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No red carpet: French unrest impacts King Charles III’s trip

French anger over their president’s resolve to increase the retirement age clouding visit
Protesters pass by the Montmartre Sacré-Coeur Basilica during a protest in Paris, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Macron said Wednesday that the pension bill he pushed through without a vote in parliament needs to be implemented by the “end of the year,” sticking to his decision to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 despite mass protests. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

Unrest in France is tarnishing the sheen of King Charles III’s first overseas trip as monarch, with striking workers refusing to provide red carpets amid pension reform protests and critics calling for the visit to be canceled altogether.

The British king is scheduled to undertake the trip beginning Sunday on behalf of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government, which hoped the glamour of a royal tour would underscore efforts to rebuild Anglo-French ties that were frayed by the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union.

But anger over French President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve to increase the retirement age by two years 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,” Paris-based writer Stephen Clarke, the author of “Elizabeth II, Queen of Laughs,” said.

With piles of uncollected garbage lining the French capital’s boulevards, observers say the optics could not be worse – for both Charles and his host Macron.

French labor union CGT union announced this week that its members at Mobilier National, the institution in charge of providing flags, red carpets and furniture for public buildings, would not help prepare 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, has said non-striking workers would set up the necessary accouterments for the trip.

Months in the making, Charles’ March 26-29 trip with Queen Consort Camilla 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,” author Clarke said. The lavish Versailles, once the dazzling center of royal Europe, is a potent symbol of social inequalities and excess.

Macron is facing a public backlash for opting to adopt a bill raising the retirement age to age 64 without a vote in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament. Some opponents accuse the president of being out-of-touch, and Charles has come in for 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. Demonstrators clashed with police on the cobblestones there over a previous pension reform bill in 2020.

The unrest and demands for Charles 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 there threw eggs in his direction.

The French have maintained a love-hate relationship with kings ever since they guillotined King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. 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 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 her staff turn light bulbs off in Buckingham Palace to save on electricity.

“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 that 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.

Regional officials are effusive about receiving the British royals, a stark contrast to the reception Charles and Camilla could prepare for 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 King Charles.

“In Paris, they do politics. But, here in Bordeaux, we like Charles because we share the same strong commitments to sustainability.”

—Thomas Adamson, The Associated Press

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