Carol Drinkwater: exploring the Marché aux Fleurs in Paris


A florist from the Marché aux fleurs in Paris tells Carol Drinkwater about his royal encounter

The Marché aux Fleurs in Place Louis-Lépine has brightened the streets of the Île de la Cité in Paris since 1830. Open daily from 8am to 7.30pm, the stalls are housed in three rows of art-nouveau metal pavilions built in 1900. Here, you will find almost any tropical or European shrub or flower you have set your heart on. In midsummer, it’s a floral haven while in midwinter, with its forests of Christmas trees and Mexican poinsettias, it sets the season at a glance. The market has long been a Parisian landmark, but on 7 June 2014 it took on a new identity.

The Queen, who was in France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, paid an official visit to the market as it was being renamed in her honour: Marché aux Fleurs – Reine-Elizabeth II. I was fascinated to know how the stallholders felt, given that France is a Republic and, as one florist remarked: “We guillotined our royalty during the French Revolution.” Then I learned that one stallholder had been singled out to meet the Queen.

Lionel Viviani has sold flowers, plants and perfume products from his stall for the past 15 years. He is a small, lithe figure in his mid-forties but with an air of someone younger. He met me at the Cité métro station and escorted me with a child’s enthusiasm to his pitch in the Allée Célestin-Hennion. He speaks fluent English. I asked whether this might be why he was chosen to be presented to the Queen. He shrugged.

How did he feel when he was selected? He reiterated the thoughts of fellow tradesfolk. “Royalty is nothing to jump up and down about. They are people just like us.” The prospect of the Queen’s presence did not stir any emotions within him, he said, until he learned that he was to be presented. Then he began to feel “très fier”, very proud.

Except for Sundays, Lionel’s days begin at 3am when he drives his truck to a wholesaler at the huge market at Rungis to buy plants. In his wooden shack is a bench fitted with artificial turf. Here, once his wares have been unloaded, he naps for an hour. At 6am he readies the stall for business at 8am. These are very long days, but he is fortunate because he lives centrally near l’Opéra.

The night before the royal visit he was so excited that he could not sleep. Before dawn, he walked to the market, intending to deck out the stand with blossoms of ‘rose, bleu ciel et blanc’: representing the colours of both the French and British flags. By 7am, all was done. He took one look, hated what he saw, dismantled it and began again.

He recalls his first sighting of the Queen. She stepped from the official car and strode on ahead of President François Hollande and Prince Philip. Approaching, she addressed Lionel in French. As is the protocol, he replied in French, enunciating his words; which wasn’t necessary, as the Queen continued in perfect French until they switched to English. He made her a gift of a cloth bag packed with plants. Prince Philip received a bottle of cologne, named Marché aux Fleurs. “I give you this,” Lionel said, “because your wife gets all the presents. I don’t want you to feel left out.” The Queen laughed and thanked Lionel. The royal party departed, leaving him with memories to cherish for a lifetime.

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