'Vive la difference': The Francophile Queen who was Britain's finest diplomat

·4-min read
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Relations between Britain and France may have had their rocky moments, but Queen Elizabeth II had a “singular place" in the hearts of the French people – and she showed a soft spot for the country, too.

“With her, France and the United Kingdom shared not just an 'entente cordiale', but a warm, sincere and loyal partnership,” President Emmanuel Macron said in an English video message posted to Twitter on Friday.

Meanwhile a statement on the Elysée website published hours after the Queen's passing on Thursday aged 96 read: “The Queen of 16 kingdoms loved France, and that love was reciprocated."

France may like chopping off the heads of its own monarchs, but it’s always had a special place for Queen Elizabeth II.

During the course of her 70-year reign, Elizabeth made more visits to France than to any other country in Europe.

Many were official state visits – she had six overall – and she met all 10 presidents of France's fifth republic.

France has had good relations with the British monarchy since 1904 when the "entente cordiale" agreement – brokered by King Edward VII and French foreign affairs minister Theophile Delcassé – put an end to centuries of hostilities.

Elizabeth embodied that entente for decades, but her relations with France were more than simply cordial.

As well as state visits, she often came to France on private trips, notably to purchase pure breed horses – one of her passions.

From Shakespeare to Molière

The special status and the warmth with which she was received in France was facilitated by her mastery of the French language, which she learned with her governess the Vicountess Marie-Antonette de Bellaigue.

The Queen gave her first speech in French during president Albert Lebrun's visit to London in 1939. She was just 13.

Le Monde praised her "pure voice and scarcely perceptible accent" when she first came to France in 1948 as a 21-year-old crown princess, pregnant with Prince Charles.

Representing her father, King George VI, she was introduced to French president Vicent Auriol, the first of 10 French presidents she would meet during her seven-decade reign.

Auriol was keen to show France’s gratitude to Britain for helping liberate Europe from the Nazis.

Elizabeth was wined and dined, taken to Versailles Palace, Opéra Garnier, and a cabaret near the Champs-Elysées where she heard Edith Piaf singing "La Vie en Rose".

She made two other visits to Versailles: one in 1957 to reaffirm Franco-British ties following the Suez crisis – when French, British and Israeli troops invaded Egypt after it nationalised the Suez canal.

And then in 1972 when on a diplomatic tour of Europe to mark the UK’s entry into the European single market.

Vive la difference

In 2004, Queen Elizabeth came to France to mark the centenary of the entente cordiale.

“This anniversary gives special meaning to my fourth state visit to France," she told the French Senate. "It is a moment to celebrate the agreement that laid the foundations for an alliance that allowed both countries to face the difficulties of the 20th century.

“Our two countries have chosen to make Europe and the European Union the main vector for their economic and political aspirations.”

At a gala dinner at the Elysée she proposed a toast: "Vive la difference and vive l'entente cordiale!"

Twelve years later Britain voted to leave the EU.

The Queen admitted France and Britain had their differences.

“Of course, we will never agree on everything," she once said with the tact and diplomacy for which she was renowned.

Addressing president Georges Pompidou in 1972 she said: “We do not drive on the same side of the road but we are heading in the same direction.”

The comments followed Pompidou’s lifting of the veto – introduced by Charles de Gaulle – on Britain joining the Common Market.

'Good-humoured rivalry'

Her last visit to France was in 2014 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Landings alongside then president Francois Hollande.

At a dinner at the Elysée, she underlined once more the special relationship Britain and France had saying the two countries were linked by "this unique blend of friendship, good-humoured rivalry and admiration".

During the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June to mark 70 years on the throne, France pushed the boat out.

Macron lit the flame on the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe in the Queen's honour, while symbolic landmarks along the northern coast were illuminated to mirror what was happening across the Channel.

For 70 years, Elizabeth II provided the cement between France and Britain.

Given relations between France and the new British Prime Minister Liz Truss are already tense, the late monarch’s reassuring presence will be all the more sorely missed.