camilla looked very elegant at the banquet in her navy gown and jewels).

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Presidents are easier to remove without recourse to mobs, sacking prisons, and heavy falling blades.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
9 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

That’s because a powerless monarch, such as ours, doesn’t need to be removed because it is of only ceremonial significance.

John Solomon
John Solomon
9 months ago
Reply to  Hilary Easton

You completely ignore the soft power of ‘behind the scenes’ pressure. Remember all the ‘black spider memos’ before he had official status – I strongly suspect there is a strong element of “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir” from people who will go along with anything to gain some advantage for themselves. For example, if the monarch was really powerless, how on earth was an exemption from Inheritance Tax negotiated (which cost the public purse many millions in recent years)? This is true power without responsibility – many benefits, answerable to no-one, other than to public opinion, which was and is easily managed.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I’m always surprised that the “scrap the monarchy” enthusiasts seem so oblivious to the ghastly litany of failures of elected Heads of State around the world. With the possible exception of Mary Robinson, history shows the best the electorate can hope for is a near-invisible nonentity.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
9 months ago

Writing from the Republic of Ireland, I wouldn’t regard Mary Robinson as an exception from your litany. She could be termed a ‘wannabe queen’. But the Presidency of Ireland is a highly unusual position – between 1937 and 1948, two Irish presidents held office while George VI remained head of state.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
9 months ago

A commonality I’ve noticed among republicans is a parochial ignorance of a) other heads of states around the world and b) the incredible global popularity of the the British royal family.

David Walters
David Walters
9 months ago

Wasn’t Mary Robinson the one who gave up being head of state of her country to take a better job offer?

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
9 months ago
Reply to  David Walters

Yes, and making it clear in the process that that was the objective of taking the presidency in the first place. Before the presidency, her political accomplishments were limited to serving on Dublin Corporation briefly and representing Trinity College in Irish Senate (University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland have three seats each in the Irish upper house, elected by the graduates of each – similar to the old university seats in the House of Commons). Her tenure as president was marked by a fractious relationship with her domestic staff in Aras an Uachtarán (official residence in the Phoenix Park, one time the Vice-Regal Lodge where the Lord Lieutenant and subsequently Governor General resided), with her escort from the Civic Guard and also I recall a private soldier in the Irish army facing a court martial for allegedly derogatory remarks about her excellency. Nevertheless, the liberal Irish media were right behind her and she had an effective public relations team. The Phoenix magazine was one of her rare constant critics, but this was ignored. A question I often put is whether Mary Robinson did anything different from her immediate predecessor, Dr Patrick Hillary (who had been a minister in successive governments and a European Commissioner), no one can answer it.

George Scialabba
George Scialabba
9 months ago

Actually, we’re pretty happy with Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago

You’ve also shot more than a few, which implies not everybody thinks it’s quite so hunky dory

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Lincoln was one of the ones who was shot, so being shot is hardly a measure of how bad they were. Was Mountbatten being executed a sign of anything in particular?

Roger Sponge
Roger Sponge
9 months ago
Reply to  Noel Chiappa

Mountbatten wasn’t a monarch, of course. Only a relation.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago

And what about Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, and Buchanan?
I actually rate FDR as the worst; he got people used to thinking that the Federal government should take care of them, which is going to wind up destroying it.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
9 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

He may be doing an OK job, but I think his mother was orders of magnitude better.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
9 months ago

Provided it’s done right, constitutional monarchy is easily the best form of government. A President is always going to be politically aligned in some way and is appointed either by a country’s Parliament or elected by its people. It’s impossible for them to be a truly unifying figure like a good
Monarch can be.

Many countries in Europe including France should review their constitutional practices and decide if their republics are as great as they’re cut out to be. Incidentally, my ideal foreign policy would be to refuse to recognise the governments of any country that had an indigenous monarchy and abolished it, so I’m happy to admit I’m a tad biased.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
9 months ago

For France, a British Royal visit is like being a childfree couple and having your kid nephew for a few days. We are very happy, try to be as welcoming as possible, and to provide pleasant vacation.
Yet he is definitely welcome here as a temporary guest, and not as a permanent burden

Last edited 9 months ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
9 months ago

De Gaulle came from a monarchist family and it’s no surprise that he made the fifth republic almost monarchical. The issue is that only someone like De Gaulle could pull it off convincingly.

Matt M
Matt M
9 months ago

The historian Mark Felton recently unearthed a plan to make the Duke of Windsor (the abdicated King Edward VIII) the king of Germany in 1946. It was felt by his backers that the shattered German people needed a figurehead and that the Duke’s German heritage, language and love of the country made him the ideal candidate. Of course, the idea was quickly rejected by the Foreign Office.
I was thinking about this when I saw Harry and Meghan being cheered by German crowds at the Invictus Games in Dusseldorf.
Could we not palm them off on the Germans?

Last edited 9 months ago by Matt M
Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
9 months ago

That’s fine. The French can have ours.

John Solomon
John Solomon
9 months ago

The average IQ of both countries would go up.

JP Martin
JP Martin
9 months ago

Your terms are acceptable 🙂

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

Personally, I’d say America needs a king. Our guilty conscience may move us to vote Democratic, but deep down we long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule us like a king.

Android Tross
Android Tross
9 months ago

A true leader, who will do exactly as he’s told.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago

Am I the only one who got this reference?

Android Tross
Android Tross
9 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I got it! It made my day.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago

No they don’t.

George Venning
George Venning
9 months ago

Does one swallow make a summer?

j watson
j watson
9 months ago

Wouldn’t a more immediate need be in the opposite direction across the Atlantic where just possibly it might moderate some of crazies there, such as Agent Orange, who still hasn’t quite clicked they don’t have a Monarchy and haven’t for 247yrs.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
9 months ago

Well-dressed though he is for a man of 74, and therefore far from a naked Emperor, the King should have spoken gibberish to the French Parliament, to see whether anyone would have said anything. But I told you that he was the sort of Tory that had lately taken to voting Green, while that party had become thoroughly pro-war over Ukraine.

As at the Last Night of the Proms, those EU flags, which could not conceivably have flanked the King without his and indeed the British Government’s permission, were the flags of the people whom the boundary changes had turned back into the key swing voters. Those who wave the Confederate flag as an expression of Southern pride do at least refer to “the Lost Cause”. But those who wave the EU flag as an expression of Southern pride regard their Cause as anything but Lost.

They may be right. While Keir Starmer talks about non-divergence from EU rules, Rishi Sunak gets on and de-diverges from them, following the EU’s lead by pushing back the ban on petrol and diesel cars to 2035. 

John Solomon
John Solomon
9 months ago

I was genuinely shocked to read in the papers that Charles was wearing a lapel pin for the Legion d’Honneur, apparently ‘awarded’ (i.e. given) to him some time ago. I had naively imagined that to be awarded the L d’H you actually had to DO something, or achieve something. Although I don’t really approve of Charles and his family having rows of medals – which I assume they find in their crackers at Christmas – I suppose it is to be expected it from the British royals (frankly, I am only surprised that they not all wearing higher ranking medals – a VC for Andy and Harry, for instance, and GC’s all round. If the royals wore these, that would really honour the plebs who actually earned them, wouldn’t it?.)
Anyway, I am more than usually disappointed in the French. Not the behaviour I would have expected from a respectable Republic. What next? Perhaps Charles can expect a Congressional Medal of Honour from the USA!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  John Solomon

At least the Brits haven’t started awarding medals to ships yet like the American navy does

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

Macron and his neoliberal caste certainly face a problem of (democratic) succession given the 2-term limit.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
9 months ago

Cosying up to the French has never worked well for the British Monarchs. Cosying up to a wannerbe king just lends him a small bit of credibility.