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From Auriol to Macron: 10 French presidents of Queen’s 70-year reign

Celebrations for the British monarch’s platinum jubilee have begun. We look at the French leaders, spanning two Republics, she has met - and some of the anecdotal funny moments they shared

Queen Elizabeth II with Charles de Gaulle Pic: Smith Archive / Alamy

Queen Elizabeth II is a long-standing Francophile and knows French presidents well: she has met 10 of them.

On her first visit to France, in May 1948, she had not yet been crowned. She represented her father, King George VI, and was accompanied by Prince Philip, her husband of just a few months.

On that occasion, the Queen was welcomed by President Vincent Auriol, the first socialist head of state, who presented her with the Legion of Honour. The princess was then 22 years old and attracted keen interest from both the British and French media. She endeared herself further to the latter by giving her first speech in impeccable French.

By the time of her second visit, in April 1957, she had succeeded her father on the throne and already ruled for five years.

This was her first official visit to France as sovereign. The Queen met René Coty, the second and last president of the Fourth Republic. 

Next up was General de Gaulle, in London in April 1960.

The Queen presented him with the Royal Victorian Order, recognising distinguished personal service to the monarch. He was welcomed as a hero of World War Two, travelling to Buckingham Palace in a royal carriage accompanied by the Queen, and cheered by crowds lining the route.

However, an awkward moment, according to one anecdote, came at an official dinner when a guest asked de Gaulle’s wife, Yvonne, what she was most looking forward to in his 

imminent retirement. With great elaboration (as she did not speak much English), she replied: “A penis.”

An uncomfortable silence ensued, until the Queen allegedly came to a tactful rescue: “Ah, happiness.”

The Queen then met Georges Pompidou in May 1972 to mark the UK’s entry into the EEC.

The president’s speech evoked the “pleasure” of the French in receiving her. In turn, and again in French, she spoke warmly of the links between the two countries, quipping: “We may not drive on the same side of the road, but we are going in the same direction.”

Next was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who was welcomed in London in 1976, accompanied by his wife, two years after his election. A dog-lover, he left with a Labrador Retriever puppy, Samba, from the Queen’s kennels, which was often photographed at the Elysée Palace.

Giscard d’Estaing caused a literary storm in 2009 by writing a novel detailing a fictional romance between a thinly disguised Diana, Princess of Wales, whom he had met on a number of occasions, and himself. 

Despite rumours of a real-life affair between the two, he maintained to Le Point that the novel was entirely made up. When he died of Covid in December 2020, the Queen’s message to President Macron to mark a national day of mourning for him lamented “a great loss to France”. 

Was François Mitterrand her favourite?

François Mitterrand was one of the French presidents who enjoyed the most contact with the Queen.

Between 1981 and 1995, they saw each other on several occasions, not-ably at the creation of the European Union in 1992, and at the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994.

On the subject of the relationship between the socialist president and the sovereign, Hubert Védrine, secretary-general of the presidency from 1991 to 1995, confided to Point de vue in 2020: “All you had to do was watch them talk together. She, in particular. You could not help but notice that she liked [his] company, that she enjoyed talking to him.

“The last time they met was at a summit, very shortly before he left the Elysée. She knew that he was already very ill and that she would not see him again.

“That day, she was so eager to show her affection that she almost ran to him. It struck everyone.”

Queen Elizabeth II with François Mitterrand Pic: PA Images / Alamy

 

Warm relations with Jacques Chirac

The Queen also met Jacques Chirac on multiple occasions – the other president with whom she had most contact.

His first visit to England, in 1996, was conspicuous: the French head of state greeted the crowd warmly, waving and blowing kisses, while the Queen remained impassive.

Historian Isabelle Rivière told Le Point in 2015: “Jacques Chirac was a little annoyed by the cumbersome protocol, but the Queen is a woman who takes a keen interest in her guests and knows how to put them at ease. The president’s humour did the rest.”

A striking example of the latter was recalled by Roselyne Bachelot, who served as minister of solidarity and social cohesion under Chirac. During an official visit to London, she said, 

he was sitting in an open-top carriage alongside the Queen, when the horse in front of them suddenly broke wind.

The embarrassed monarch felt obliged to apologise to the French president – who replied: “It doesn’t matter, I thought it was the horse.”

During his presidency, the Queen made her fourth official visit to France in April 2004 to celebrate 100 years of the Entente Cordiale, which had ushered in a major improvement in Anglo-French relations. Nicolas Sarkozy’s state visit to the UK in 2008 was marked by fevered interest in his glamorous wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s wardrobe and expert curtsy to the Queen upon meeting. 

This mark of respect prompted fawning reviews from the British press, with the Daily Mail querying: “Were we looking at a new Jackie O 

or more of an Audrey Hepburn or perhaps, even, a touch of Diana?”

The meeting between François Hollande and Elizabeth II in 2012 at Windsor Castle was also warm.

The Queen made her last official visit (the fifth) to France in June 2014 to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. During the visit, Hollande reportedly offered the Queen use of 

a bulletproof Renault Vel Satis to prevent her hats getting squashed by the lower roof of the Citroën DS5 in which heads of state usually travel.

In her speech at the official dinner at the Elysée Palace, the Queen insisted that France and the United Kingdom stood shoulder to shoulder as “trustees of international peace and security”.

More personally, she added: “I recall my own happiness, discovering this beautiful country for myself and for the first time, and developing my own great affection for the French people.”

Hollande, in turn, said the Queen was a woman who personified the phrase ‘Keep calm and carry on’.

 

Exchanges with the Macrons

The Queen has met Emmanuel Macron at a number of international events, including to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June 2019 in Portsmouth.

That same year, world leaders celebrated the 70th anniversary of Nato at a Buckingham Palace reception.

The Queen is said to have called the French president in 2020, on the anniversary of the Appeal of June 18, the first speech made by de Gaulle after his arrival in London following the fall of France. 

The President’s wife, Brigitte Macron, is also said to have spoken to the Queen on several occasions, including after the Duke of Edinburgh’s death.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Macrons Pic: UPI / Alamy

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