Guillotining our monarch hasn't stopped us respecting yours
Having sworn that they wouldn’t, the French are getting into That Coronation Mood after all. It came late-ish, perhaps mid-last week. After a few TV and magazine pieces, sporadic like the early pitter-patter of raindrops on a dusty pavement, this suddenly turned into a heavy storm with the arrival of the colour weeklies. We have realised that practically next door to us there is about to be a pageant from another galaxy, a protracted, magnificent and perfectly alien time capsule from the past. At which point every Parisian editor started hunting for Brits, any Brits, to explain it all to us.
It’s not the first time that, from seeing Europe’s royals as mere juicy celebs with an extraordinary dress sense (Queen Maxima of the Netherland’s glad rags! Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie’s hats!) and a truly incomprehensible love life (Princess Martha-Louise of Norway and her American celebrity shaman!), we have fallen prey to a kind of grandeur that’s utterly unlike the French version.
Ours is static: Versailles, a beautiful and cold 350-year-old show of power through splendour used as a set to separate our godless presidents from the polloi. Yours is a Turner impression of cavalry squadrons in movement, the gold braid of the uniforms restlessly glittering in the sun in sync with trotting horses’ hooves; painted and gilded tenth-hand coaches; redcoats marching through the luscious green of your parks; and the mix of Handel and Andrew Lloyd-Webber wafting from the Gothic glory of your cathedrals.
We do Bastille Day open-air dances, but no street picnics; each country enjoys a parade but ours is bristling with up-to-date weapons (the one-year-old Republic, after all, was attacked by seven foreign powers vowing to restore our kings after the execution of Louis XVI: fighting for our existence and winning constitutes a French tradition).
Since the 1648 Fronde, the failed French forerunner to the Noble Revolution, to which Louis XIV responded with a 72-year affirmation of absolute monarchy, French power doesn’t do approachable. We don’t exactly understand how your Queen can shoot a short film with an animatronic bear, or your new King record a Tube announcement urging you to “mind the gap”. There is a gentle complicity here that’s entirely absent from our experience. How do you reign without actual power?
Our fascination is utterly lacking in envy. We hanker for no monarchic restoration. A few competing Bourbons knocking around hardly make for inspiring figureheads: they number a handful of supporters, who meet in decaying châteaux and haven’t had political significance in the country since the 1930s. We are bemused that King Charles, for all his obvious cultural leanings, does not aspire to the status of intellectual (something every French politician slobbers for, even when it means publishing novels with dubious sex scenes).
We do like His Majesty, though. He speaks very good French: far from being a Little Englander he is a true European, not so much the bureaucratic Brussels variant as a throwback to the age of the Grand Tour. His many private visits to France, Italy and Germany, not to mention his love of Transylvania and knowledge of Greece, attest to this.
He dresses sublimely well. He is sincere in his love for the environment, nature and classical architecture. It’s very obvious that whichever spin doctors he has employed, they’ve had to work with what there was rather than fashion a new personality to fit their notion of the national mood. He is, in short, authentic — and that’s what makes us respect him.