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Schadenfreude, secret envy: Why do the French love the British royals?

Curiously, French people have little fascination for discreet monarchies such as those of Denmark and Belgium, or the Spanish Crown, which is on permanent probation, writes Nick Inman 

Is yearning for a restoration of the old order of deference the reason French look so much across the Channel?] Pic: Lorna Roberts / Shutterstock

There is almost as much fascination with the Windsor family in France – which turned its back on monarchy 221 years ago – as there is in the UK. Why should this be? 

Rather than answer with a sweeping generalisation, it helps to divide French society up a little.

To begin with, there are the aristocrats of France – nobles by name but not recognised by the constitution.

Yearning for a restoration of the old order of deference, they and their allies look longingly across the Channel at a monarchy that works. “What if…?” they think. 

Today, there are at least two living pretenders to the French throne, despite the fact it has been gathering metaphorical dust since 1830, 1848 or 1870 (depending on how exactly you define legitimacy). 

Most of the political class are technically republicans but this word does not have the same meaning in France as it does across the Channel. 

Read more: French boy, seven, exchanges letters with the Queen

In Britain, ‘republicanism’ conjures up images of left-wing agitators. In France, it simply indicates belief in the state: that everyone is equal and no one should be revered for an accident of birth.  

However, even staunch republicans ask whether France has got the formula right. Would it not be better, in some ways, to have a head of state who is not an elected politician? Who is born to be above the fray? 

The perfect meritocracy of France produces a self-sustaining elite anyway: why not accept reality and form-alise it? Curiously, French people are not much interested in other manifestations of monarchy. They have little fascination for discreet monarchies such as those of Denmark and Belgium, or the Spanish Crown, which is on permanent probation.

It is Britain that causes wonder, perhaps because it is so deeply rooted and excessive. How extraordinary, they think, that such a system should have survived into the present day.  It is also a source of entertainment: the scandals of the blue-blooded are so much more fascinating than the antics of classless celebrities. 

Everyone knows who Harry and Meghan are. And, of course, Princess Diana died in Paris.

There is also something rather appealing about royal ceremony. 

France functions according to Cartesian principles but royalty is the perpetuation of irrational tradition. 

It puts on a lavish reality TV show that has French punters hooked – and they do not have to pay for it. 

And there is also this: celebrities in France are protected by privacy laws. Consumers of gossip magazines compensate for this by gawping at what goes on across the Channel.

But could there be deeper, more serious reasons for the French fascination with the royals?

Psychologists suggest that the French yearn for a father or mother figure who is not as human as they are. The Queen is untouchable in a way that no president ever will be. 

It has also been mooted that there is a residue of regicide guilt in the French national psyche: in the long run, was it such a good thing to chop off Louis XVI’s head in 1792? Did it really solve anything? Or did it just, rather, ignite a couple of centuries of conflict and discontinuity that made France incapable of competing in the modern world? 

While Britain went from strength to strength without serious crisis after Waterloo, France endured nothing but upheavals punctuated by the disasters of 1870, 1914 and 1940.

Would things have panned out differently had the country been able to rally around a monarch? It saw off three restorations and went through five republics in the search for stability, and even now people talk of trying another constitution.

From the Elysée Palace to Buckingham Palace, the French look with a mixture of schadenfreude and secret envy: “Look what we escaped – but have we done better or worse?”

The King is dead, long live Monsieur le Président!

Do you agree or disagree with Nick Inman? Tell us why at news@connexionfrance.com

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