How do new year addresses compare?

Each year the heads of state of the United Kingdom and France address their respective subjects and citizens

Each year the heads of state of the United Kingdom and France address their respective subjects and citizens over Christmas dinner and New Year’s Eve drinks. But how do the two compare?

Queen Elizabeth II has been giving a Christmas message since before Nicolas Sarkozy was born so she does have an initial advantage of a “lifetime of experience”. It shows, especially in terms of production and content (although one doesn’t expect the queen to turn her hand to editing, direction and overdubs).

Of course, it is a little unfair to compare the two personalities directly. The Queen has been on the throne for so long that she is the British monarchy, while Nicolas Sarkozy is just one face in the line of post-war presidents.

However, something about their personalities and positions comes across in their annual broadcasts. The Queen, has elegant gold writing in her opening credits, while the VOEUX DE MONSIEUR LE PRÉSIDENT DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE is in screaming capitals, just in case, after shots of the Tricolour, Arc de Triomphe, Patrouille de France and the Elysée Palace, you weren’t sure who was giving the address.

Flags are a curious point. While last year Nicolas Sarkozy delivered his entire address standing in front of a very mid-1990s, digitised slowly flapping French flag, with the European flag draped off in the corner, the only flag flying in the Queen’s intro is the Royal Standard, not the Union flag. We know whose show this is.

Both the President’s wishes for 2010 and the Queen’s Christmas speech of 2009 are some seven minutes long, but the Queen covers a wider range of subjects, interspersed with shots from her year. While she begins standing by a Christmas tree in the palace, she very quickly becomes narrator on a review of the year; a flurry of brightly coloured hats and dresses, Commonwealth countries and the first appearance of the Union flag – draped over the coffin of a British soldier.

In their speeches last year, the two commanders-in-chief could not have been more different in their approach to their countries’ troops. With shots of funerals, Remembrance services both in the UK and Afghanistan, the first two minutes of the Queen’s message is focused on the bravery of 13,000 troops serving abroad. French troops get 20 seconds of thanks at the end of Mr Sarkozy’s New Year speech.

The bulk of last year’s Christmas message focussed on the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth, a reminder that the Queen is the head of state of 15 other countries as well as the UK. Footage shows her meeting young people, and heads of state and the closing credits have the national anthem played by a steel drum band.

A key difference with the Queen’s message is that, as head of the Church of England and a practising Christian, she always includes a Christian element. While President Sarkozy has made references to France being a Christian country, he quickly came under fire and was reminded that, unlike the UK, France is a secular state (although François Mitterrand got away with Je crois aux forces de l’esprit et je ne vous quitterai pas in his final address).

The President’s speech is entirely and expectedly, political, more akin to the Queen’s speech to parliament, and perhaps not what everybody wants to hear at 8pm on New Year’s Eve. Last year’s detailed his programme for 2010, which, with the cutting power of hindsight, gives a chance to see how he did. This could be summarised by the phrase “Je ne suis pas un homme qui renonce à la première difficulté”, uttered just before the announcement that he would fight to keep the CO2 tax, the taxe carbone. It was dropped in March.

At least his promise to reform French retirement law was kept, unlike the pledge to tackle the problem of care for the elderly (now an issue for 2011), his hope for a positive outcome at the Copenhagen summit on global warming (a failure), simplifying French regional and local government (it has created a new type of local politician while not removing any of the layers or complications) and bringing broadband internet to everyone in France.

Although his message talked about the difficulties France faced, Mr Sarkozy was tanned, and, super-imposed over a flag, gave the impression he had interrupted a holiday abroad to give his talk. He addressed the French, social partners, charity heads and business leaders, with promises of economic improvement. The soundbites are bountiful and saccharine. His final message was that 2010 would be the year France would show the true meaning of the word fraternité with its treatment of the elderly and the disabled. Did anyone notice this?

Even staunch republicans comparing the two addresses would appreciate the relief that an unelected monarch does not need to treat a holiday season speech like a one-sided job interview.*


France: The tradition of an address from the President on New Year’s Eve is largely post-war. However, similar addresses to the nation did take place before, under the IV Republique, and the address has been given at different dates in December. (In 1943, Pétain told the French he loved them like a father). In 1948, President Vincent Auriol thanked the United States for its help in rebuilding the country. The address is usually a static affair, either sitting at a desk or standing, although Valéry Giscard D’Estaing did record one chatting to his wife in front of a fire. In another break with tradition, Nicolas Sarkozy’s first address in 2007 went out live from the Elysée. His subsequent speeches have been pre-recorded.

UK: The first royal Christmas address came from George V in 1932. It was heard by an estimated 20 million people. It became an annual tradition during the Second World War. Queen Elizabeth II gave her first address in 1952 and it was first televised in 1957.