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Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 07:32 GMT 08:32 UK
French knight set for Queen audience
By Hugh Schofield

On her state visit to France this week, the Queen will be seeing a lot of a dapper, snowy-haired man of 85 who is by a long shot the country's leading Anglophile.

Maurice Druon is rather more than that of course.

Maurice Druon
Druon salutes the British wartime spirit
He is also a celebrated writer, a former culture minister, die-hard Gaullist and a veteran of the London-based Free French in World War II.

He is a former chairman of the Academie Francaise - France's most prestigious cultural institution - in which he became famous for his dogged but ultimately fruitless opposition to the feminisation of proper names.

And what he is remembered most for in France is the fact that he wrote the words for the country's most famous patriotic song after the Marseillaise.

The "Chant des Partisans" - with its opening line "Friend, do you hear the black flight of the crows on the plain" -- was intended as a war-song for the resistance, and it succeeded brilliantly.

(The Free French leaders) knew that nothing unites men in combat better than a song - especially when the soldiers are secret, when they are an army of shadows
Maurice Druon on why he wrote Chant des Partisans
Bizarrely - for a work that a year later was being sung by members of the Maquis as they went to their execution in Nazi prisons - it was penned on a warm May Sunday in a golfing hotel in Coulsdon, Surrey.

"My bosses with De Gaulle were on at me and my uncle - the writer Joseph Kessel - to write a song for the resistance. They knew that nothing unites men in combat better than a song - especially when the soldiers are secret, when they are an army of shadows," he says today.

"There was a young Russian composer called Anna Marley at our French club in St James. We chose one of her tunes, then went to the Ashdown Park hotel in Surrey. We wrote the words in an afternoon and that evening in the West End we tried it out on the men: they loved it."

The Queen
Druon will be at a reception hosted by the Queen for honorary knights
Maurice Druon speaks to me in the living room of his spacious apartment behind the Musee d'Orsay on Paris's left bank.

He is dressed in a dark suit with suede boots, and he smokes a seemingly unending supply of Marlboro Lights.

His elegant, epigrammatic answers are punctuated by tar-filled guffaws.

He is one of the last remaining links with a piece of France that for two years flourished in wartime London, as humbled fugitives from Marshal Petain's Vichy government gathered around General Charles de Gaulle and prepared for revenge.

For his services there - and for his broadcasts to occupied France from the BBC - he was awarded an honorary Knight of the British Empire, which remains a matter of inordinate pride.

I do not think there has ever been a people in the world who displayed a heroism as discreet, as mundane, and as universal
Druon on the wartime British
"Along with the Legion of Honour - of which I hold the Grand Cross - it is the decoration with which I am happiest. It bears witness to the fact that I have always been a faithful and active friend of Great Britain. And it brings me back to the most memorable period of my life - war in London," he says.

"I lived the life of Londoners - and thence comes my immense gratitude and my deep attachment to the British people. I do not think there has ever been a people in the world who displayed a heroism as discreet, as mundane, and as universal.

"It affected everyone from the Queen Mother to my chauffeur who in the middle of an air-raid would still stop at the traffic-lights. One day my secretary came and said, 'I am sorry I am late. My house was bombed last night.' It was business-as-usual amid the rubble!"

Maurice Druon
Druon is a member of the prestigious Academie Francaise
This week he will be seeing the Queen three times: at a state banquet at the Elysee palace, at an embassy reception for French honorary British knights and members of the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE), and in Toulouse on Wednesday where he will be with students of the Entente Cordiale scholarship scheme which he helped set up.

Of the Entente Cordiale - the diplomatic declaration of Franco-British friendship whose centenary is the occasion for the Queen's visit - he effuses: "Cordial understanding! What a classic piece of British understatement.

"It is not a cordial understanding - it is an alliance. And it is one that saved Europe twice!"


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