KCharles III’s first international journey as British monarch is off to a good start and it hasn’t even begun yet. Downing Street announced on Friday that the new head of state would no longer travel to France as protests against pension reform in the country turned into violent clashes.
Charles and Camilla, Queen Consort, were due to arrive in France this Sunday for engagements in Paris and Bordeaux, before continuing to Germany early on Wednesday, where he would visit Berlin and Brandenburg before completing the trip in Hamburg on Friday. In France, they were to lay a wreath at the Arc de Triomphe, open a new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, appear at the French senarew and enjoy a banquet hosted by President Emmanuel Macron and First Lady Brigitte Macron at the Château de Versailles.
But on Thursday, France witnessed some of the worst violence since protests – which have intensified since Macron imposed his pension reform plan earlier this month – began in January, and another demonstration is planned for Tuesday, the last day the royal couple would be there.
Buckingham Palace described the change in plans as a postponement, with the German leg of his trip still continuing. In a statement, a spokesperson said: “Their Majesties look forward to the opportunity to visit France as soon as dates can be found.”
According to the Elysée, Macron would have told the king on Friday morning that the state visit would be postponed “so that his majesty is welcomed under conditions which correspond to (to) our friendly relations”.
Learn more: What you need to know about pension reform in France
The trip was planned as part of a British government effort to ease post-Brexit tensions, which had been tense since Britain 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, marking our shared histories, culture and values.”
Here’s what 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 bolster the UK’s strained relationship with the nations. The visit was described by Buckingham Palace as looking forward to ‘working in partnership with France and Germany’ on issues such as climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, opportunities for trade and investment, arts and culture.
According to a Chatham House report, the Conservative government of Rishi Sunak sees no point in continuing the negative relations that previous administrations had with EU members and it has avoided the personality clashes seen with previous leaders. “Time has also healed some Brexit wounds on the Continent,” the report says, “with the UK’s departure from the EU now simply accepted as a reality by European interlocutors.”
King Charles is an “ideal choice” for efforts to improve relations with EU members after Brexit, 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 both represents the state and does not represent its politics.” Charles’ reputation is not “tarnished” by Brexit since he was not involved in the decision-making, Strong notes.
“He will not be able to solve the thorny political issues that Brexit continues to raise. But it can help rebuild positive feelings towards Britain and Britons,” Strong said, adding that the international damage caused by Brexit was largely emotional. “It’s the kind of thing a constitutional monarch can do that a politician can’t.”
Why did Macron cancel Charles’ visit?
Thursday’s protests invited more than a million French citizens to the streets to protest Macron’s pension reforms that will see the national retirement age rise from 62 to 64.
Some cities protested peacefully but violence erupted in Paris with protesters throwing rocks and fireworks at police. Around 457 people were arrested on Thursday, while 441 members of the security forces were reportedly injured. The town hall of Bordeaux was also set on fire on Thursday. Firefighters were then able to extinguish the fire.
Learn more: Protests sweep France after pension reform imposed by Macron
In an interview with French broadcasters on Wednesday, Macron defended his decision, saying “This reform is not a luxury, it’s not fun. It’s a necessity for the country.
Yet the optics of a visit by the monarch to the proud republic amid the backlash may have been what prompted Macron to cancel Charles’ trip to the country.
“Macron is an arrogant person in his own way. And he made sure at the Queen’s funeral that he was going to nail Charles for the first state visit to France, Britain’s traditional Frenemy,” says Clare McHugh, royal historian and author Just twelve days after the death of Queen Elizabeth on September 8, the The telegraph of the day reported that Macron and Charles had linked up over environmental causes and that a first state visit to France was expected over a Commonwealth destination.
But McHugh says Macron likely would have felt uncomfortable hosting Charles for lavish banquets at Versailles and other excursions amid public displeasure. Postponing the trip while “people are arguing in the streets about what modern society should look like in France” seems best, she says.
What does this mean for King Charles?
Although the state visit is not ruled out and simply postponed, it is an unfortunate change for a historic first for Charles as monarch. McHugh says Charles is “unlucky” and would be the first to admit it.
Strong says that, while unfortunate, it could ultimately work to Charles’ advantage: “The king makes relationships, not deals,” he says. “He can go another time, and he will have more impact in quieter times when he generates more media coverage.”
Charles still has the opportunity to make an impact on the international stage when he arrives in Germany with the Queen Consort on Wednesday. Their program includes a welcome ceremony by President Steinmeier and First Lady Elke Büdenbender at the Brandenburg Gate, a state banquet hosted by the couple, meetings with Ukrainian refugees and a visit to the Komische Oper opera house.
“France’s loss is Germany’s gain and he is immensely popular there,” says Hugo Vickers, a royal commentator, “I’m sure he will be immensely well received there.”
McHugh believes the trip now has a deeper symbolic meaning as it takes the British monarchy back to its German roots, which she says were severed by the two world wars.
“Maybe this will be a time when the German connection will be rekindled,” she says.
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