King Charles III heads to France for state visit

King Charles III finally makes it across the Channel from Britain to France this week, six months after rioting and strikes forced the last-minute postponement of his first state visit as king.

The 74-year-old British head of state’s rescheduled three-day trip to Paris and Bordeaux with his wife Queen Camilla, 76, starts on Wednesday, with the itinerary largely unchanged from March.

It includes set-piece ceremonial events with President Emmanuel Macron, whose unpopular pension reforms sparked the civil unrest earlier this year, as well as more informal meetings with the public.

The royal couple, Macron and his wife Brigitte will be officially welcomed at the Arc de Triomphe and lay wreaths of remembrance before a procession down the sweeping Champs-Elysees avenue.

The French leader and First Lady will host Charles and Camilla at a state banquet at Versailles, the palace west of Paris synonymous with French royalty — and the bloody republican revolution of 1789.

Other highlights include a landmark address — likely in French — by Charles to lawmakers at the Senate.

Many of the engagements turn around subjects championed by both couples, from the environment and sustainability to promoting literacy and youth entrepreneurship.

There are meetings with local communities and sports stars in the north Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, home to the national stadium and venue for next year’s Olympic Games.

In Bordeaux, the southwestern city once ruled over by Charles’s 12th-century ancestor Henry II and still home to around 39,000 British expats, he will tour an organic vineyard and meet firefighters tackling climate-induced wildfires.

– Political backdrop –
On both sides of the Channel, the visit is being billed as a celebration of centuries-old bonds between the two neighbours, as politicians rebuild bridges after backbiting and bickering over Brexit.

The entente has not been so cordial since the UK left the European Union, with former prime minister Boris Johnson frequently baiting France over everything from fishing quotas to trading rules for sausages.

At one point, the UK under Johnson even briefly sent two gunboats to the Channel Islands — the self-governing British Crown dependencies off the French coast — in a standoff over fishing licences.

Johnson’s short-lived successor Liz Truss did little to help, at one point saying “the jury’s out” when asked whether Macron — a G7 and NATO ally — was a friend or foe.

But the current incumbent of Downing Street, Rishi Sunak, has forged better relations with his counterpart in the Elysee, who like him has a finance background and penchant for sharp suits and slick social media.

As the head of a constitutional monarchy, British kings and queens in recent times have — mostly — observed a strict political neutrality.

But politics is never far away on state visits, and Charles’s trip is no exception, providing the “soft power” follow-up to Sunak’s more friendly recent overtures.

– Familiar figure –
Ed Owens, a royal historian and author, called state visits “the trump card of diplomacy… above the party politics of the moment”, such as lingering tensions between London and Paris over migrant crossings from northern France to the UK.

“There will be some informal diplomacy going on,” said Owens, whose new book “After Elizabeth: Can the Monarchy Save Itself?” was published on Friday.

But he told AFP that the wider goal was to present Charles “as the environmentalist king beyond British shores”.

After a first year on the throne underlined by stability and continuity, rather than radical reform, the visit encapsulates a “business as usual approach to royal diplomacy”.

In that, the French public will see a familiar British monarchy on display, he said.

“He has presented himself as a slightly more intimate figure but the monarchy remains very much the monarchy of Elizabeth II,” he added.

Charles and Macron have met before, most recently at the king’s coronation — the official religious ceremony to mark his accession — in May and are said to have a “warm relationship”.

The Anglophile French leader’s tribute to Charles’s mother after her death in September last year was well received in the UK, and at her state funeral he extended an open invitation for the new king to visit France.

The postponement in March saw the king and queen head to Germany instead, visiting Berlin and Hamburg.

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