It always used to fascinate me, in my early days in this country, whenever I said I was going to Paris, that someone would invariably respond by saying: “Have a good time!”
I did not understand that response. I would ask, without irony, like the American that I am: “Can’t you go to Paris to work? Study?”
And then I would be given that look that meant that I didn’t get it at all and maybe I should just go back across the pond to the land where everything is spelled out and obvious.
The King looked like he was having a good time in Paris. But he had come to work.
Watching the state visit to France by the new King and Queen, I was struck by the relaxed nature of it all, beneath the security and the pomp and circumstance and jets flying overhead. There were the crowds yelling their greetings, and the garden named after the late Queen; and the visit to Notre Dame and the state banquet at Versailles. It all went like clockwork.
Those who want to boot out Charles and his kin always point to the fact that more people go to Versailles than go to Buck House.
But you always have to remind folks that France is the most visited country in the world. They have the cuisine and the wine and the climate and the beaches. And they have Paris. Top that.
The King’s speech in both French and English was strong and good. He pointed out the obvious things, like the links between the two countries and that his late mother came often enough to be considered a friend. It was very moving to me that, at her death, for example, Macron talked about her in English. It was respect for her and for this country.
And here now is Charles, her son, who seems to have come into himself, having finally ascended the throne after having to wait for it ever since he was three years old. He has stepped on to the international stage big.
No member of British royalty had ever addressed the French legislative assembly before. Maybe his great-great grandfather, Edward VII, would have if he had been allowed. He certainly visited Paris a great deal and the French cognoscenti adored him.
It is even said that a kind of high chair, a strange sprawling contraption, meant to be reclined on with your legs splayed open, was made especially for the King. Constructed to facilitate his various visits to Parisian ladies of the night, the seat is an amusing contraption which becomes even more amusing when you think about how Edward, aka Bertie, used it.
After the speech, I turned to my husband, a guy who had grown up middle class and public school in the suburbs of London when The Goon Show, one of the King’s childhood favourites, was big. He knows France well and I quote him here at length because his is a point of view and a reality that I do not know.
“When she was prime minister, Liz Truss was asked whether Mr Macron was a friend or foe. Her reply was that the jury was still out. She, of course, knows very well that France is a strong ally. But the reply she gave was for her Conservative audience. They will applaud anything which is anti-foreigner, anti-French, or anti-European. It’s not a question of thought. It is part of their DNA.
“On French television, commentators and politicians can be critical, but they are polite. I have never heard a French politician or presenter make some dismissive quip like: ‘You know what the English are like!’ However that is exactly the sort of cheap side-swipe you will hear in the British media about the French. It suits the right wing press to blame the French for delays at the Channel caused by Brexit and the need to examine passports individually. ‘The French are punishing us for leaving!’
“Macron was extremely courteous and gracious when the Queen died. Remember he said: ‘To you, she was your queen. But to us she was simply the Queen.’ The enthusiasm you saw in Paris was genuine, but that was probably due to the love of the royal family, which many people share all over the world.
“During the King’s visit and his speech in the Assembly, the French referred to the De Gaulle residence in London, which became the French capital in a sense. Well, the French have never forgotten.
“But the French can also be a bit awkward when opposing something like the invasion of Iraq. Which they did oppose strongly and which is probably now felt to have been the right thing to do. They got it right.”
As I watched and listened to this third king named Charles, I got the exhilarating sense of a man about to do his thing. “I don’t know how long I have,” he said at one point, or words to that effect. At his coronation he had said: “I come not to be served, but to serve.”
The weight of the British monarchy is still greater than the weight of any of the nations’ prime ministers, or parliaments. This weight still exists, even in these times of social change and social media. You can see the importance of the King as representative of something in this country that is even felt by people outside it.
The French parliamentarians were, for sure, in awe; just as the US Congress would have been, if he had addressed them. Testimony to a 1,000-year-old brand.
Some Communist parliamentarians and a few others boycotted the speech.
After all, on the same date – September 21 – in 1792 the proclamation de l’abolition de la royauté was proclaimed, which abolished the French monarchy.
Ah, that good old British sense of humour. At this rate, this guy might even get us back into Europe.