The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge arrived for a whirlwind tour of Paris on Friday, the first official visit the royal couple has made to the French capital. It is also the first time Prince William has been in the city on an official engagement since his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car crash almost 20 years ago.
William and Catherine flew to the city in a private jet from London and were immediately driven to the Elysée Palace for a meeting with French president François Hollande.
They were greeted on the steps of the palace by Hollande, who was flanked by two members of the Garde Republicaine. After posing for photographers, Hollande led them into the president’s residence.
The duchess was wearing the same green Catherine Walker coat she had worn at an earlier engagement in the UK, but had let her hair down.
Before they left, the president took them outside into the gardens of the palace for a second photocall, walking them down a sun-bathed terrace in front of the waiting cameras, stopping to chat occasionally as he pointed to items of interest.
The trip is part of a campaign of “soft” diplomacy aimed at forging links on the continent as Britain starts delicate and complicated Brexit negotiations.
Although there were no Union flags or red carpets – the French tricolour and the European Union flag were flying outside the Elysée, an aide said of the meeting: “They are very grateful that the president has invited them to the Elysée Palace for a meeting at the very start of their trip, which gives you an indication of the importance and status of the visit.”
The Cambridges were then driven 100 yards in a black Range Rover with the duke’s royal standard on its bonnet, for a reception at the British ambassador’s residence, where they met young entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, musicians and other selected guests. Here, William gave a speech to launch Les Voisins – The Neighbours – a year long celebration of Anglo-French links.
The duchess, wearing a black Alexander McQueen cocktail dress, smiled as her husband began speaking in French then switched to English saying: “And forgive me if I now continue in the language of Shakespeare, so as to reduce the risk of mangling the language of Molière.”
Speaking of historic, current and future links between the two countries, William made reference to Brexit.
“Like all neighbours, sometimes our two nations encourage each other through mutual support. Sometimes we attempt to outdo the other through rivalry – as we will see tomorrow when Wales play France at the rugby. But always our two nations continually inspire one another to become better: more creative, more prosperous, more innovative,” he told guests.
“This partnership will continue despite Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Union. The depth of our friendship and the breadth of our cooperation will not change.”
The duke spoke to a group of athletes, including Colonel Bertrand Gebuhrer, the leader of the French Invictus team, who managed to get himself confused about whether it was William or Harry who launched the Paralympic games for wounded servicemen and women.
After he suggested that it was William’s idea, the duke replied: “As much as it pains me, I have to give my brother credit for that.”
The duchess met Elizabeth Kesses, a British Paris-based author of books about body issues in young girls.
“We talked about how important these issues are for young girls and she said I should send her my book.”
On Friday evening, the Cambridges attended a glittering dinner hosted by the British ambassador Lord Edward Llewellyn with British and French guests, including actress Kristin Scott-Thomas, and French stars Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou.
On the menu: sole crown and Dublin Bay prawns, crayfish, braised leg of Welsh lamb with a seasonal vegetable garnish and roast potatoes with thyme, and an iced white and dark chocolate soufflé, butterscotch sauce with a pistachio and almond diamond shortbread. Embassy staff said the lamb was not being served with mint sauce.
Saturday they will visit Les Invalides, the French military hospital where they will meet two survivors of the Paris terror attacks as well as former French servicemen, and visit the Impressionists gallery at the Musée d’Orsay, before attending the France versus Wales Six Nations rugby match.
Royals and Anglo-French diplomacy
William and Kate are not the first royals to head to France amid diplomatic difficulties. Queen Elizabeth II’s first state visit there, in April 1957, coincided with the Suez Crisis.
Although the two nations were united in the opposition to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and their aim to regain western control of the Suez Canal, France’s failure to to inform Britain about the involvement of Israel until very close to the commencement of military action in late 1956 strained relations. The Queen’s official visit to President Coty sought to both soothe and reinforce the UK’s relationship with France.
The Queen’s second state visit in May 1972 was ironically an attempt by France rather than the United Kingdom to improve relations regarding UK’s entry into, rather than departure from, the European Economic Community. President Georges Pompidou’s new government was keen for friendlier dialogue with Britain, welcoming their membership of the EEC, which President De Gaulle had previously opposed. This would help to pave the way for Britain to do so the next year.
Against a backdrop of gathering menace in Europe in the 1930’s, the Queen’s father George VI made similar attempts to bolster Anglo-French relations with an official trip to France in 1938, which aimed to strategically emphasise the values of the two “liberal democracies” in the face of the threat from Nazi Germany.