Monday, March 24, 2008

Sarko: The Nouvel King and Her Majesty

France and Britain are engaging in an ancient exercise this week: dazzling one-another. The occasion is Nicolas Sarkozy's first state visit to Britain. The current monarch of the Fifth Republic arrives on Wednesday with Carla Bruni and a glittering retinue to stay with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, west of London.
For nearly 800 years, the English and French took out their rivalry on battlefields in Europe and then around the world. But admiration was always part of the old enmity, with each side envying the other's superior qualities. The frogs had more style, refinement and dash. Seen from the other side, the perfidious rosbifs were a stodgy bunch with an infuriating habit of getting their way.

The feuding cousins last fought at Waterloo in 1815 and they officially became friends with the Entente Cordiale accord in 1904, but the rivalry and admiration never faded. State visits -- meaning the full pomp with military salutes and palace banquets -- are an excellent occasion for staging the old contest and both sides are again out to impress the other, in a friendly way of course.

Just like French kings before him, Sarko wants to dazzle the down-to-earth Anglais.

Britain, which does pageantry like no-one else, is pulling out all the stops for the first state visit by a French leader since Jacques Chirac in 1996. In private, Sarko's people are a little in awe at the majestic welcome that awaits them. They are impressed that the Queen, who receives two state visitors a year, has given them the rare honour of a stay at Windsor rather than Buckingham palace. "We gather that it's quite impressive," one of Sarko's most senior advisers told us at a briefing (I can't name him because it was off the record). "We will do everything to be à la hauteur britannique", he said.
This will include, we are told, a curtsy before the Queen by Carla Bruni [language note: curtsy comes from the old French courtoisie but the un-republican formality that women are supposed to perform before her majesty is known in modern French as une révérence]. There is no question that state festivities at the Elysée Palace, which resembles a fading grand hotel, cannot compete with the grandeur of British pomp. Chirac's state banquet for the Queen at the Elysée in 2004 felt like a Rotary club ball, but perhaps that was because they had invited journalists.

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