A grey Thursday brought a carefully worded Buckingham Palace statement about her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s health, followed by ashen faces inside the Houses of Parliament as a note was passed around. Members of the Royal Family dashed up to Balmoral, Scotland, where the Queen had been enjoying her annual stay. For most British people, including those of us abroad, the coded messages were clear to see.
Queen Elizabeth II was close to the end. Many of us remembered the “London Bridge” plans that had been in place for decades, to be put into action as soon as the monarch died.
WhatsApp messages flew between friends: “Maybe she has already gone and they are just letting the Royal Family assemble before they announce?”
All of this speculation and build-up did nothing to lessen the shock when BBC television announced at 7:30pm Paris time that Her Majesty had passed away peacefully at Balmoral that afternoon.
Even the French mourned this iconic woman
The days that followed have seen a ten-day mourning period for the Royal Family and endless loops of media coverage. I have consumed it all, from the personal memories of those in the UK and beyond who encountered her, to the array of French magazines with her image on the front cover at the newsstand. The French reaction has been touching, offering a sense of solidarity with our loss and a genuine expression of the unreserved admiration many had for her.
As President Emmanuel Macron said: “For you she was your Queen. For us she was THE Queen.”
Why do we care so much about someone we never met?
So many British people have experienced a strong emotional reaction to this loss. Rationally, we remind ourselves that most of us never met this person. Yet the loss feels personal. For me, somehow the Queen is caught up in the memories of – and loss of – my grandparents. Somehow her exit seems the final curtain call of the wartime generation we admire so much. Her constancy, her duty, her service, and that social reserve that preserved the magic – it appeals to us because it is from another era, a time we feel nostalgic for, a time caught up in our childhood and our own grandparents.
We, who discuss all of our emotions and post half of our lives on Instagram, miss those old souls who endured a great deal and quietly got on with things.
British in France struggling with national pride
There has not been much to be proud of in recent years in terms of being British in France. This started with the tragedy of the Brexit referendum result, was closely followed by the Boris Johnson era and we now find ourselves with the mediocre and uninspiring Liz Truss as Prime Minister. In terms of our politicians, we have not had even the bare minimum of a safe pair of hands for quite some time. This makes the loss of an exceptional stateswoman with a 70-year reign a much tougher blow.
The dark clouds on the horizon of economic gloom, energy and cost-of-living crises and climate change threats leave us feeling vulnerable and in need of that constant, strong woman we had in the Queen, who was just always there. Even during the darkest days of the pandemic, her “We’ll meet again” address lifted the UK more than any politician’s words.
In the ceremonies, processions and services of Monday’s funeral, it was as though, for one last time, she gave us back our national pride. Even the most fervent anti-monarchist could not fail to be stunned by the choreography, the colours, the tradition and the dignity of the day. It was as though grief itself had been transformed into an intricate dance through the streets of London. Amidst the formalities, there were simple yet moving moments, such as Her Majesty’s corgis and her pony being brought out into Windsor to await her coffin.
Who will lift our spirits now?
Now it’s all over, where does that leave us? King Charles III inherited his mother’s role immediately, such is the nature of monarchy. We were pleasantly surprised by his pitch perfect address to the nation, a balance between a grieving son and a reassuring monarch. He gained praise for his warmth with the crowds who gathered. But we all know he has quite a task ahead of him.
The new King has no real power to heat British homes this winter or counteract rising food prices.
A nation under stress will perhaps have less and less reverence for the monarchy. He will have a strong interest in persuading Scotland to remain within the union, just as voices for independence grow ever louder. He knows the monarchy needs to modernize and he wants a lean, working Royal Family and to open some of the palaces up to the public. He will also need to heal some rifts or at least reach a truce with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, with whom all trust and understanding seem to have broken down, despite a few shows of unity at the funeral.
Monday’s funeral was a beautiful and fitting tribute to a woman who touched so many lives and lived an extraordinary life of service. She leaves behind a country facing challenges, unsure of its identity and without much faith in its politicians.