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Barack Obama says Queen ‘didn’t seem to mind’ wife Michelle placing her arm around the monarch

Former US president dismisses royal protocol row in new memoir

Sarah Young
Tuesday 17 November 2020 12:00 GMT
Michelle Obama puts her arm around the Queen during royal visit
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Barack Obama has dismissed past criticisms that his wife Michelle broke royal protocol by placing her arm around the Queen’s shoulder, writing in his new memoirs that Her Majesty “didn’t seem to mind”.

In 2009, the then First Lady was photographed touching the monarch’s shoulder during a visit for a G20 summit at Buckingham Palace.

At the time, the Queen responded by resting her hand on the former First Lady’s back, but headlines claimed that Michelle had committed a royal-protocol controversy. While there are no legal rules in place, it is accepted that people should not touch a member of the royal family unless they initiate contact.

Writing about the exchange in his new memoir, A Promised Land, Barack dismissed suggestions that the Queen was offended by the gesture.

“She was photographed with her hand resting on Her Majesty's shoulder – an apparent breach of royalty-commoner protocol,” he wrote.

“Although the Queen didn't seem to mind, slipping her arm around Michelle in return.”

The former US president’s autobiography is not the first to address the controversial moment.

In 2018, Michelle spoke about why she put her arm around the Queen and what happened afterwards in her best-selling memoir, Becoming.

“The Queen glanced down at the pair of black Jimmy Choos I was wearing. She shook her head. 'These shoes are unpleasant, are they not?' she said. She gestured with some frustration at her own black pumps. I confessed then to the Queen that my feet were hurting. She confessed that hers hurt, too,” Michelle wrote.

"We looked at each other then with identical expressions, like, when is all this standing around with world leaders going to finally wrap up? And with this, she busted out with a fully charming laugh.”

The former FLOTUS added that she did what was “instinctive” to her by affectionately placing her hand across the Queen’s shoulder, unaware that she was “committing what would be deemed an epic faux pas”.

"If I hadn't done the proper thing at Buckingham Palace, I had at least done the human thing,” Michelle added.

“I daresay the Queen was OK with it too, because when I touched her, she pulled closer, resting a gloved hand lightly on the small of my back."

In Barack's new memoir, the former president explained that prior to their visit to Buckingham Palace in 2009, he joked with his wife about what she should wear for the occasion.

After the trip, he later said to Michelle: “You should have taken my suggestion and worn one of those little hats. And a little matching handbag!”

While there are no official legal rules in place about how to interact with British royalty, many people wish to observe the traditional codes of behaviour.

According to the royal family’s website, men should greet royalty with a neck bow (from the head only) while women are expected to do a small curtsy. Other people prefer simply to shake hands in the usual way.

On presentation to the Queen, the correct formal address is “Your Majesty” and subsequently “Ma'am”.

For male members of the royal family the same rules apply, with the title used in the first instance being “Your Royal Highness” and subsequently “Sir”.

For other female members of the royal family the first address is conventionally “Your Royal Highness” and subsequently “Ma'am”.

You can buy Barack Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land, here.

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