This is what you call taking a country by storm. King Charles and Queen Camilla’s state visit to Paris and then Bordeaux was always going to be a feast of bons mots and cordiality. Such is the rule of this diplomatic game. However, on a Richter scale of affability, Britain and France’s heads of state scored high. After all, France was one of the countries Queen Elizabeth II most visited during her long reign, and where she enjoyed five state visits. The affection runs deep.
If there ever was a rule that said one should not touch the monarch, that rule died in the streets of Paris on Wednesday afternoon. Or perhaps, a new rule was born: only a French president can touch the British sovereign. They didn’t go as far as their wives, who were on cheek-kissing terms at first sight, but Emmanuel Macron and the king were very often seen touching each other’s backs and arms during the couple of days they spent together. This didn’t feel like misplaced familiarity, but rather warm affinity between the two men. A most welcome change after the disastrous Boris Johnson and Liz Truss episodes, which saw the bilateral relationship between our governments sink deeper and deeper.
France, just like Britain, does pomp and ceremony with exceptional finesse. There were several memorable moments during this state visit, memorable precisely because they weren’t necessarily planned and choreographed in advance. It is often the unscripted that remains in history books and our collective memory. For instance, under the Arc de Triomphe, singers of the French army choir sang God Save the King the way they usually sing La Marseillaise: a cappella, with a certain soldierly vigour that is strikingly different from the way it is sung in Britain. I bet Charles was a little shaken by such an unexpectedly stirring rendition.
A few hours later, it was our turn to be taken aback. In the streets near the Elysée palace, Macron and Charles greeted members of the public who had been waiting to get a glimpse of them. Many started shouting “Vive le Roi!”: a phrase last heard in France more than 150 years ago. I felt a kind of mental vertigo. And from the depth of history, I suddenly remembered that we, too, could have been a constitutional monarchy, had the revolution gone in another direction. We, regicide people, were shouting “Vive le Roi!”. Incredible. Then, there was this masterful dinner in the hall of mirrors at Versailles, where Mick Jagger, Ken Follett, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Arsène Wenger, Hugh Grant, Patrick Vieira and Christopher Hampton, among others, rubbed shoulders and raised their glasses to our unassailable entente.
The festivities went on. The daily newspaper Libération dedicated its front page to “Charly in Paris”, while TV cameras caught Brigitte Macron and the Queen playing ping-pong during a visit to a sports complex in Saint-Denis. Very Jacques Tati. Of course, far more important things were happening on the Ukrainian front, in Libya, in Lampedusa and at the general assembly of the UN. This state visit, however, wasn’t all about chit-chat and evening gowns. Biodiversity and the climate crisis were discussed at length by Macron and the king, and featured heavily in the monarch’s speeches, like the one he delivered in front of French parliamentarians, an honour given for the first time to a British sovereign. Too bad it came as Rishi Sunak announced his volte-face on net zero. The cruel irony wasn’t lost in Paris, of course. And images of Charles III on a planned visit to the devastated Dune du Pilat near Bordeaux, ravaged by fire last year, will certainly jar with Downing Street watering down its green policies.
High diplomacy and state visits trade in symbols, rather than hard currency, but the king’s visit to France offered a much-needed boost to bilateral relations. As Le Monde’s editorial stated, Brexit operated like “a slow fragmentation bomb, provoking both a historical institutional rupture and a feeling of estrangement, disdain even” on the part of Britain towards Europe. Today, the “tightening of our ties, loosened by Brexit, is an absolute imperative, it is also a political battle that implies constancy and coherence”. Let’s hope Charles briefs Sunak at their next weekly meeting. One lives in hope.
Agnès Poirier is a political commentator, writer and critic for the British, American and European press