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saRkozys to see the queen

By unknown | Mar 27, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

LONDON - When the Foreign and Commonwealth Office first asked the queen if she would mind hosting a state visit by the new French president, the elephant in the room was whether he would bring his new girlfriend.

LONDON - When the Foreign and Commonwealth Office first asked the queen if she would mind hosting a state visit by the new French president, the elephant in the room was whether he would bring his new girlfriend.

The palace shrugged its impeccable shoulders. "Whatever," they said; they are, after all, in the grand hospitality business.

The girlfriend is now the wife, so that's all right.

It is an incontrovertible fact that the British monarchy's biggest foreign fan base is in the world's first two modern republics, France and the US. The queen has always enjoyed the warmest of welcomes, and the highest level of curiosity, on visits to states that have either toppled or dismissed their own monarchs.

Mrs Sarkozy the younger, known until recently as Carla Bruni, will accompany her husband on all his engagements, her only solo mission being to have lunch with Sarah Brown, the prime minister's wife, while the two men debate affairs of state at Downing Street.

Anglo-French state visits have been a regular feature since Henry VIII met Francis I in 1520. The queen has paid four state visits to France during her reign, and in return she has received presidents de Gaulle, Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand and Chirac. None of them brought his mother.

Chirac made an additional visit in 2004 to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, when he, like Sarkozy, stayed at Windsor Castle. Windsor will be the venue for the state visit, not to avoid the congestion of formal carriage processions in Central London, but because it is Easter Week, when the Queen and her court traditionally move to the world's oldest and largest inhabited castle. She does not move back to London just because she has a state visit in her diary. Lech Walesa, the former Gdansk shipyard electrician and sometime president of Poland, was the first to be received there after the 1992 castle fire, and he did not seem to mind.

The Sarkozys, having flown into Heathrow to be greeted informally by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, will be whisked by car to a site outside Windsor railway station for their formal greeting by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.

The French visitors will have the pleasure of a carriage drive through Windsor Home Park to the quadrangle of the castle, where the president will be invited to inspect a guard of honour. It is rather like the British monarch being received at Versailles rather than the Elysee; the crowds will be smaller. Crowds, however, are fickle beasts. Parisians, like Londoners, have better things to do than line streets to welcome foreigners unless they are Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela or the Pope. Sarkozy, nonetheless, has considerable curiosity value, not least because of his wife.

After a private lunch with the Queen and a viewing of Anglo-French items from the Royal Collection, the Sarkozys will set off on the standard royal visit of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. Then, in a privilege accorded to only a select few visiting heads of state, the President will address both Houses of Parliament.

At the state banquet in St George's Hall, Windsor, the queen will offer the best of English cuisine. As his visit is so short, Sarkozy will have no chance to retaliate with a return banquet of his own. Previous British state visits to France have often turned into a battle of menus between the Elysee and the equally British Embassy.

During the banquet Sarkozy's mind may well drift to higher matters; he will hope that someone will have recorded the England-France football match as there are no wide screen plasma televisions in St George's Hall.

Today, Sarkozy will have talks with Gordon Brown, first at Downing Street and then at the Emirates Stadium in North London; Arsenal, the footballing occupants, have five French players and a French manager. - The Times News Service


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