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Visit of King Charles III in France: Domestic Politics under the Red Carpet?

Staff writer Emma Carmichael discusses the impact of King Charles III’s recent state visit to France.

King Charles III arrived in France on September 20 for a grand three-day visit to Emmanuel Macron. Tribute to the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe; dinner in Versailles; speech in front of the Senate: France is rolling out the red carpet for the new king. However, behind the sumptuous receptions and amuse-bouche, the visit comes at a time of political unrest. Initially scheduled in March, the monarch’s stop in Paris had to be cancelled due to unravelling pension reform protests.

In the aftermath of Brexit politics, affirming a restored Franco-British relationship is essential. However, it leaves a bitter taste. France is overlooking a tense social climate while no one forgot Boris Johnson’s hostile politics when dealing with the EU.

Bon Voyage!

King Charles’s world tour is off to a rocky start. The monarch made a point of France being the opening country to this series of diplomatic ‘rendez-vous‘s. This is the King’s first state visit since the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II, in a country that she most visited during her reign. It seems like the royal family holds a special place in the Frenchies’ hearts. The country was ready to welcome the monarch in March but (never falling far from stereotypes) the initial trip had to be abandoned due to widespread rioting in France. This cancellation felt like a humiliation for the French government, forced to postpone a core diplomatic event under the pressure of the streets.

Day 9 of the protest against the pension reform. Paris, 23/03/2023. Photo by Emma Carmichael.

The announcement came in the wake of another day of mobilisation against the pension reform marked by a strong level of participation and growing violence in the protests. These riots stood against a flagship policy of Emmanuel Macron pushing back the retirement age from 62 to 64 years old. Voices criticised the reform for relying too much on the working class or being counter-productive after concessions made in Parliament.

Paris, 31/01/2023. Photo by Emma Carmichael.

Today, the protests have stopped, and the controversial reform has gone into law since September 1. However, it does not mean that Emmanuel Macron managed to weather the storm. His popularity is at an all-time low, with a 68% disapproval rating. The senatorial elections held on September 24 displayed a weakened presidential party, losing a third of its seats at the expense of the right and Horizon, Edouard Phillip’s centrist party and growing opponent. These results demonstrate disapproval and division among Emmanuel Macron’s forces.

Paris, 23/03/2023. Photo by Emma Carmichael.

Better Late than Never

Domestic politics did not get in the way of the visit. Now that the country is somewhat at rest, Emmanuel Macron welcomed the King in the most glorious way. The government hosted a lavish dinner in the Hall of Mirrors at the Chateau de Versailles. French and British celebrities were convened, creating unexpected sitting plans. Hugh Grant; Charlotte Gainsbourg and Mike Jagger dining next to Gérard Larcher, president of the French Senate.

French media criticised these spendings for being out of touch at a time when households struggle to face the ongoing economic crisis.

During these receptions, both Emmanuel Macron and King Charles III underlined the depth of the Franco-British relationship. It is an important time for the two countries’ friendship. Following the Franco-British summit held in March between the President and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, France and the United Kingdom will celebrate the 120th birthday of the Entente Coridale (cordial agreement) next year.

The United Kingdom is presenting itself closer than ever to the European Union. Visiting first France and Germany sets a powerful symbol. Since he arrived in office, Rishi Sunak signed many agreements with Brussel. The United Kingdom and the EU finally agreed on post-Brexit trade rules with Northern Ireland, acting on the Windsor Framework. Several financial and defence cooperation plans have also been agreed. These steps open a new chapter for the United Kingdom and its European neighbours.

Still, France and Britain’s relationship plummeted in the past years, following a series of diplomatic incidents. From Boris Johnson’s “Prenez un grip and donnez moi un break over the AUKUS submarine deal to Liz Truss’s doubts about France being a “friend or foe; the Frenchies and the Brits went through a rough patch. Less than two years ago, Boris Johnson was about to send the British Royal Navy to the French seas after a fishing disagreement. No-deal seemed to be the only option between the Brexiteer and the pro-EU Emmanuel Macron.

Nevertheless, Rishi Sunak’s arrival in office set a new tone to the relations with France and the EU, advocating for closer ties with its European counterparts. The new Prime Minister is also insisting on the importance of a strong cross-Chanel relationship. France remains the closest European country to the UK; both in distance and history.

Is it Only Talk?

This visit has been a success. Both sides advocated for collaboration and trust, moving away from past disagreements. Emmanuel Macron’s tactile habitude might have broken the royal protocol, but his hospitality showed a strong friendship between the two countries.

King Charles addressed the French Senate on the third day of his visit; being the first-ever British monarch to do so. He described France and Great Britain as “neighbours, friends, partners and allies”. He confirmed his “unequivocal support to Ukraine” and paid tribute to the legacy of his mother.

Following his personal commitment to the environmental cause, the King addressed ecological issues and called for deeper and rapid change. He suggested a new Entente Cordiale with France to tackle “the most existential challenge of all” : climate change and global warming.

The irony is striking. The day before, Rishi Sunak announced a radical U-turn in green policies. The Prime Minister decided to ban petrol and diesel cars from 2030, five years later than the plan set out by the EU. The ban on gas boilers will also be pushed back from 2025 to 2035. Such measures were implemented to limit the economic burden on households but are truly aimed at winning voters in the next general election.

Rishi Sunak’s conference announcing changes on Britain climate change targets. London, 20/09/2023. Photo by Emma Carmichael.

This announcement completely overshadowed the visit of the King in the British media. A symbol of changing times, environmental issues caught the public eye in a much greater way. While climate change is at the centre of people’s daily lives and future, the Crown seems to be further away from these concerns.

In both cases, France and the United Kingdom have set aside domestic politics for a moment suspended in time, or maybe stuck in it. Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron and King Charles III warmed up the Franco-British friendship, showing admiration and respect. The King brought rugby into this diplomatic matter and gracefully ended: “Pas de coups bas, et que le meilleur gagne!” (no low blow, let the best win). In the end, Frenchies and Brits are lovers, not fighters.  

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