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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

King Charles making first state visit to France, with dinner at Versailles

By Karla Adam Washington Post

PARIS - King Charles III’s first state visit to France this week will include echoes of his mother’s many trips across the English Channel.

Like Queen Elizabeth II did in her day, he will process through the streets of Paris, plant a tree at the British ambassador’s residence and dine at the Palace of Versailles. On Thursday, also reminiscent of his mother, his planned stops include the Paris flower market, and he is expected to demonstrate his French language competence when he addresses the Senate.

But Charles is also a different sort of monarch, and these are different times.

Whereas Elizabeth, an avid horsewoman, liked to see stud farms in Normandy, Charles, a passionate climate advocate, will attend a roundtable on climate finance and biodiversity at the Museum of Natural History, witness the destruction in Gironde by wildfires and spend time at an organic vineyard that considers the cycles of the moon when tending its vines.

And whereas Elizabeth’s first state visit, in 1957, was a societal event - bringing hundreds of thousands of people onto sidewalks, balconies and rooftops to see her car pass through the streets of Paris - Charles’s trip seems to be eliciting more of a shrug.

This is actually take two of the visit. France was supposed to be Charles’s first foreign destination as king - a gesture of friendship from Britain after the rocky years of Brexit. But the original trip, planned for March, was postponed when France was convulsed in protests over a retirement age increase. The optics of hosting a king at Versailles might have presented a problem for French President Emmanuel Macron, already accused by his critics of being a monarchical figure.

But now France is relatively quiet, and the trip is back on, including the Wednesday dinner in the extravagant Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Macron’s office said that the king appreciated the nod to his mother - who had dined there on her second state visit, in 1972 - and that it was an opportunity to show off one of France’s most famous sites.

Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to France, said it was to be expected that the banquet was moving forward.

“Macron doesn’t think he has any reason to be ashamed of one of France’s most spectacular buildings. I’m not surprised that, once things calmed down, he wants to get back to using Versailles,” said Ricketts, who will be among the 150-plus guests in attendance.

But Quentin Peel, an associate fellow with the Europe Program at Chatham House, said Macron remained vulnerable to criticism in his role as host.

“He’s seen as distant and arrogant, and the difficult card he has to play with this visit, where here is a king coming, people might look back and say, ‘Look at Macron, he wants to be a king, just like him,’” Peel said.

Macron’s office emphasized that the greatest commonality between the British king and French president was an interest in climate issues. The preferred takeaway may be that Macron wants to save the planet, just like Charles.

On the British government side, the hope is that the new king can sprinkle a little royal stardust and deploy the kind of soft power that Elizabeth wielded so effectively during her reign.

Relations between Britain and France plummeted after the 2016 Brexit vote. The neighbors engaged in bitter diplomatic battles over immigration, submarine contracts and fishing rights. Liz Truss didn’t help matters when, while campaigning to be British leader, she said the “jury is out” on whether Macron was a friend or a foe.

But there has been an effort to reset relations under British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who like Macron has an investment banking background. The chumminess between them has been regarded as something of a budding bromance, though tensions over immigration linger. The government is counting on Charles to further mend ties.

“The British government’s hope is that this will help improve relations,” Ricketts said. “The French have a very special place in their hearts for the royals. I was ambassador there in 2014 when the queen came, and the outpouring of affection and respect for the queen was quite extraordinary in a republic.”

After the death last year of Elizabeth - who made five state visits and several private trips to France during her reign - Macron summed up the feelings of his nation when he said, “To you, she was your Queen. To us, she was The Queen.”

That affection lingers on: Touquet-Paris-Plage, a town in northern France, said it plans to rename its airport after the late queen.

But the intensity of the sentiment may not extend to Charles, who, in Britain, too, is less beloved than his mother was.

The first two days of the trip will take place in Paris. After arriving Wednesday afternoon, the king will attend a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, followed by a procession down the Champs-Élysées, a meeting with Macron and a stop at the British ambassador’s residence. The day will conclude with the dinner at Versailles, where blue lobster, Bresse poultry and French and British cheeses are on the menu.

On Thursday, Charles will address French lawmakers and then see restoration work underway at Notre Dame Cathedral. When he and Macron have spoken previously about the 2019 fire at Notre Dame, the king reportedly drew a comparison to the 1992 fire at Windsor Castle.

After Notre Dame, Charles will move on to the Museum of Natural History, where French officials have previewed that there may be announcements about new funding for climate and biodiversity projects.

Also on Thursday, Queen Camilla, who has long campaigned on literacy, and first lady Brigitte Macron will launch a Franco-British literary prize.

Charles will meet sports stars but won’t be attending the Rugby World Cup, which could have been tricky without appearing to favor a team. Britain has in the tournament England, Scotland and Wales.

On Friday, the focus will pivot to Bordeaux, where Charles will visit a tramline, communities affected by wildfires and the organic vineyard.

“The queen didn’t advertise her passions - she sort of symbolized duty,” Ricketts said. But Charles’s views on the environment, and the scheduled stops that highlight that interest, have the potential to make this “a new kind of state visit - in addition to the ceremonial stuff, there’s also an extra substantive side.”