A handful of Left-wing mayors make an unconvincing exception
A 1957 photograph of Fourth Republic Socialist president René Coty shows him in white tie and tails, trailing a youthful Queen Elizabeth II at a glittering Opéra de Paris gala evening, wearing the red sash of Grand Maître de la Légion d’Honneur and a zelous expression. No one criticised him for it, nor were (in no particular order) Nicolas Sarkozy, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand, or François Hollande, when they paid fulsome homages to her Maj, riding starry-eyed next to her in the Gold State Coach, or letting their wives politely curtsey (Carla Bruni, acquitting herself impeccably and reminding us all that before her career as a top model, she was a Turin heiress).
No wonder then that the refusal of half a dozen Left-wing mayors, out of 34,955 in the entire country, to lower the tricolour at half-mast in front of each City Hall in the country, has annoyed most French people. You can quote our Jacobin heritage all you want, like Patrick Proisy, France Unbowed mayor of Faches-Thumesnil (yes, I had to look it up: it’s a suburb of Lille, pop. 18,191), who ranted on Twitter that “our Republic” had no business “marking a preference for a monarch, or worse, the head of a Church” — it still looks a bit, well, churlish.
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Yann Galut, the Socialist mayor of Bourges, also took to Twitter, calling the Prime Minister’s demand to lower the flag “incredible”. Considering King Charles VII was first dismissively called “the small King of Bourges”, where he was born and lived before Joan of Arc’s armies won him a proper coronation as King of France in 1429, Galut could have quoted well-founded historical animus against England in his city. Regrettably, he chose to virtue-signal on France’s republicanism, squealing that our nation’s identity was based on “fighting monarchies”. Naming no names, he complained in interviews that many French politicians felt an “inexplicable attraction” for the British monarchy.
It was obvious they were after attention. An immense majority of the French, while uninterested in reviving the system here (it helps that all the pretenders, from the Bourbon, Orléans or Napoleonic branches, are decidedly uninspiring), have for decades admired the British Royal Family. Before the war, there was a general feeling that British pomp was proper pomp. The Windsors did castles, horses, ship-launching, red uniforms, strange bearskin-hatted guards parades, Empire, and arcane traditions in ways that we approved of. No touch of the Ruritanian about you; nothing soft either. It wasn’t us, but it was undeniably impressive. If you couldn’t do Versailles, well, that was pretty good all the same.
This solidified with the Blitz, with the King and Queen staying on in bombed Buck House, and Elizabeth II, an extraordinary woman with a seemingly ordinary life; a gruff but devoted husband, apparently eternal mother, and occasionally difficult children, straddling the decades from the days of rationing and pea-soup fogs to Cool Britannia and the 2012 Olympics. Through Six Nation losses and Brexit negotiations, our sympathy always remained. (Regularly, French retailers revive all this in “Le Style British” fortnights, with the wrong tartans, the right teabags, beers and fruitcakes; and enough Sloaney clichés to make your teeth clench. Everything sells out in a week.) When the Queen died last week, France’s emotion was palpable — and real.
The likelihood is that the mayors (their number is uncertain, because none other besides MM. Proisy and Galut have come forward to defend their rebellion) simply wanted to look socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the eyes. Himself unelected to any office, he controls his party with an iron fist and purposely encourages confrontation “inside and outside Parliament”, sometimes to the point of fisticuffs. Asked by the Communist daily L’Humanité how the French reacted to the Queen’s death, this former Classics professor growled: “They don’t give a toss. The media are pathetic. We’ll have nothing to chow but Queen news for ten days.”