UK’s ‘reset with EU’ in disarray as King’s France visit is cancelled

The entrance to the city hall in Bordeaux burns during protests in France. Violent clashes have forced Emmanuel Macron to cancel the King's state visit - Ugo Amez/Sipa/Shutterstock
The entrance to the city hall in Bordeaux burns during protests in France. Violent clashes have forced Emmanuel Macron to cancel the King's state visit - Ugo Amez/Sipa/Shutterstock

The King’s first state visit has been cancelled, overshadowing attempts to use the trip to reset UK-European relations post-Brexit.

The three-day visit, which had been due to begin on Monday, was postponed at the eleventh hour by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, owing to increasingly violent clashes over his decision to force through pension reforms.

The tour of Paris and Bordeaux was designed as part of the Government’s “wider strategy” to foster historic ties with Europe. It was due to coincide with the formal adoption of the Windsor Framework, the new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, which was formally signed on Friday.

Amid the mounting chaos in France, Mr Macron was mocked after a video emerged of him subtly removing a luxury watch from his wrist during a key television interview on the reforms.

The prospect of the beleaguered Mr Macron dining alongside the royals at a lavish black-tie banquet at the Palace of Versailles amid the escalating revolt had become increasingly untenable. Commentators suggested that it would have been the president's “Marie Antoinette moment”.

Elysée sources are understood to have had concerns over the Palace's links to the revolt against Louis XVI, who was beheaded.

In one incident in Paris, graffiti was daubed on a wall reading: “Charles III do you know the guillotine?”

French intelligence reports warned that the royal tour would be targeted by protesters, suggesting that the King’s safety could not be guaranteed.

A leaked intelligence note warned that militants saw Mr Macron’s televised address last Wednesday, in which he stood by his pension reform, as an “act of war”.

The decision to postpone the tour, which was made by the French and British governments, was relayed to the King by Mr Macron in a “very cordial and constructive” telephone conversation on Friday morning.

The monarch had been widely expected to make the Commonwealth his priority after acceding to the throne, so a first overseas visit to France was considered particularly significant.

The King is known to believe Britain should keep Europe close. He courted controversy last month for meeting Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission President, at Windsor Castle on the day that Rishi Sunak’s new deal with Brussels was agreed.

Mr Macron is also considered key to the success of the Prime Minister’s priority of tackling immigration.

The Government is set to make another key move in its mission to end the flow of small boats across the Channel next week, announcing that migrants will be removed from hotels and relocated to military bases, with plans to also use ferries.

The King will continue with his planned two-day visit to Germany, which is due to start on Wednesday, although the schedule remains under review. The France visit is likely to be rescheduled for the beginning of summer.

Buckingham Palace sources played down any suggestion that His Majesty was frustrated with the abrupt postponement of the first leg of the tour, insisting that he simply follows the advice of the Government.

However, Lord Soames, the former Tory MP for Mid Sussex, who is a close personal friend of the King, said: “Clearly he will be very disappointed by this but very understanding of President Macron's position.

“An enormous effort has gone into the planning of this trip on both sides - the Royal family are not unaware of that. The German leg will still go ahead, which is very important, and the French leg will have to wait.”

Sir Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to France, said he thought the decision to postpone the first state visit of the King's reign was unprecedented.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that he was “not entirely surprised” at the decision, but agreed it was a “big deal”.

He said that he expected the King to be disappointed about the decision, given his fondness for the country.

Sir Peter said: “I know that he was very much looking forward to this visit. He has been to France 35 times officially, never mind a whole lot of private visits.

“He speaks French – you’ll hear him when the time comes making speeches in French, which I’m sure he will do beautifully.

“He’s very attached to the country. He’ll be saddened but he’ll get on with life, of course, there is no choice.”

Visit cancelled 'out of friendship and respect'

Mr Macron said that after unions announced a fresh wave of protests next Tuesday, it became obvious that continuing with the royal visit “lacked a certain dose of common sense”.

He said he had asked for the visit to be postponed “out of friendship and respect”.

Mr Macron suggested the new date for the King’s visit to France would be in the “early summer” and that it should be under conditions that will allow the monarch to “enjoy France”.

A well-placed Elysée source told The Telegraph that the visit was under discussion for several weeks and that “various options” had been considered as both sides tried to thrash out a way to make it work.

A presidential source admitted that it was “a shame” the visit had been abandoned.

“It was a moment for coming together in the wake of the Franco-British summit [of March 10], which was a great success,” said the source.

Christian Cambon - the Right-wing chairman of the Senate foreign affairs and defence committee from the Republicans party - said the visit would have marked “a new stage in Franco-British relations since Brexit”, warning that the protests offered an “appalling image of France abroad”.