LONDON – King Charles III’s international debut was deflated Friday when his trip to France was postponed indefinitely because of protests that threatened to mar events at high profile venues such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Palace of Versailles.
While Charles will still travel to Germany on Wednesday, the decision to bypass France removes some of the sparkle from his first overseas trip as monarch, originally planned as a six-day, celebration of Britain’s links with its biggest European allies.
But with protesters promising to target royal events as they demonstrate against French President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age, planners had little choice but to cancel a visit that could have embarrassed the king.
“It is a great shame because it was the first state visit of the king’s reign and much thought would have been given as to who should have that honor,” said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine.
Macron said Friday that he had asked for the visit to be delayed out of “common sense and friendship” because the likelihood of protests created a “detestable situation.” Buckingham Palace said Charles and Camilla, the queen consort, would travel to France “as soon as dates can be found.”
But decoupling the two visits dilutes one of the original goals of the trip — highlighting the British government’s efforts to improve relations with the European Union after six years of squabbling over Brexit.
The French leg of the tour, in particular, was an opportunity for Britain to underscore the progress Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made after the antagonism fanned by his predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, said Ed Owens, an expert on Britain’s royal family who lives in France.
During his six months in office, Sunak has reached an agreement with the EU to resolve the long-running dispute over post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland and signed a deal with Macron to try to stop migrants from crossing the English Channel in flimsy inflatable boats.
“What we would have seen with this visit, ideally, was the two heads of state of two democracies coming together in recognition of their shared values, their desire to work together, to cooperate,” Owens said. “And at a time when there is war in Eastern Europe, at a time when we are witnessing the rise of an authoritarian China, that kind of symbolism … is powerful.”
But postponing the trip was the “least bad option” amid protests that have disrupted public services and left the streets of Paris choked with uncollected garbage, said Owens, author of the “The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-1953.
Demonstrators had said they intended to protest at royal events, including the welcoming ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe and a state dinner at the palace of Versailles. In addition, labor unions have called for nationwide strikes and protests on Tuesday, which would have complicated security and travel arrangements for the royal couple’s trip to the western city of Bordeaux that day.
That meant the new monarch’s first big overseas trip would have played out against an ugly backdrop, said Robert Lacey, a historian and author of several books on the royal family. The risk for Charles was that an event designed to highlight his importance as Britain’s head of state could instead have made him look weak and insensitive toward the concerns of French workers.
As an example of how important the optics of such visits can be, Lacey drew a parallel with Prince William and the Princess of Wales' tour of the Caribbean last year, which was marred by images of people of color restrained by a chain link fence as the royal couple walked past.
The royals, in essence, need state visits to be accompanied by adoring crowds to show that they are being welcomed by the host nation. That couldn’t be guaranteed in France.
“The crowd can cheer,” Lacey said. “But the crowd can boo, too.″
But all is not lost for Charles.
The German portion of the trip is going ahead, and it includes a full schedule of state events and more intimate appearances designed to showcase his role as head of state and highlight the causes he holds dear, like sustainability and the environment, before his coronation on May 6.
Charles and Camilla will now start their trip on Wednesday in Berlin, where German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will welcome them at the historic Brandenburg Gate.
On Thursday, the king is scheduled to give a speech to the Bundestag, meet Chancellor Olaf Scholz and talk to Ukrainian refugees and military. He goes to Hamburg on Friday, where he will visit the Kindertransport memorial for Jewish children who fled from Germany to Britain during the Third Reich, and attend a green energy event before returning to the U.K.
Speaking before the French leg of the trip was cancelled, royal expert Arianne Chernock said the state visits would help people understand that Charles is now king.
“We’re still growing accustomed to Charles in this new role,’’ said Chernock, a professor of modern British history at Boston University. “This visit provides him with that platform to become more familiar to us, to establish himself as King Charles III, and again, in a way that will set the tone for the coronation and demonstrate, I think, that he has a seriousness, a capacity for engaging on really substantive issues that will serve him well, potentially, in his role.”