PARIS – Unrest in France is tarnishing the sheen of King Charles III's first overseas trip as U.K. monarch, with striking workers literally refusing to roll out a red carpet amid pension reform protests and calls for the visit to be canceled altogether.
Charles is scheduled to undertake the trip beginning Sunday on behalf of U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government, which hoped a glamorous royal tour would underscore efforts to rebuild Anglo-French ties that were frayed by Brexit.
But anger over French President Emmanuel Macron's resolve to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 are clouding what was meant to be a show of bonhomie and friendship. Instead, Charles' visit is being seen as an unnecessary display of hereditary privilege.
“It’s very bad timing. Normally the French would welcome a British king. But in this moment, people protesting are on high alert for any sign of privilege and wealth,” said Paris-based writer Stephen Clarke, the author of “Elizabeth II, Queen of Laughs.”
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin gave reassurances Thursday night that the king will be safe during his French stay. He spoke after a day of nationwide protest marches, some marred by violence, notably in the French capital.
The visit “poses no problem,” Darmanin said. "King Charles will be welcomed and welcomed well, of course, by France.”
With piles of uncollected garbage lining the French capital's once-pristine boulevards, observers say the optics could not be worse — for both Charles and Macron.
French labor union CGT announced this week that its members at Mobilier National, the institution in charge of providing red carpets, flags and furniture for public buildings, would snub a Sunday reception for the king upon his arrival in Paris.
“We ask our administration to inform the services concerned that we will not provide furnishings, red carpets or flags,” a CGT statement read.
The Elysee Palace, the French president's official residence, said that nonstriking workers would set up the necessary accouterments for the trip instead.
Months in the making, Charles' posh itinerary with Queen Consort Camilla for the March 26-29 trip includes a visit to the Musee d’Orsay, a wreath-laying ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe and a lavish dinner at the former royal residence, the Versailles Palace.
“They’re planning on going to Versailles. It does not look good. This seems very 1789,” Clarke said. The opulent Versailles, once the dazzling center of royal Europe and a focal point of the French Revolution, is an enduring symbol of social inequalities and excess.
Macron is facing a backlash for pushing through a bill raising the retirement age without a parliamentary vote. Some opponents accuse the president of being out of touch, and Charles hasn't been spared from similar criticism as protests continued this week.
“Unbelievable! We are going to have Emmanuel Macron, the Republican monarch, welcoming King Charles III in Versailles... while the people in the street are demonstrating,” Sandrine Rousseau, a lawmaker from France's Green Party, told French channel BFM TV. “Of course” the king should cancel his visit, she added.
To limit the potential for disruptions to the royal dinner, security is expected to be very tight around Versailles. In 2020, demonstrators clashed with police on its regal cobblestones amid a previous pension reform bill.
The unrest and demands for Charles to stay away are certain to cause disquiet in London. When he was on a walkabout in York, England, in November, someone in a crowd of angry protesters threw eggs in his direction.
The French have maintained a love-hate relationship with kings ever since they guillotined King Louis XVI in 1793. Queens have typically fared better since then. Queen Elizabeth II, Charles' mother, was a hugely popular figure in France, the European country she visited the most before her death last year.
Elizabeth, who spoke fluent French, made five state visits to France, in 1957, 1972, 1992, 2004 and 2014, as well as unofficial and private visits. Her son now wears the crown, but some say that he remains in her shadow.
“The problem with Charles is that he is not the queen. She was very loved here,” Paris resident Geraldine Duberret, 62, said. “Charles does not have such a good reputation here. He seems a bit spoiled.”
The celebrity press in France recently focused on unconfirmed rumors that the king would travel with excessive numbers of servants, comparing him to his late mother, who famously insisted that her staff turn off lightbulbs in Buckingham Palace to save energy.
“This visit was a chance for Charles to relaunch himself in the eyes of the French,” Clarke said. “It could have been like a blank canvas, but he will likely not be able to have the impact he would have wished.”
Charles does command some respect in France for his environmental activism. The king and queen consort plan to tour areas of France's Bordeaux region, which last year were ravaged by wildfires widely blamed on global warming.
The couple's time in southwest France also gives them a chance to see vineyards and to taste the region’s famous wines, including a planned stop at Bordeaux’s Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, a vineyard and winemaker.
It was unclear whether he would pass by Bordeaux city hall, whose heavy wooden door was burned down Thursday night by troublemakers after a protest march against Macron's pension bill.
Regional officials are effusive about receiving the U.K. royals, a stark contrast to the reception Charles and Camilla could expect in Paris.
“It’s very touching that Charles plans to come to Bordeaux. We have a very strong relationship — and historic — with the U.K. The region stayed English for three centuries. It’s in our DNA,” said Cecile Ha of the Bordeaux Wine Council.
Ha said winemakers in Bordeaux were “on the same page” as Charles, because the region boasts the most organic vineyards in France. About 75% of Bordeaux vineyards are certified to be environmentally friendly, she said.
“In Paris, they do politics. But, here in Bordeaux, we like Charles, because we share the same strong commitments to sustainability.”
Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.
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