Charles III urges France, UK to ‘reinvigorate’ ties at lavish Versailles banquet

Charles III urges France, UK to ‘reinvigorate’ ties at lavish Versailles banquet
Charles III urges France, UK to ‘reinvigorate’ ties at lavish Versailles banquet

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Charles’ visit is seen as the follow-up to moves by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to reset relations between the two neighbours after post-Brexit turbulence. — AFP pic

VERSAILLES, Sept 21 — King Charles III yesterday issued a call for France and the UK to reinvigorate their relations, as President Emmanuel Macron hosted the British monarch for a glittering banquet at the Palace of Versailles on the first of a three-day state visit.

The visit, which was rescheduled from March due to the violent protests against pension reform that rocked France at the time, aims to showcase Charles’ stature as a statesman just over a year after the death of his mother and predecessor Queen Elizabeth II.

But it also gives both sides a chance to show that the almost 120-year-old Entente Cordiale remains alive and well, despite the sometimes bitter tensions created by Britain’s exit from the EU.

Guests at the dinner included luminaries ranging from the British rock legend Mick Jagger, the French former manager of the Arsenal football team Arsene Wenger, actor Hugh Grant and the French luxury goods billionaire Bernard Arnault.

It is “incumbent upon us all to reinvigorate our friendship to ensure it is fit for the challenge of this, the 21st century,” Charles said in a toast.

Although Charles did not directly reference the UK’s divisive departure from the European Union, he mentioned the two countries’ “long and complex history”.

“Our relations have of course not always been entirely straightforward,” he added, in a speech in both English and an accented but clearly-spoken French that impressed his hosts.

But he set out an optimistic vision of the Entente Cordiale, the pact between the two neighbours which was forged in 1904, calling it a “sustainable alliance”.

‘Meet challenges’

Macron for his part said that “despite Brexit... I know, your majesty, that we will continue to write part of the future of our continent together, to meet the challenges and to serve the causes we have in common.”

He described Charles’ visit as a “tribute to our past... and guarantee of the future”.

The menu included delicacies like blue lobster cooked as a starter by star chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who has said she was inspired by the tastes of the “Sun King” Louis XIV, who built the Palace of Versailles.

Other dinner guests in the glittering Hall of Mirrors included Charlotte Gainsbourg, the actor and daughter of French singer Serge Gainsbourg and British actor Jane Birkin.

In Charles’ speech he paid tribute to Birkin, an English-born actor who became a screen darling in France, describing her as the “most French of the British”.

It was in the Hall of Mirrors that on her first state visit to France in 1957, Elizabeth II lunched with president Rene Coty.

There are reminders throughout the visit of the late queen, a French-speaking francophile who made five state visits to France during her record-breaking 70-year reign.

Tactile friends

Driven down the Champs-Elysees towards their talks at the Elysee Palace earlier, Macron and the king were earlier seen chatting amicably while Camilla and Macron’s wife Brigitte followed behind in a similar vehicle.

After their talks at the Elysee, Charles and Macron walked the short distance to the residence of the British ambassador, pausing to shake hands with well-wishers on the upscale rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honore.

The French president, who has dealt with no fewer than four UK premiers over the last half-decade, is known to have a strong personal rapport with Charles.

Commentators in France excitedly noted how Macron had repeatedly touched Charles’s shoulder and Brigitte Macron kissed Camilla, in a new protocol unthinkable under the more distant and austere Elizabeth II.

With both men known for their love of books, Macron presented Charles with a book by the 20th-century French writer Romain Gary, while he received a special edition of Voltaire’s “Lettres sur les Anglais” (“Letters on the English”).

Charles’ visit is seen as the follow-up to moves by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to reset relations between the two neighbours after post-Brexit turbulence.

Macron had a particularly prickly relationship with former premier Boris Johnson, reportedly describing him as a “clown” as he took the UK out of the European Union in January 2020 in a sea of Union Jack waving and rhetoric of British exceptionalism.

Charles will on Thursday make a keynote address to the French upper house Senate and also give a speech on the environment, long one of his most cherished causes.

On Friday, the final day, he will head to the southwestern city of Bordeaux where trips will include a visit to an organic vineyard.

Some 8,000 police are deployed nationwide to ensure security as France also hosts the Rugby World Cup, a number that will rise to 12,000 Friday when Pope Francis arrives for a two-day visit to Marseille. — AFP

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