Pomp and ceremony abound as Charles III begins state visit to France

France via REUTERS - POOL
SEP 21, 2023 LISTEN

King Charles III embarked on his first state visit to France as monarch on Wednesday, for a three-day trip aimed at showing that the fundamentals of the cross-Channel alliance remains strong despite a litany of political tensions after Brexit.

Charles and President Emmanuel Macron were driven down the Champs-Elysées in Paris for talks at the Elysée Palace, escorted by 136 horses from the Republican Guard and standing up with the car roof open to acknowledge the few thousand people lining the famed avenue.

The trip, initially planned for March, was supposed to have been Charles' first state visit abroad since becoming monarch following 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 Paris and the southwestern city of Bordeaux – packed with ceremony and pomp in a country that abolished its monarchy in the 1789 revolution and then executed the king – is largely unchanged.

The King Charles and Queen Camilla were welcomed at Paris Orly airport by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, with the visit blessed by pristine autumn clear skies.

They then paused to remember war dead by laying wreaths at the Arc de Triomphe monument in the capital.

Driven down the Champs-Elysees, Macron and the king were seen chatting amicably while Camilla and Macron's wife Brigitte followed behind in a similar vehicle.

After their talks at the Elysee Palace, Charles and Macron walked the short distance to the residence of the British ambassador, pausing to shake hands with well-wishers on the upscale rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

'On his own terms'

The Macrons hosted the royal couple at a state banquet at Versailles, the palace west of the capital synonymous with French royalty.

The menu include delicacies like blue lobster cooked as a starter by star chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who has said she was inspired by the tastes of the "Sun King" Louis XIV.

Dinner guests in the glittering Hall of Mirrors included Charlotte Gainsbourg, the actor and daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Hugh Grant and French former Arsenal football club manager Arsene Wenger.

When raising a toast, King Charles said "it is incumbent upon us all to reinvigorate our friendship to ensure it is fit for the challenge of this, the 21st century." 

Although Charles did not directly reference the UK's divisive departure from the European Union, he mentioned the two countries' "long and complex history". 

"Our relations have of course not always been entirely straightforward," he added, in a speech in both English and an accented but clearly-spoken French that impressed his hosts.

But he set out an optimistic vision of the Entente Cordiale – the pact between the two neighbours which was forged in 1904 – calling it a "sustainable alliance". 

For his part, Macron said that "despite Brexit ... I know, your majesty, that we will continue to write part of the future of our continent together, to meet the challenges and to serve the causes we have in common." 

He described Charles' visit as a "tribute to our past ... and a guarantee of the future."

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 on Thursday addresses lawmakers in the French Senate, 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 after post-Brexit turbulence.

Macron had a particularly prickly relationship with former premier 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.

(With newswires)