According to the French media – which seems to know far more about such things than the British – King Charles III and Queen Camilla will make a state visit to France on or around March 27, meeting President and Mme Macron in Paris.
The trip appears to be designed as a particular compliment to Britain’s nearest neighbour, being the first state visit of the new reign.
The spin that came with the announcement from sources in Paris was that the King would use the visit to try to help improve relations, which became strained as a result of Brexit and its aftermath, and, one might add, cack-handed diplomacy (if it can be called that) by Britain’s last two prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
As Prince of Wales, the King made 36 official visits to France, an early one to represent the late Queen at the obsequies of General de Gaulle in 1970.
Two years later, he accompanied his parents on their state visit to meet President Pompidou.
The late Queen spoke French well, and the King does too.
Many of his official visits were to commemorations of events in the two world wars.
He has made a number of entirely private visits too.
King Charles and President Macron get on ‘extremely well’
He has met President Macron several times and the two men are said to get on extremely well.
They shared a platform at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021 and share a concern for saving the planet.
The President made an exceptionally flattering remark on the death of the late Queen, saying that to many French she was simply ‘the Queen’.
It will have done his relationship with King Charles no harm at all, and neither will the President’s having given a televised tribute to the late Queen in English, nor the dimming of the lights on the Eiffel Tower.
Whatever difficulties there may have been with His Majesty’s Government, M. Macron has striven to make it clear that there are no problems with His Majesty himself.
One of the King’s visits to France was in 1987, when he attended commemorations of the 900th anniversary of the death of William the Conqueror – an indication of the ancient intertwining of French and English history.
For over two hundred years the two countries have not, despite the odd close shave in Victorian times over colonial matters, come close to facing each other on a battlefield.
Memories have faded to the extent that Napoleon has his fair share of admirers among British historians.
The Royal Family’s attraction with France
The current attraction of France to the Royal Family started with King Edward VII, who spent as much time as he could in Paris and, later, Biarritz.
He was drawn to the women, the wine and the food, and the south-western resort was somewhere he could take his mistress, Mrs Keppel, away from the prying eyes of English society and newspapers.
But it was also on Edward VII’s initiative – and, unusually, not that of his government – that the process began on a visit to Paris in 1903 of constructing the Entente Cordiale, which ministers of the respective countries concluded the following year.
It evolved into the Triple Entente with Russia in 1908, and helped shape the alliances of the Great War.
Edward VII was motivated to draw France into friendship not just because he was a chronic Francophile but because of his growing dislike of his nephew, the Kaiser.
The next King, George V, became a regular visitor to France, first to inspire his force on the battlefields in the Great War, then to visit war cemeteries and inaugurate memorials.
George VI wanted to visit the Normandy beaches immediately after the 1944 landings but Churchill forbade it; the late Queen was a frequent visitor both officially and privately, not least because of her interest in bloodstock and the French racing industry.
The only King in modern British history to have abdicated, Edward VIII, spent his exile in the Bois de Boulogne as the Duke of Windsor, for the quarter-century after the war, becoming a fixture in French high society.
So the auspices are good for a successful visit.
The King, who as a constitutional monarch must accept the advice of his ministers, can have no view on Brexit different from theirs.
At least his present Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has not been offhand with the French in the way that Boris Johnson was, or been unable to decide whether France was Britain’s friend or enemy, as Liz Truss famously could not.
French did not take Brexit well
The French certainly did not take Brexit well, but ought least as a fellow democracy to have accepted that it was the free and fair decision of a majority of the British people, and that the EU’s inflexibility in negotiations before the 2016 referendum was partly to blame for the outcome.
It was, however, typically obtuse of Johnson to respond with occasional displays of intentional or unintentional rudeness, and Miss Truss’s remark simply underlined the lack of judgment and seriousness with which she approached the business of governing.
Helped by a prime minister who, whatever his faults, seems keen to renew good relations with all EU countries and to find ways to trade and co-exist with them, the King can sow the seeds of a renewed entente cordiale with his fellow head of state.
The war in Ukraine, and the part both Britain and France have played in standing up to Russia’s barbaric aggression, is a potent reminder of the common values the two nations hold.
Doubtless the King and President Macron will reflect on that in their talks, and the way it reinforces their nations’ relationship.
Brexit is over; the future beckons; and it will be a better future if the two heads of state can agree not just on the benefits of being good neighbours, but on having their respective governments co-operate as closely as possible.