Interesting timing for French recognition of British icon Princess Diana

Interesting timing for French recognition of British icon Princess Diana
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France is considering dedicating public lands in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, who died violently while visiting Paris. This comes at a time of strain between the UK and the European Union — with France as one of the EU’s most ambitious players. Sometimes cordial allies and other times bitter rivals, the UK-France relationship is even more complex than the U.S.-France one. 

Paris city officials want to rename a plaza as a tribute to Diana, that is currently dedicated to opera singer Maria Callas. Time Magazine notes the opera singer “already has a nearby avenue named after her, and that the city wants to honor Diana for her humanitarian work.”

Since Diana’s death in 1997 some ad hoc monuments were unofficially adopted to her memory by the public, including the Liberty Flame sculpture given as a gift of the New York Times to France, having nothing at all to do with the princess. 

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The timing of the new proposed dedication to Diana is interesting considering the backdrop of the recent history of Brexit and the resulting strain between Britain and other EU member states, particularly France. France stands alone to insisting upon a date for a decisive end to the Brexit saga.

Ironically, French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronHere are the US allies that have been caught in Trump's crosshairs Trump, Macron hold impromptu lunch to kick off G-7 meeting Brazil's Bolsonaro reverses on Amazon, announces plans to send armed forces to fight wildfires MORE’s tough stance may be just the nudge to bring a solution for a Britain in stalemate. Moreover, although more moderate in tone, it hearkens of another time when France stood alone in an obstinate position vis-a-vis the UK and its relationship to Europe.

France has often been the sharpest critic of Britain in its post-war relationship with Europe. Through the lens of current events, it is surprising to realize that in the 1960s, it was the conservative leader, Ted Heath who was hellbent on the UK joining a European Economic Community, while his successor, Labour PM Harold Wilson was less enthusiastic. However, Wilson forged ahead to pursue the UK joining the European Common Market when Labour came into power in 1964.

Then-French President Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed Britain’s membership application on the basis: “the British view of European construction was characterised by a deep-seated hostility and that the UK would require a radical transformation if it were ever to be allowed to join the Common Market.”

Additionally, de Gaulle felt that while the British wished to be in the Common Market, that their true loyalties lay across the Atlantic. Senior British Member of Parliament Ken Clarke has noted: "De Gaulle was ferociously anti-American and pretty anti-Anglo-Saxon…He modelled himself a little on Napoleon and wished to have a European Community which was dominated by France and steered by a Franco-German alliance, which was out of touch with the way the world was going."

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The UK did not become a full member of the European Economic Community until 1973 when de Gaulle was already dead for three years. While his objections to Britain joining the European Community sound harsh, in hindsight, he may have saved the UK, and Europe a great deal of current day anguish. If he had proved successful in preventing their European integration, there would have been no contemporary Brexit crisis.

National rivalries aside, current-day France is pushing to honor a controversial British princess who died tragically on their soil. She was a divisive figure, loved and deeply mourned as a quasi-saint by some and reviled and strongly criticized by others. In many ways, a quintessentially traditional upper-class British girl, Diana’s life as a woman was rather more continental and modern.

Elton John called her “England’s Rose,” but her emotional demonstrativeness (sometimes an asset and sometimes a liability) and her public revelations of private matters was at odds with the “British national character” and her role as a royal princess. Certainly, Diana’s elegance and great style could be put more in the French category because that seems to be all that is left of France’s former influence, while Brexit gives hope for better days ahead for Britain. 

Love her or not, Diana is the mother of Prince William who will one day be the British monarch Hers was one of the most notable lives of the 20th century and she gave inspiration to many. Morever, she is figure who so many the world over felt a connection to. She transcends nationality. Her official recognition by France is an act of graciousness that, to an extent, offsets the historic rivalries of France and Great Britain.

Lee Cohen is a historian and senior fellow of the Danube Institute in Budapest, the London Center for Policy Research, and the New York director of The Anglosphere Society. He was formerly the director of the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus.