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France and the Queen

A sense of what was lost

Artillery Row

I come from a country that doesn’t have a queen — or a king, for that matter: France killed its crown. Or, rather, it killed one king, later endorsed a simulacra, then attempted to restore its former version, then failed, then tried another simulacra, then failed at yet another restoration, etc. You get the script. Once its head was gone, France never really found the right balance. Its regimes rose and collapsed during the 19th and 20th centuries sometimes in a couple of years only.

The French have committed a classic French mistake

I have come to appreciate British society a bit more deeply since 2016, and that experience has offered me some critical distance from my country of origin. It is sometimes said that the French people, nurturing some kind of historical Oedipus complex, are looking for their long-gone king. I do not always think that it is true although, arguably, presidents of the 5th Republic are shrouded at times by a royal aura. But the country suffers from a broken relationship with its own power structure. French people await everything from the State, even if it is just to criticise it. The one who embodies it inevitably becomes the target of endless reproaches.

The French sometimes glance over the other side of the Channel to see how it goes for their best frenemies. Do they sometimes imagine that the royalty today personalised by Elizabeth II, that intriguing constitutional monarchy, could have been their own present too? The tricolored frog in me is too pessimistic to think it is the case: historical knowledge is bestowed upon the French people in a way that sets Republican regime — and its corollary, modern secularism and its core notion of “progress” — as the teleological default. There cannot be any future but one that is devoid of kings and Christianity. Progressively devoured by the loss of its kingly cosmogony, France has become first weak against its own kin, belittling its Catholic past and substance, then against external forces, i.e. Islamism.

So what do many French people see when they look at the United-Kingdom, other than “Brexit land”, a trope that all politicians, Macron ahead, hammer in the collective imagination at every possible occasion? Despite everything, there is little doubt that the hexagon entertains a strange fascination for Elizabeth II and the world of the past that hides in her shadow. Even the most cynical who see in her an “Insta queen” recognise her profitable “soft powers” attributes. Her reign has been a convenient sort of glue during decades of political turmoil.

Yet because Elizabeth II has come to embody quite intimately the image of British constitutional monarchy in living memory, the French have committed a classic French mistake. They conflated personality with power, the flesh with the Crown, and dismissed all understanding of the metaphysical and divine aspect of kingship. They measured her importance in terms of trivial usefulness (how many museum tickets does she sell to tourists, and so on). In other words, not too seriously or not seriously enough. More importantly, French people cannot help but enforcing their Republican telos to their British confreres: after Elizabeth II, it is an entire world that must die with her.

The Crown doesn’t die with Elizabeth II

I was certainly bemused when I discovered that the UK had its own Republican fetishists. Not the least because their arguments were ridiculous and that the dissonance they created with the UK’s historical and cultural fabric was astounding, but also because I had first-hand experience of the drifts of the French Republic. Its cultural model was in crisis. I had lived most of my life in Parisian banlieues where antisemitism is on the rise, where I had been bullied and spat on because of my origins and skin colour. I had also gone through the Republican education system and its maniac need to remodel the past in its image.

Without romanticising the state of education in the UK, it seemed to me much more honest to embrace the reality of the past, including its Christian and royal characters, rather than burying them under mountains of bad faith, omissions or, in the worst case, genuine forgetfulness. It is not that France has a monopoly regarding the crafting of national narratives, but that it does so at its own peril and to the detriment of others. Ultimately, most French takes about the Queen are no better than comments from Americans who think they understand anything about their estranged cousins just because they’ve watched The Crown.

The mockery French people make of the Britons and their political system becomes more risible when one looks closer at the pervasiveness of different foreign influences. Stuck doggedly on its position regarding the so-called inevitable triumph of modern secularism, some French people miss the ideological capture that has filled in the cracks of its own system. Without God, France has made itself powerless against the rise of Islamic terrorism. The French have not only domesticated (in the strong sense of the word) most of their own Catholics, they have also thrown out of the window the useful conceptual tools that one needs in front of theological adversity. 

Likewise, the intrusion of the English language everywhere, from corporate buzzwords to mundane slogans, is perhaps less bloody but nevertheless an existential form of dispossession. On that topic, the Académie Française has sounded the alarm bell many times to warn, amongst other things, against the risk of creating a profound divide between people. Such linguistic penetration is, of course, only the symptom of a much greater wound that increasingly affects French society such as the importation of Americanised woke theories.

What can the French learn from the British crown? I have honestly no idea. When a people is so deeply entrenched into the smokes and mirrors of its own muthos, I do not see how it could possibly reverse engineer the logic behind its raison d’être. There might be one lesson British people could be tempted to learn from the French: do not associate Elizabeth II with the past solely. The Crown doesn’t die with her. Instead, fully embrace its timelessness, the miraculous power that lies behind it and transcends human society. Grant Elizabeth II’s successors the chance to step into an enduring tradition and use it to look towards the future. Despite what your neighbours say, it doesn’t need to be secular.

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