In 2011, one of my oldest and closest friends came over from France to see me in London. Well, I say she came to see me; as it happens – what a coincidence! – William and Kate were due to get married that very weekend. She went to join well-wishers in the street, waving her little flag. I did not.
I had been living in England for two years by that point, and considered the royal family to be benign but ultimately uninteresting. In short: I’d integrated pretty well already. I found her enthusiasm puzzling but pretty sweet. I was, at most, glad that she’d had a good time.
That friend has, in the end, proved to be quite the exception. I have spent the past decade and a half watching my fellow countrymen from a distance, and few of them have ever been as gleeful as she was on that day.
Really, if you would like to understand how French people feel about the British royal family, you must conjure up the image of a friendly neighbourhood cat. A friendly neighbourhood cat isn’t like a friendly neighbourhood dog; it will not run up to you every single time it sees you, eternally thrilled that you exist.
That being said, a friendly neighbourhood cat isn’t like a stray cat either. It will not hiss and run away anytime you start walking down the street. The middle ground between those two animals is where the French reside when it comes to British royals. They will, on occasion, show an interest in you. Push it too far, however, and they will disdainfully walk away. They are, in a way, fond of you, but refuse to be showy about it.
My grandmother always rolls her eyes at the mere concept of monarchy, and likes mentioning the fact that we French dealt with our own overlords quite efficiently. Still, she will ask, quietly: do I know what really happened between Harry and Will? Have I, given my journalistic connections, got any interesting gossip on what Meghan is like?
She finds the idea of a country still having a royal family preposterous but, Marie, have you watched The Crown yet? Why haven’t you? I want to discuss The Crown with you! Gosh, isn’t it brilliant television?
Similarly, French newspapers like to pretend that they are above it all, but their coverage of palace intrigue has, on more than one occasion, verged on the breathless. Several outlets gleefully covered the fact that King Charles has “des doigts saucisses” (sausage fingers), but many of them still ran painfully detailed liveblogs on his royal visit to Paris and Bordeaux last month.
One of them even noted, with a noticeable hint of disappointment, that Charles’s French accent isn’t quite as good as his mother’s was. Again, you must picture the cat: sitting on some steps, quietly watching you from afar, but still pleased to see you if it has been a while.
This is why Emmanuel Macron’s old statement on the French who, according to him, still secretly yearn for a king, isn’t entirely correct. There are very few people on the other side of the Channel who would like the Republique to come to an end. Still, he wasn’t wholly wrong either.
Few French people would want their own monarch but, really, they seem pleased that the people next door still have one knocking about. That’s what Macron should have understood at the time. The French do not yearn for a king, even though he probably wishes they did. What they enjoy is having easy access to a royal family, reigning just a few miles away, over a country they feel close to.
Of course, the real irony here is that many British people feel the same about their own royals; there is often no great love and deference, but they do like having them there. It would be a bit odd if they were suddenly gone.
Once again, then, the two countries find themselves closer than either of them would like to admit. Like… well, yes, like cats, sitting on opposite sides of a couch, but doing so contentedly. We just wouldn’t have it any other way.