PARIS: King Charles III today began his first state visit to France as monarch, a rescheduled trip aimed at showing the fundamentals of the cross-Channel alliance remain strong despite a litany of political tensions after Brexit.
The trip was initially planned for March and was supposed to have been Charles’ first state visit abroad since becoming monarch on the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II.
But it was shelved due to widespread rioting and strikes across France against pension reforms.
The original itinerary in the capital Paris and the southwestern city of Bordeaux – packed with ceremony and pomp in a country which abolished its monarchy in the 1789 revolution and then executed the king – is largely unchanged.
The king and his wife Queen Camilla were welcomed at Paris Orly airport by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, with the visit blessed by pristine autumn clear skies, an AFP correspondent said.
They were then to be welcomed by French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte at the Arc de Triomphe monument in central Paris, where they will lay wreaths to the countries’ war dead.
They will then board a Citroen DS7 convertible, escorted by 136 horses of the Republican Guard, to head up the Champs-Elysees for the Elysee Palace and talks with Macron.
The Macrons will then in the evening host the royal couple at a sumptuous state banquet at Versailles, the palace west of the capital synonymous with French royalty.
The menu will included delicacies including blue lobster cooked as a starter by star chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who has said she was inspired by the tastes of the so called “Sun King” Louis XIV.
Guests at the dinner at the glittering Hall of Mirrors will include Charlotte Gainsbourg, the actor and daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Hugh Grant and French former Arsenal football manager Arsene Wenger.
‘On his own terms’
Macron, who has faced accusations from left-wing opponents of himself behaving like a monarch, will likely be eager to ensure the event proceeds smoothly without showing excess at a time of economic frugality.
“This image, in this context, is obviously fundamentally harmful for Emmanuel Macron even if there are diplomatic imperatives behind it which also play a role,” French author and academic Benjamin Morel told AFP.
The French president, who has dealt with no fewer than four UK premiers over the last half-decade during a period of political turbulence in Britain, is known to have a strong personal rapport with Charles.
Many of the engagements on the trip reflect Charles’ lifelong interest in the environment, sustainability and biodiversity, as well as promoting young entrepreneurs and community.
But it is also designed to promote Charles beyond British shores, as he continues his transition from a sometimes outspoken heir to the throne to monarch.
“This is King Charles, who was only just over a year ago still Prince Charles, putting himself on the international stage as a leading public figure,” said Ed Owens, a royal historian and author.
“We know that he’s going to address things including his concerns around climate and environment, so he’s playing to the crowd in that respect, but doing so on his own terms,” he told AFP.
In Queen’s footsteps
There are reminders throughout the visit of the late queen, a French-speaking francophile who made five state visits to France during her record-breaking 70-year reign.
The Arc de Triomphe was the location for her ceremonial arrival on her last state visit in 2014.
On the first, in 1957, she lunched with president Rene Coty in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
Charles will address lawmakers in the French Senate tomorrow, again following in the footsteps of his mother who did the same in 2004.
The queen also spent two days in Bordeaux – a former English possession in the Middle Ages – on a state visit in 1992.
Charles’ visit is seen as the follow-up to moves by UK prime minister Rishi Sunak to reset relations between the two neighbours following tensions sparked by the UK’s exit from the EU.
“The speed with which we’ve been able to reinstate this visit, thanks to a huge amount of flexibility on both sides, I think is a testament to how important we both see this,” a senior UK government official told reporters before the visit.
Macron had a particularly prickly relationship with Sunak’s predecessor Boris Johnson, reportedly describing him as a “clown” as he took the UK out of the European Union in January 2020 in a sea of Union Jack waving and rhetoric of British exceptionalism.
Coincidentally, Charles arrives one day after Macron held talks with British opposition leader Keir Starmer, whose Labour Party is increasingly confident of being able to oust the ruling Conservatives from power.