The new flames of French resistance

When the Sarkozys came to London to honour the defiance of de Gaulle, the entente was dazzlingly cordiale.

Yesterday's gathering in London of the great and the glam of England and France had all the elements of a mediaeval pageant, but way back then things never looked this good.

When Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni arrived on British soil to mark the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's rallying cry to the French, which was transmitted in 1940 from London on the BBC, it was clear that chic was high on the political agenda.

It is said that the great General's speech went mainly unnoticed in occupied France at the time. Not so the meet-and-greet between the Sarkozys and the Camerons at the Royal Chelsea Hospital. Roads were closed, tricolores hanging alongside Union flags as the French premier laid a wreath with Prince Charles, visited BBC Broadcasting House and decorated French and English war veterans with la Legion d'Honneur.

By law, any subject receiving a foreign decoration can accept it only after The Queen has given them the thumbs-up. Her Majesty wasn't present to do so, but presumably her son had no revolutionary fears on this occasion. While her husband was pinning medals on chests, Carla Bruni was swatting flies off them, leaning across to deflect a rogue insect from Samantha Cameron's décolletage. Her grateful smile and Bruni's "de rien" shrug showed a contrived ease between the wives that mirrored their husbands' exchange of pleasantries.

David Cameron described Sarkozy as "a devoted friend of Britain", while Sarkozy declared that the "call of 18 June could not have been launched anywhere else." It was a somewhat ambiguous compliment, given that Britain was the only country not under Axis control at the time – like turning up at a party and announcing you had no other plans anyway. An insider at Number 10 also confirmed commiserations over France's World Cup hopes "would be necessary on the basis of last night's performance."

Travelling with an entourage of over 800 veterans and membersof the Charles de Gaulle and Free France foundations, Sarkozy was more like some Renaissance prince come to pledge allegiance to the newly-enthroned leader of the Coalition than he was his illustrious predecessor. But this latter-day Field of the Cloth of Gold went without a hitch; with none of the ceremonial wrestling or muscle-flexing that peppered Henry VIII's visit in 1520. David Cameron seemed eager not to rekindle any ancient rivalries – no doubt mindful of the furore when Francois I took a little too fondly to Anne Boleyn – and did his best to lavish every attention on pregnant wife Samantha, receiving Bruni with measured coolness and averting his eyes from her for the duration of the speeches and Downing Street pow-wow. No doubt Barack Obama's accidental G8 ogle was on his mind.

Bruni's knowing hair-flicks and heavy-lidded smiles were tempered by the Camerons' seeming bashfulness, but the former supermodel was as camera-ready as she always is on the occasion of meeting the most recent addition to the First Ladies trophy shelf. SamCam's show of beatific fecundity bordered on metaphorical, in a bespoke monochrome dress by British designer Emilia Wickstead, teamed with patent pumps by Jimmy Choo. Bruni flaunted her Gallic credentials in a simple Dior dress and strategically low kitten heels by Louboutin.

Sarko's own demeanour, of course, couldn't be further from the man he was in town to celebrate. De Gaulle's more reserved style of hauteur was a world away from the opulence of the current incumbent, more known for his penchant for le beau monde than for any earnest moral rectitude.

As well as being morally upright, De Gaulle was a foot taller than Sarkozy; his wife, affectionately known in France as "Tante Yvonne" can't have faced the same footwear dilemmas as Mme Sarkozy. But what Sarkozy, De Gaulle and Cameron all share is a love of pomp and there was plenty of that yesterday.

As every spin doctor knows, you can't go wrong with pretty women and war veterans. All that was missing was a baby – but there'll be one of those next time.