President Emmanuel Macron yesterday hosted King Charles III for a glittering banquet at France’s former royal residence of the Palace of Versailles, as the British monarch kicked off a three-day state visit aimed at showing the underlying strength of cross-Channel ties even after Brexit.
The visit, which was rescheduled from March due to the violent protests against pension reform that rocked France at the time, also aims to showcase Charles’ stature as a statesman just over a year after the death of his mother and predecessor Queen Elizabeth II.
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.
Charles and Camilla were met outside the Versailles palace by Macron and his wife Brigitte, before going in to join other guests.
Guests at the dinner included luminaries ranging from the British rock legend Mick Jagger, the French former manager of the Arsenal football team Arsene Wenger and the world’s richest man, the luxury goods tycoon Bernard Arnault.
The menu will 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, who built Versailles.
Other dinner guests in the glittering Hall of Mirrors included English celebrity Hugh Grant and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the actor and daughter of French singer Serge Gainsbourg and British actor Jane Birkin.
It was here that on her first state visit to France in 1957, Elizabeth II lunched with president Rene Coty.
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.
Macron, who has faced accusations from left-wing opponents of himself behaving like a monarch, will be eager to ensure the event proceeds smoothly, without showing excess at a time of economic frugality.
“This image, in this context, is obviously fundamentally harmful for Emmanuel Macron even if there are diplomatic imperatives behind it which also play a role,” French author and academic Benjamin Morel told AFP.
Driven down the Champs-Elysees towards their talks at the Elysee Palace, Macron and the king were earlier seen chatting amicably while Camilla and Macron’s wife Brigitte followed behind in a similar vehicle.
After their talks at the Elysee, 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-Honore.
The French president, who has dealt with no fewer than four UK premiers over the last half-decade, is known to have a strong personal rapport with Charles.
Commentators in France excitedly noted how Macron had repeatedly touched Charles’s shoulder and Brigitte Macron kissed Camilla, in a new protocol unthinkable under the more distant and austere Elizabeth II.
With both men known for their love of books, Macron presented Charles with a book by the 20th-century French writer Romain Gary, while he received a special edition of Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais (“Letters on the English”).
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.
Charles will today make a keynote address to the French upper house Senate and also give a speech on the environment, long one of his most cherished causes. Tomorrow, on the final day, he will head to Bordeaux.
Britain’s Queen Camilla and her husband King Charles III and French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron arrive to attend a state banquet at the Palace of Versailles yesterday on the first day of a British royal state visit to France. (Reuters)