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France to lend priceless Bayeux Tapestry to Britain - but is Macron just trolling?

Historians and political commentators can’t agree on whether this is a gesture of goodwill, or a “wonderful joke”.

shutterstock_178025810 Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry. Source: Shutterstock

IN A GESTURE OF abiding friendship, or perhaps a subtle warning, French President Emmanuel Macron will offer Britain a loan of the famed Bayeux Tapestry – which depicts the French conquest of England.

The 40-year-old French leader is due to visit the UK today to sign a treaty with British Prime Minister Theresa May on policing the port of Calais, which links the two countries; as well as discuss European security measures.

Since his election last year, Macron’s developed a name for himself for symbolic moves and gifts to other world leaders, as he sets about establishing new French diplomatic ties following political uncertainty in the UK and US.

On a trip to Beijing, he offered the Chinese president a French stallion, while Russian leader Vladimir Putin was given a tour around an exhibition at the Versailles Palace last year that marked 300 years of Franco-Russian friendship.

Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin walk in the Galerie des Batailles - Versailles Russian President Vladimir Putin is given a tour of the Galerie des Batailles by Macron in May last year. Source: PA Images

Transporting the 70-metre-long Bayeux Tapestry to Britain for the first time will be a technically difficult journey for the priceless thousand-year-old artwork.

“It will not be before 2020 because it’s an extremely fragile cultural treasure which will be subject to major restoration work before being transported anywhere,” an official in Macron’s office said yesterday.

What is the Bayeux Tapestry?

shutterstock_170481449 Source: Jorisvo via Shutterstock

The tapestry, which dates from around 1077, depicts the famed Battle of Hastings when William the Conqueror from France defeated English forces in southern England.

The story of the 1066 military defeat, in which the English King Harold famously died after taking a French arrow in the eye, is still taught to British school children and is a founding moment in the long and bloody history of Anglo-French rivalry.

“It is very significant that the Bayeux Tapestry is going to be coming to the UK and that people are going to be able to see this,” Theresa May said in response to the offer.

Gallic joke?

Many historians and politicians have welcomed the gesture as a friendly move that underlined the two countries’ shared history and intermingled blood at a time when Britain is leaving the European Union.

“It’s an absolutely fantastic opportunity for British people from around the country to come, I hope to the British Museum, and see it in all its glory,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of a foreign affairs committee at the British parliament.

“This is a real demonstration on how diplomacy is done,” he told BBC radio.

Emmanuel Macron hosts Theresa May in Paris for hard talks on Brexit Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

But other commentators wondered exactly what Macron was trying to say by focusing on an inglorious moment in British military history.

The Times newspaper published a cartoon showing Macron in Middle Ages military garb skewering British Prime Minister Theresa May: “Emmanuel The Conqueror: It’s One In The Eye for Theresa Regina.”

Writing on Twitter, broadcast journalist Robert Peston commented that “lending the UK a magnificent depiction of the last time this country was invaded and subjugated is a wonderful Gallic joke by Emmanuel Macron”.

Jockeying over who would display the work is already underway, with the British Museum’s director Hartwig Fischer saying he would be “delighted” to show the work.

Lawmakers representing the seaside town of Hastings, as well as the village of Battle, where the historic clash took place, are also hoping for the honour.

“I’m sure we will be looking very carefully to ensure the maximum number of people can take benefit from seeing this tapestry,” May said.

Argument over origins

The loan might also reopen an unsettled argument about the creators of the tapestry, which has rarely moved from its home in a museum in Bayeux in France.

shutterstock_177878996

It was displayed in Paris in 1804 and again briefly at the Louvre Museum in 1945.

“There is a reasonable case that it could have been made in Canterbury” in southern England, British historian David Musgrove, who authored a book on the subject, told the BBC.

Other theories are that it was made in Bayeux itself or perhaps in an abbey in the Loire region of central France.

French historian Pierre Bouet said the tapestry should be seen by Britons as evidence of the role of France in the country’s history.

The tapestry “is a reminder of the military exploit of the founder of the current royal dynasty,” Bouet told AFP.

Even if he doesn’t descend directly from him, Prince Charles is aware that he has the blood of William the Conqueror in his veins.

The British royal family still has the French words “Dieu Et Mon Droit” (God and my Right) on its coat of arms.

Macron will hold talks with May at Sandhurst, a British military academy outside London, later today.

© AFP 2018, with reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

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