Lisa Fraser offers a Gallic perspective on the death of the British monarch.
Growing up in France, I remember seeing their faces on the China cups in my neighbour’s kitchen. I couldn’t escape the latest tattle because their lives filled gossip magazines in the waiting rooms of French hairdressers.
I also remember the day when ‘Lady Di’ (as we called her in France even after she was Princess Di to Brits) died in Paris. The (British) Royals were somehow part of my (French) life.
On the one hand, I regarded them as a symbol revered by the French out of gratitude for the UK’s decisive contribution to victory in two World Wars.
I assumed also that older generations saw the Royals as the quintessence of education and good manners – almost as if they stood for certain standards we were losing.
On the other hand, the Royals also attracted teenagers curious about their love lives, especially if these were unconventional. Sleeze among sovereigns titillated us. The Royals were a source of entertainment too.
Moving to the UK has helped me understand the depth and the significance of the monarchy in the British psyche. More importantly, now as a British citizen and as a civil servant, I find I have developed a personal attachment to Queen Elizabeth.
I saw her three times from afar. And after she passed away, I prayed when the hearse passed through the streets of London. I put flowers at the gates of the Palace. “The end of an era”, my friends and I kept muttering.
For a foreigner outside of the Commonwealth, we saw Elizabeth as the umbrella opened above the head of peoples across time and space.
As French President Macron said in his eulogy: “To you, she was your Queen. To us, she was The Queen.”
The Queen met ten French presidents and witnessed two French constitutions in her lifetime. While France tested new leaders and new regimes, French people could always turn to the Queen as a point of reference. Her constancy brought comfort; she gave us the stability and continuity we craved for in a life of flux, even from the other side of the Channel.
This continuity allowed us to get attached to her as an individual. We felt as if we knew her personally. We didn’t have this feeling of familiarity for any French institutional figures. We regarded former Presidents Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d’Estaing as wise and knowledgeable in their late years, but they carried heavy political baggage, and they passed away before the Queen did. In that sense, she really was the last anchor to a bygone era.
Her long reign helped us, as foreigners, to grasp Britishness better. Throughout the decades, French people were soul-searching, striking and reforming constitutions. By contrast, we could look at our neighbour across the Channel and say: “The British know what they stand for.”
President Macron said that the Queen represented the ‘moral fortitude of democracy and freedom’. In France, many would have applied these attributes to the British people as a whole. Whether such a positive assessment was deserved or not, Queen Elizabeth’s calm and composure shaped the reputation of the country abroad.
It was also evident that the celebrations around her were a powerful source of unity. I can’t think of any event in the French calendar that would bring us together in the same way that Jubilees or Trooping the Colour did. Le 14 Juillet (Bastille Day) is supposed to be the celebration of the French Republic … but for most French people, it means the beginning of holiday or a day at the beach in some holiday destination.
In a country like France, where people like arguing about politics (and other topics!), a figure beyond political divides was both charming and puzzling.
One of the main challenges for French people was the Queen’s title as ‘Defender of the Faith’, and it was striking to hear the Queen profess her Christian faith openly and publicly. In secular countries, references to God and Christ are taboo and can trigger strong opposition, but there was a special tolerance if such public utterances came from Her Majesty.
Our unusual tolerance might have arisen from the fact that we could feel how much she loved and cared for her people. She was an inspiration to anyone involved in public life, in politics, or indeed to anyone with a vocation to serve the public good.
Generations like mine might struggle to find a purpose in life. Some find it difficult to make commitments and endure sacrifice to achieve goals. We looked at her as an inspiration and some might secretly have found in her a role-model.
Seventy-four years: that’s how long her marriage lasted, ‘until death did them part’. This is also a source of wonder, admiration, and perhaps anxiety, for many young people who are more likely to marry later in life, if at all.
Most, if not all, of us know we will never reach that milestone. Yet, we can only look up to Elizabeth and feel inspired. Married couples might also feel encouraged in times of troubles. That role was also universal, and certainly praised in France.
To us all, regardless of our status in life and of our country of origin, she was a grand-motherly guiding figure. Our appreciation of Elizabeth the woman didn’t necessarily reflect our views on monarchy as a concept.
She was above all a loving human being, a loyal spouse, a dedicated mother and grandmother.
Being a loving human being throughout the vicissitudes of life: this is the lowest common denominator but perhaps the highest ideal that can unite us across generations and across countries.
Some modern cynics might say we’re going through a tough age – one of individualism and nihilism, an epoch of crisis. While this may be true, there remains a special love for good, genuine, and, yes, holy people.
And that’s what looking at the smiling picture of the recently deceased Queen will always remind me of.
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