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Ententes cordiales

The King causes controversy

Artillery Row

At church on Sunday morning the prayers of intercession rather strikingly included a petition for civil peace in France. The central London parish I was attending prides itself on its tasteful liturgy and discerning good sense, and so these prayers don’t tend to be — as in some churches — a regular regurgitation of the Today Programme’s daily headlines. It felt extraordinary to have prayers for an end to serious unrest in a neighbouring Western European democracy. The only other newsworthy Sunday rogation was for the bereaved and displaced in Ukraine.

The situation in France at the moment is extraordinary indeed. Last week saw sustained mass-protest and strike action against President Macron. According to Le Monde, last Thursday there were over a million protestors on the streets. The entrance to Bordeaux’s Hôtel de Ville — the Palais Rohan, constructed shortly before the Revolution — was set alight by the mob.

The protests are a furious response to Macron’s policy of raising the French retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four. More controversial than the reform itself was the decision to use article 49.3 of the Fifth Republic’s constitution, allowing the government of prime minister Élisabeth Borne to enact the legislation by executive decree and without parliamentary approval.

To be forced by civil unrest to postpone the visit of a foreign head of state is a disgrace

France’s presidential constitution provides for this, subject to a no-confidence motion in the Assemblée Nationale. The government survived two no-confidence votes, one tabled by cross-party opponents and one by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. The former motion only failed by a slim nine votes.

Macron’s popularity has nosedived in France. He was already, of course, a President many had voted for simply to avoid a Le Pen victory in the second round of the 2022 election. In his first term he faced down a long, attritional campaign by the gilets jaunes. But the scale and intensity of the present protests seems to have taken the Élysée by surprise.

There is a British dimension to this dissension. As part of the British government’s attempts to gingerly repair relations with European allies, France was to be the recipient of the King’s first state visit abroad as Sovereign. The King and Queen had been expected in France from Sunday to Wednesday, visiting Paris and Bordeaux. Towards the end of the last week, the Élysée called off the visit.

The crowning event of Their Majesties’ visit was to be a dinner at Versailles. Even before the cancellation of the state visit, Gallic eyebrows had been archly raised at the prospect of President Macron — a man accused of haughty monarchical pretensions — being pictured dining in the most opulent palace of the ancien régime alongside the world’s best known actual King. 

Pas un good look, as the French don’t say.

Before the cancellation, the French unions had refused to transport the King by train to Bordeaux, or by tram within the city. This seems fair enough, both in terms of the general rules of industrial disputes and in terms of a prudent French caution about letting an English monarch into an unguarded Aquitaine. 

Less in keeping with the entente cordiale was Parisian graffiti demanding, “Charles III, do you know the guillotine?” The Telegraph reported that Macron’s aides worried that the royal visit would “scratch the revolutionary itch”. France, on its Fifth Republic, apparently cannot go too long without entertaining powerful mutinous impulses.

The cancellation of a state visit is almost unutterably embarrassing for President Macron. Granted, it is not currently top of his priorities: he still has to calm the maelstrom of French politics. But make no mistake, this is no merely cosmetic embarrassment. To be forced by civil unrest to postpone the visit of a foreign head of state is a disgrace. Macron cannot currently guarantee the success of state functions in his country.

One suspects that the French security authorities were nervous even about having to guarantee Their Majesties’ safety, and that of M. Macron, during planned public appearances.

The King will nonetheless go abroad this week, travelling to Germany on Wednesday. As guests of the Federal Republic, Their Majesties will attend a state dinner at the Schloß Bellvue. The King will become the first monarch to address the Bundestag, which he previously addressed as Prince of Wales in 2020.

The Sovereign when travelling abroad serves as the United Kingdom’s First Diplomat

It would be too easy to dismiss these state visits as so-much window dressing. They make more sense when it is understood that the Sovereign when travelling abroad serves as the United Kingdom’s First Diplomat. The Royal Family are instantly recognisable global figures, and non-partisan heads of state (whether monarchical or presidential) are key figures in symbolising friendships and alliances between countries at the state (as opposed to merely governmental) level.

This is particularly important at present. After the bumpy Brexit years, both British and European governments are keen to stress that the underlying relationships between the United Kingdom and our nearest neighbours remain strong. The vicissitudes of Brexit-era politics are not enough to shake the foundations of our alliance with France, or our longstanding friendship with postwar and reunited Germany.

On the governmental level, there has been a thaw in relations between the Sunak ministry and its European counterparts. The visceral untrustworthiness of the Johnson days appear to be behind us. Sunak wants to be seen as a competent and amiable technocrat, capable of playing the role of reliable diplomatic partner. Likewise, Macron no longer has a presidential election looming before him, and Olaf Scholz is firmly established as Bundeskanzler.

It is a positive sign that the King’s first trip abroad was to involve state visits to France and Germany. Some expected visits to the Commonwealth Realms, but these seem likely to occur after the Coronation. Choosing France and Germany sends a very welcome signal about the United Kingdom’s more realistic assessment of its place on the world stage: as an European Great Power.

Britain is not a superpower — it is neither the United States, nor is it quite comparable to a rising China — but it is a major wealthy, industrialised and militarily significant country. It is committed to the security of the European continent. Alongside France, it is one of the two major military powers in Western Europe. Even outside the EU, the safety and prosperity of Europe will depend on good relations between London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels.

It is regrettable that the King’s visit to France has been postponed, but this is unlikely to dent Franco-British relations. It is virtually certain that His Majesty will cross the Channel this later year. It is perhaps a reminder to Britons of the advantages of having a non-partisan head of state, acting as this country’s emissary-in-chief abroad, over and against a politicised presidency.

Regardless, it is to be welcomed — across the political spectrum, and regardless of views on Brexit — that Britain is conducting itself once again as a great European power. Que Dieu sauve le Roi, und Gott schütze den König. 

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