King Charles France visit could have had echoes of 1789, says ex-ambassador

<span>Photograph: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

King Charles’s state visit to France and a banquet at the Palace of Versailles could have had “echoes” of the French Revolution, according to a former British ambassador to France.

Peter Ricketts, who was Britain’s envoy in France from 2012 to 2016, said the dinner would have been poorly timed, coming during widespread protests against the French president, Emmanuel Macron’s, plans to change the pension system and raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

The visit was postponed on Friday as the revolt continued. On Thursday night 441 police officers were injured in violent protests, and 903 fires had to be put out by French firefighters. A total of 457 people were arrested. A visit could instead take place at the start of the summer.

The king and queen consort were due to visit Bordeaux on Tuesday. Demonstrators set fire to its 18th-century front door earlier this week. There was concern protesters would target the Palace of Versailles, where a dinner was due to be held.

The trappings of a state visit by King Charles amid violent clashes between protesters and police over the changes would have evoked a resemblance with the French Revolution of the 18th century.

The revolt over living standards in comparison to the extravagance of the court of Louis XVI resulted in the monarchy being overthrown, a republic established, and his wife, Marie Antoinette, and others executed.

Related: ‘Democracy is broken’: French public divided on pensions and protests

Lord Ricketts said: “The fact that there are now these violent protests which seem to be growing made, in particular, the idea of a banquet in Versailles a particularly bad idea. That had all kinds of echoes from the past going back to the revolution.

“Bordeaux looked to be difficult as well for the visit the king was planning to make. So, as it turned out, the circumstances were not right, in which case it is right to postpone.”

Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to the UK, said images of King Charles travelling through Paris and the grandeur of a state visit “would not have been good”.

Bermann, who was ambassador between 2014 and 2017 said it would be frustrating for Macron’s government to have to postpone the visit, with Charles due to arrive on Sunday, amid improving relations between the two countries.

A £500m deal was struck earlier in March between Britain and France to fund a detention centre in northern France as part of a move to stop refugees trying to cross the Channel in small boats.

“It was impossible,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “Not only because of security but because it wouldn’t have been the best conditions. “It is true that the dinner in Versailles would not have given a good image while there is unrest in France.”

In a statement on Friday, Buckingham Palace said: “The king and the queen consort’s state visit to France has been postponed. Their majesties greatly look forward to the opportunity to visit France as soon as dates can be found.”

The Élysée statement said it hoped to welcome the king “in conditions that correspond our friendly relations” and that the visit would be rescheduled “as soon as possible”.

“From the moment last night when the unions announced a new day of mobilisation on Tuesday and the king’s visit was scheduled for Monday to Wednesday, I think it would not be serious and would lack a certain common sense to propose to his majesty the king and queen consort to come on a state visit in the midst of demonstrations,” Macron said.

“As we have much friendship, respect and esteem for his majesty the king and queen consort and the British people, I took the initiative and called him to tell him the situation and the announcement of a new day of action and good sense and friendship led us to propose a postponement.”

The king and queen consort’s state visit to Germany, which had been due to take place after the French tour, is understood to be going ahead as planned.