Queen's death reveals hidden French royalist streak

·3-min read

After laying flowers outside the British embassy in Paris for Queen Elizabeth II, Victoria Cazals stopped to ponder why the death of the 96-year-old monarch had touched her, and France, so deeply.

"I never knew my own grandparents and it feels like I've lost my grandmother," the 48-year-old from southern Toulouse said as she choked back tears.

In the absence of a French royal family, she said she followed all the major events in the life of the Windsors, "the babies, the marriages, and what the Queen did."

France famously guillotined its king and queen following its 1789 revolution and turned the page definitively on its monarchy in 1848.

The original rebellion against the crown is today the founding story of the modern state, proudly hailed as the first victory in the march for universal human rights over tyranny.

But the generous tributes from politicians, the wall-to-wall media coverage and personal displays of affection have revealed a deep Gallic attachment to Elizabeth II.

"To you, she was your Queen. To us, she was THE Queen," President Emmanuel Macron said in one of several warm messages of condolence last week, adding that "we all feel an emptiness".

News presenters on state television have been wearing black ties as a mark of respect and French flags have been ordered to fly at half mast on public buildings on the day of her funeral.

- Elected monarch? -

Others outside the embassy in Paris spoke of their admiration for Elizabeth's personal qualities -- chiefly her devotion and longevity -- but also hinted at deeper, more political reasons.

"She represented a form of stability, a unifying figure," said Veronique, a 63-year-old retired legal worker, after laying flowers. "We maybe miss having this point of stability."

Philippe Marliere, a French political scientist at University College London, suggested that many French people had a royalist streak and a form of nostalgia for their blue-blooded forebears.

"Beneath the Republican veneer, there's a sort of monarchical atavism, even though France got rid of its monarchy a long time ago," he said.

The modern state has retained its love of pomp and pageantry from its royalist days.

And the current constitution, with its all-powerful president, sought to create "an elected monarch" with the impossible task of unifying the country, Marliere said.

"There's a contradiction in wanting a unifying figure but with a president that has enormous everyday political powers, who is a daily actor in French's people's lives," he said.

"French presidents become very quickly unpopular and their only chance to regain popularity is in exceptional circumstances, when the country goes to war for example," he added.

- Nostalgia? -

Jean Des Cars, one of France's best-known royal journalists and authors, agreed that there was a "fascination for the queen among French people, some of whom are nostalgic for the monarchy without admitting it."

"The queen was very close to France, she spoke marvellous French, and she had stables in France, near Paris," he told AFP.

She had endeared herself to the country over her six state visits, including in 1994 when she took President Francois Mitterrand in her maroon Rolls-Royce to formally open the tunnel under the Channel.

"When you referred to 'the queen', it could only be her," said Des Cars.

But the public outpouring of respect and affection is not to everyone's taste, with some pointing out how other heads of state were not given the same honour.

Patrick Poisy, a left-wing mayor of the northern village of Faches-Thumesnil, said he would refuse to lower the flag on public buildings.

Though he expressed his condolences, he said such a move contradicted France's republican principles of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."

"No concept is farther from 'equality' than the monarchy," he wrote on social media.

And watching TV presenters don mourning dress to present the news on Friday night, prominent left-wing journalist Jean Quatremer was left dumbfounded.

"Do they know she's the queen of the United Kingdom?" he wrote.