King Charles III’s first international trip as British monarch is off to a rocky start and it hasn’t even begun yet. Downing Street announced Friday that the new head of state will no longer travel to France as pension reform protests in the country have spiraled 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 ending the trip in Hamburg on Friday. In France, they were due 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 observed some of the worst violence since protests—which have ramped up since Macron forced through his pension reform plan earlier this month—began in January, and another protest is planned on 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 going ahead. In a statement, a spokesperson said: “Their Majesties greatly look forward to the opportunity to visit France as soon as dates can be found.”
According to the Elysée Palace, Macron reportedly told the King Friday morning that the state visit would be rescheduled “so that his majesty will be welcomed in conditions which correspond [to] our friendly relationship”.
Read More: What to Know About Pension Reform in France
The trip was planned in an effort by the British government to soothe post-Brexit tensions, which had been strained since Britain left the European Union in 2020. When the trip was announced at the start of 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 was the state visit taking place?
Charles and Camilla’s diplomatic visit was arranged by the British government to strengthen the U.K.’s strained relations 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, trade and investment opportunities, and arts and culture.
According to a report by Chatham House, Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government doesn’t see the merit in upholding the negative relations previous administrations had with E.U. members and it has avoided personality clashes seen with previous leadership. “Time has also healed some Brexit wounds on the continent,” the report stated, “with the UK departure from the EU now simply being accepted as a reality by European interlocutors.”
King Charles is an “ideal choice” for efforts to improve relations with E.U. members after Brexit, says James Strong, a 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 “tainted” by Brexit since he was not involved in the decision making, Strong notes.
“He won’t be able to solve the thorny political issues that Brexit continues to throw up. But he can help rebuild positive feelings towards Britain and the British,” Strong says, 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 age of retirement increased from 62 to 64.
Some cities demonstrated peacefully but violence broke out in Paris with some protesters throwing stones and fireworks at police. Around 457 people were arrested Thursday, while 441 security forces were reported injured. Bordeaux’s town hall was also set on fire Thursday. Firefighters were later able to extinguish the blaze.
Read More: Protests Sweep France After Pension Reform Is Forced Through by Macron
In an interview with French broadcasters Wednesday, Macron defended his decision saying “That reform is not a luxury, it is 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 a pushy person in his own way. And he made sure at the Queen’s funeral that he was going to nail down Charles for the first state visit to France, the traditional Frenemy of Britain,” says Clare McHugh, a royal historian and author. Just 12 days after Queen Elizabeth’s death on September 8, the Daily Telegraph reported that Macron and Charles had bonded over environmental causes and a first state visit to France was expected above a Commonwealth destination.
But McHugh says Macron would likely have felt uncomfortable hosting Charles for lavish banquets at Versailles and other excursions amid public dissatisfaction. Postponing the trip while “people are disputing in the streets about what the modern society in France should look like” seems to be for the best, she says.
What does this mean for King Charles?
While the state visit is not off the cards, and merely postponed, it’s an unfortunate change to a historic first for Charles as monarch. McHugh says that Charles has “poor luck” and would be the first to admit it.
Strong says that, while unfortunate, it could ultimately work to Charles’ advantage: “The King does relationship-building, not deal-making,” he says. “He can go another time, and he’ll have more impact in calmer times when he’ll generate more media coverage.”
Charles still has an opportunity to make an impact on the international stage when he arrives in Germany with the Queen Consort on Wednesday. Their schedule includes a ceremonial welcome by President Steinmeier and First Lady Elke Büdenbender at the Brandenburg Gate, a state banquet hosted by the pair, meetings with Ukrainian refugees, and a visit to the Komische Oper opera house.
“France’s loss is Germany’s gain and he’s immensely popular there,” says Hugo Vickers, a royal commentator, “I’m sure he will be immensely welcomed there.”
McHugh believes the trip now has a deeper symbolic meaning because it brings the British monarchy back to its German roots, which she says were severed by the two World Wars.
“Maybe this will be a moment when the German connection will be revived,” she says.
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