King Charles greeted in France with pomp, diplomacy on state visit

French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain's King Charles attend a state dinner in the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces) at the Chateau de Versailles (Versailles Palace) in Versailles, near Paris, on the first day of their State visit to France, September 20, 2023. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/Pool
French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain's King Charles attend a state dinner in the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces) at the Chateau de Versailles (Versailles Palace) in Versailles, near Paris, on the first day of their State visit to France, September 20, 2023. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/Pool
Britain's King Charles arrived in France on Wednesday for a three-day state visit, during which he and President Emmanuel Macron built on symbolism and personal bonds to turn the page on years of rocky relations between the two nations.

The king and his wife, Queen Camilla, were the guests of honour at a state dinner in the 17th-century Versailles palace, where blue lobster and a selection of French and English cheeses were on the menu.

“Despite Brexit and because our ties are so old, I know that we will continue to write together part of our continent’s history,” Macron said in a toast.

More than 150 guests were invited to the banquet at the sumptuous palace, including British actor Hugh Grant, rock star Mick Jagger, French billionaire Bernard Arnault and former Arsenal football coach Arsene Wenger.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne welcomes Britain’s King Charles and Britain’s Queen Camilla upon their arrival at the Orly Airport on September 20, 2023, on the first day of a state visit to France. 

Earlier, Charles and Camilla were greeted on arrival at Paris’ Orly airport by French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, before heading to a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, where they paid tribute to French and British soldiers who died in two world wars.

They then drove down the Champs-Elysees avenue in a French DS car, waving at the thin crowds that had gathered along the tree-lined boulevard. At one point, Charles and Macron stood up through the open roof of the car to wave.

“I like the royal family, because it’s something out of reach, it makes you dream, they have a special status. And also for the gossip!” said Rozalie Zackova, a 28-year-old Czech who works in marketing in Paris.

King Charles III with French President Emmanuel Macron as they walk from the Elysee Palace, Paris, to the British Ambassador’s Residence, during the state visit to France. 

The visit comes as French and British citizens feel the pinch of inflation at multi-decade highs, and the dinner at Versailles, a symbol of privilege, has been criticised by some as insensitive.

“The French complain all the time, anyway,” shrugged Marie-Noelle Ahanso, a 62-year-old employee, whose only complaint was that Charles was not driving down the Champs-Elysees in a carriage – which she said would have allowed well-wishers to see him better.

French President Emmanuel Macron, his wife Brigitte Macron, Britain’s King Charles and Queen Camilla toast during a state dinner in the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces) at the Chateau de Versailles (Versailles Palace) in Versailles, near Paris, on the first day of their State visit to France, September 20, 2023. 

On Thursday, Charles, Camilla, Macron and his wife Brigitte will visit the Notre-Dame cathedral to view restoration works following a massive blaze in 2019 that destroyed its roof.

Charles and Camilla will then head to the southwestern city of Bordeaux on Friday, where excursions will include a visit to an organic vineyard.

The king, a fluent French speaker like his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth, is keen to walk in her footsteps and referred to Elizabeth’s deep affection for France, with the trip also being a chance to rebuild ties that have been frayed by Britain’s chaotic exit from the EU in 2020.

“We must reinvigorate our friendship so that it is up to the challenges of the 21st century,” Charles said in a toast at the banquet.

‘Entente Renewed’ 

“He’s an authentic francophile,” Adelaide de Clermont-Tonnerre, editor-in-chief of French celebrity magazine Point de Vue, told Reuters. “His mother was an icon, she had become Europe’s grandmother. Charles had a more polarising life.”

Charles had hoped for a state visit to France to have been his first as king, but a March trip was postponed due to tense protests in France over pension reforms, much to Macron’s embarrassment.

French President Emmanuel Macron toasts with Britain’s King Charles during a state banquet at the Palace of Versailles

On their second attempt at meeting in France, the 74-year-old king and the 45-year-old president set out to build on a relationship already bolstered by their communications over Notre-Dame. Charles had written to Macron when the cathedral burnt down, and the pair also share interests in climate and heritage, royal aides and royal watchers said.

“They’re both intellectuals, erudite men,” Clermont-Tonnerre said. “And they both had to impose an unconventional, much-decried love story.”

Camilla, 76, Charles’s second wife after the much-loved and popular Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris in 1997, will launch a new book prize in Paris with the French president’s wife.

The warm words, visits and symbolic gestures come after several tense years over the negotiation of Britain’s exit in 2020 from the European Union, and after that, rows over issues ranging from immigration to the sale of submarines.

Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss once said the jury was out on whether France was a friend or foe, before settling on calling it a friend last year. Her successor, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, visited France in March to kick off what he called an “entente renewed”.

Still, some Parisians remained sceptical about the visit.

“He’s just the son, they are old already, we don’t have a long history,” said 88-year-old Mireille Mauve.

Fifteen-year-old Alexia Aubert said: “I think since Elizabeth died, the royal family isn’t as important as it was.”

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