SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) — As they do every day at noon, the town hall bells played a cheeky little tune about a king who put his pants on back to front. Perhaps a good thing then, for French-British friendship and all of that, that King Charles III and Queen Camilla arrived a little too late to hear it.
The British royal couple swept into Saint-Denis just after its midday chimes, coming to sprinkle a little of their star power on the town north of Paris that drank up the attention on Thursday.
After all, it’s not every day that VIP visitors venture out here — one of the poorest and toughest parts of the Paris region. Residents were thrilled, welcoming the royals as a boost for the town with a reputation for crime, deep pockets of economic hardship, and where many are deprived of the wealth and opportunities that nearby Paris enjoys.
“When people speak of Saint-Denis, they say, ‘Oh ! Don’t go!,'” said Yannick Caillet, an assistant mayor. “We want to de-stigmatize the town.”
Charles and Camilla didn’t stay long — roughly an hour. They stuck to Saint-Denis’ prettiest parts — around its centuries-old basilica and the adjacent town hall with its quirky bells that twice-daily play tunes linked to France’s rich history of insurrection, challenging authority, and dethroning royals.
Heavy downpours in Saint-Denis, metal barriers and the security detail also kept crowds small and largely away from the royal party.
Still, the stop on the second day of their engagement-packed state visit offered Charles and Camilla a quick look at a world far removed from the lavish splendor France treated them to the previous day.
On day one, they got a grand dinner at Versailles Palace with Mick Jagger and actor Hugh Grant among guests, a parade down the Champs-Elysées, a flyover by jets trailing red, white and blue smoke in the Paris sky and lots of attention from French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte.
Macron didn’t join the royals in Saint-Denis but Brigitte did. She and Camilla played a bit of table tennis when meeting with kids.
At the Le Khédive cafe, owner Sid Ould-Moussa was told that the king planned to drop by and could he please prepare a table outside, with a chair for Charles — a history and architecture buff — facing the basilica?
“It’s excellent for the town, for us,” said Ould-Moussa. “It’s fabulous.”
Inside the cafe, language teachers Corinne Le Mage and Claire Pellistrandi were just tucking into lunches of veal and salmon when the king finally sat down, just a few feet (yards) away, to chat with a group of young job-seekers.
Gulp. The teachers said it would be a meal they’d long remember.
“We’re proud for the town,” said Le Mage.
“You can feel his sincerity,” Pellistrandi added. “It doesn’t seem like PR, which is what you generally get with politicians.”
The town of Saint-Denis has a long relationship with royalty — and it hasn’t always been kind. In all, 42 kings, 32 queens and 63 princes and princesses were buried over the centuries in its basilica — only to be dug up again during the French Revolution and tossed into mass graves.
The towering basilica itself is built on the spot where a 3rd-century bishop, Denis, is said to have staggered to after he was executed in Paris, supposedly carrying his decapitated head as he walked six kilometers (nearly 4 miles) to what is now Saint-Denis.
The first king buried in the basilica was Dagobert. He’s remembered in a popular children’s song, “The Good King Dagobert,” that opponents of King Louis XVI sang to poke fun at him. The song tells how the king supposedly wore his pants back to front.
Louis was guillotined during the French Revolution. “The Good King Dagobert” is now played at noon by the bells of Saint-Denis’ town hall — seemingly a cheeky wink at the town’s royal history.
But Thursday was more about looking ahead and royals making new history.
Residents said Charles and Camilla’s visit put a positive light on the town.
“A lot of people are poor and it has a reputation as a cutthroat place,” said Yasmina Bedar, who was born in Saint-Denis and has lived there for 50 years.
“For a king in real flesh and blood to come to Saint-Denis of course can only help our image.”