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Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Jean Chretien smile at the beginning of an official dinner in St. John's Newfoundland in this file photo dated June 1997. Queen Elizabeth has appointed Jean Chretien to the exclusive Order of Merit. The honour is restricted to 24 living members and few foreigners. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)
Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Jean Chretien smile at the beginning of an official dinner in St. John's Newfoundland in this file photo dated June 1997. Queen Elizabeth has appointed Jean Chretien to the exclusive Order of Merit. The honour is restricted to 24 living members and few foreigners. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Jane Taber

Jean Chrétien offers the Queen an election update Add to ...

Eleven Canadian prime ministers have served since the Queen took the throne, but it seems Jean Chrétien remains the royal favourite.

Seated at her side on Tuesday for lunch at Windsor Castle, Mr. Chrétien briefed the Queen on Canada's latest election, while she took the opportunity to practice her French.

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Mr. Chrétien was at the castle, just outside London, as part of his appointment to the Order of Merit, Canada's highest civil honour. The Queen bestowed it on him in 2009 in recognition of his 40 years of public service. There are only 24 members at one time; vacancies are created when a member dies. Every two years or so, the members get together for lunch.

About 20 people were at the lunch, which lasted just over an hour. Mr. Chrétien's wife, Aline, was also at the table, as was the Queen's husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.

"It was a very pleasant encounter," Mr. Chrétien said about his lunchtime conversation. And, as usual when he gets together with the Queen, she "took the occasion to practise her French." He said the two spoke in French about one-third of the time, in English the rest. "Like in Canada, I guess," he joked.

They spoke about the election, Mr. Chrétien said. Instead of a prediction, the former Liberal prime minister, who won three majority governments from 1993 to 2000, offered up this analysis: "It's an election that nobody will know the results before the day of the election. We never know."

Mr. Chrétien, 77, who spoke to the Globe from England after the lunch, said that the Queen is "used to that."

"She's heard about a lot of elections … sometimes [they]change very dramatically and people don't see that." Not to underplay the state of play, he told her that it was "an interesting election, as usual."

Mr. Chrétien has a long relationship with the Queen that began in 1970 when she spent nearly a week visiting Northern Canada. Mr. Chrétien, then minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, accompanied her - and he wowed her with a rousing solo rendition of O Canada that the Royal Family has not forgotten.

He made her laugh during the Parliament Hill signing ceremony of the Constitution Act in 1982. Pierre Trudeau had broken the tip of the fountain pen being used, so there was no ink left when Mr. Chrétien tried to sign next.

He swore - " Merde" - provoking what Mr. Chrétien has subsequently characterized as a "big laugh" from the Queen.

Over the years, the Queen and her late mother always took the opportunity to practice their French when they ran into Mr. Chrétien. This time, Mr. Chrétien and the Queen not only spoke about Canada's election but about next Friday's wedding of the Queen's grandson, William, to Catherine Middleton.

"She is very excited," Mr. Chrétien said, adding that he was also able to provide some intelligence from back home on this topic.

"I reported to her that the TV, they just talk about it in Canada on every newscast. They talk about the wedding. That her grandson and his future wife are very popular in Canada, too," he said. "She was very pleased with that."

The Queen, who will celebrate her 85th birthday on Thursday, is in "very good shape," Mr. Chrétien said. And she laughed when he told her about his 94-year-old brother, who is "putting money aside for his old age."

Mr. Chrétien is to return to Canada in a couple of days. Next week - the last week of the election campaign - he is to help rally the troops with Michael Ignatieff in the Toronto area.

But he made no predictions as to the outcome of the campaign, which right now has his Liberals trailing in the polls.

"You never know, you never know, you know," Mr. Chrétien said. "These things change very rapidly. Who would have said that Kim Campbell was to finish with two seats. I felt that [she was losing] but not that bad. I felt it was to be closer than that. I had no doubt about winning. I didn't think that the Bloc and the Reform were to have more seats than the Tories."

Mr. Chrétien said he wants the Liberals to win - but then added that he is not paying that much attention to the race.

"I am out of it," he said. "I just believe that my party offers a better … vision for the Canadian people. But it's not my direct problem and I don't want to look like a mother-in-law."

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