Philippe Chassaigne is a professor of contemporary history at the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne and a specialist in Great Britain.
LE FIGARO. - King Charles came to power on September 8, 2022 when his mother had been very popular until then. In one year, has he managed to become a true royal figure?
Philippe CHASSAIGNE - Yes, certainly. Remember that it was difficult to succeed Elizabeth II who reigned for more than 70 years. Charles' mother died in full glory, only a few weeks after her jubilee. Her popularity was at least equal to that which she enjoyed at the beginning of her reign, it is prodigious. Furthermore, Charles was already 74 years old when he ascended the throne and several elements were working against him. The last season of the series The Crown (which retraces the reign of Elizabeth II, Editor's note) did not present him in a very favorable light because it highlighted his affair with Camilla and the suffering of Diana. He thus began his reign in conditions very different from those of his mother in 1952.
But he succeeded. Public reception has always been positive. He began to embody the monarchical function by imposing a different style, undoubtedly more spontaneous in his contacts with the public. Let us remember his first arrival at Buckingham as sovereign: his car stopped before the gates, the royal couple got out and went to meet the gathered Londoners. A lady even gave him a kiss! Then he shook hands and continued to do so during his appearances. His popularity has increased considerably in one year. He gained almost 10 points: today, 55% of British people have a positive image of him. Its accessibility played a role.
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King Charles's great challenge was to “modernize” royalty in a country which does not only have sympathizers of the monarchy. He notably mentioned a reduction in spending. Did he?
King Charles did not really modernize the monarchy. This question of making the monarchy less ostentatious is a false question, or rather a political question. Besides, the British love its splendor. Even if there had been some adjustments during his coronation, we still included the imperial state crown, the instruments of royalty and even the robes. And King Charles III is still nicknamed the “pampered prince”, that is to say the “pampered prince” because of all the servants who accompany him.
On the other hand, he actively contributed to a refocusing of the royal family. And this, even before becoming king. The monarchy today focuses on a main core: the king, queen consort Camilla, Kate and William and their three children. For example, each of Elizabeth II's children previously had their own press service. From now on, Charles III has one and his brothers and sister share another. This refocusing makes the monarchy more readable for the British. She is no longer an illegible nebula but finds herself embodied. And William's popularity works in favor of the monarchical institution. He is 41 years old, he is still young, and he really has time to prepare for his future duties.
The United Kingdom is going through a troubled period with divisions over immigration and numerous strikes in hospitals, for example. Faced with these divisions, does the king manage to be a unifying figure?
The first condition for a constitutional monarch is to refrain from political intervention. He is above political and governmental issues. However, even if some thought that Charles would not manage to refrain from situating himself politically once in power, he showed that he respected this custom.
We know that King Charles is “center left”. The positions he was able to suggest in the 1980s showed this. It was quite clear that he leaned towards the Social Democratic Party when the Labor Party split. And not for conservatives. But he knows that his position is different today. For too long we thought that Charles would not know the difference between the role of king and prince. I therefore think that what the British said about Elizabeth II, that she was a “landmark”, a “beacon”, is still relevant today.
What will be the major challenges of his reign in the years to come?
His reign will necessarily be a reign of transition: he will be 75 years old... Charles III is in the situation of Edward VII, he has waited a very long time. Ascending the throne at that age necessarily limits him in time and he is fully aware of this. He has been working on the modernization of the monarchy for two decades. In 1997, he already found the lack of reaction from his mother and father to Diana's death to be inappropriate.
However, if he intends to modernize the monarchy, it should, in my opinion, make it evolve on tax issues: does, for example, the fact that the monarch inherits without paying inheritance tax not deserve to be reexamined? Could we not move towards more transparency regarding the Windsor heritage? These are subjects that Republicans often raise, because they know that the British are sensitive to them. Being less opaque would be a service to the institution. In any case, it would certainly be better than walling oneself in disdainful silence.