The then Prince of Wales, Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, with French President Emmanuel Macron at a ceremony in Carlton Gardens to commemorate the 80th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s ‘Appeal’ speech, June 18, 2020 in London . Credit – Max Mumby – Indigo/Getty Images
King Charles III’s first journey abroad as British monarch got off to a rocky start and hasn’t even started yet. Downing Street announced on Friday that the new head of state would no longer travel to France amid violent clashes over pension reform protests in the country.
Charles and Camilla, Queen Consort, were due to arrive in France this Sunday for engagements in Paris and Bordeaux, before continuing to Germany early Wednesday, where he would visit Berlin and Brandenburg before ending the trip in Hamburg on Friday. In France, they were scheduled to lay a wreath at the Arc de Triomphe, open a new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, perform in France’s Senarew and enjoy a banquet hosted by President Emmanuel Macron and First Lady Brigitte Macron at the Palace of Versailles.
But on Thursday, France witnessed some of the worst violence since protests began in January, since Macron pushed through his pension reform plan earlier this month, and another protest is planned for Tuesday, the last day the royal couple would be there.
Buckingham Palace described the change of plan as a postponement, the German part of his trip was still to come. In a statement, a spokesman said: “Their Majesties very much look forward to the opportunity to visit France as soon as appointments can be found.”
According to the Elysée Palace, Macron is said to have informed the king on Friday morning that the state visit would be postponed “so that His Majesty could be received under appropriate conditions [to] our friendly relationship”.
Continue reading: Worth knowing about the pension reform in France
The trip was planned by the UK government to ease post-Brexit tensions that have been tense since the UK left the European Union in 2020. When the trip was announced in early March, Buckingham Palace described it as a way to “celebrate Britain’s relationship with France and Germany and highlight our shared history, culture and values.”
Here’s what you need to know about Charles’ first international state visit as king.
Why did the state visit take place?
Charles and Camilla’s diplomatic visit was arranged by the British government to ease Britain’s strained relations with the nations. Buckingham Palace described the visit as “looking forward to working in partnership with France and Germany” on issues such as climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, trade and investment opportunities, and arts and culture.
According to a Chatham House report, Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government sees no value in perpetuating previous governments’ negative ties with EU members and has avoided personal conflicts with previous leaders. “Time has also healed some Brexit wounds on the continent,” reads the report, “with the UK’s exit from the EU now being simply accepted as a reality by European interlocutors.”
King Charles is an “ideal choice” in efforts to improve post-Brexit relations with EU members, says James Strong, Senior Lecturer in British Politics and Foreign Policy at Queen Mary, University of London. “As a politically impartial constitutional monarch, King Charles represents both the state and not its policies.” Charles’ reputation will not be “tainted” by Brexit as he was not involved in decision-making, Strong notes.
“He will not be able to resolve the thorny political issues that Brexit continues to raise. But it can help rebuild positive feelings towards Britain and the British,” says Strong, adding that the international damage caused by Brexit has been largely emotional. “Something a constitutional monarch can do that a politician cannot.”
Why did Macron cancel Charles’ visit?
During Thursday’s protests, more than a million French people took to the streets to protest Macron’s pension reform, which will raise the national retirement age from 62 to 64.
Some cities demonstrated peacefully, but violence erupted in Paris when some protesters threw stones and firecrackers at police. Around 457 people were arrested on Thursday, while 441 security forces were injured. Bordeaux City Hall was also set on fire on Thursday. The fire brigade was able to extinguish the fire later.
Continue reading: Protests sweep France after Macron pushes through pension reform
In an interview with French broadcasters on Wednesday, Macron defended his decision, saying: “This reform is not a luxury, it is not fun. It is a necessity for the country.”
But the optics of the monarch’s visit to the proud republic amid the backlash may have prompted Macron to cancel Charles’ trip to the country.
“Macron is a pushy person in his own way. And he made sure at the Queen’s funeral that he would nail Charles for the first state visit to France, Britain’s traditional frenemy,” says Clare McHugh, a royal historian and author. Just 12 days after Queen Elizabeth’s death on Aug Daily Telegraph reported that Macron and Charles had bonded over environmental concerns and a first state visit to France was expected ahead of a Commonwealth destination.
But McHugh says Macron would likely have felt uncomfortable hosting Charles for lavish banquets at Versailles and other excursions given the public discontent. Postponing the trip while “people on the streets are arguing about what modern society in France should be like” seems like for the best, she says.
What does this mean for King Charles?
The state visit is not ruled out, only postponed, but for Charles as monarch it is an unfortunate change to a historic premiere. McHugh says Charles is “unlucky” and would be the first to admit it.
Strong says that while unfortunate, it could ultimately work in Charles’ favor: “The king builds relationships, not deals,” he says. “He can go another time, and he will have more impact in quieter times where he generates more media coverage.”
Charles still has a chance to impress on the international stage when he arrives in Germany with the Queen Consort on Wednesday. The program includes a ceremonial welcome by Federal President Steinmeier and First Lady Elke Büdenbender at the Brandenburg Gate, a state banquet organized by the two, meetings with Ukrainian refugees and a visit to the Komische Oper.
“France’s loss is Germany’s gain and he’s immensely popular there,” says Hugo Vickers, a royal commentator, “I’m sure he’ll be very welcome there.”
McHugh believes the trip now has a deeper symbolic meaning because it brings the British monarchy back to its German roots, which she says were severed by the two world wars.
“Maybe this is a moment when the German connection will be revived,” she says.