Palace sources said His Majesty had been “looking forward” to meeting Emmanuel Macron during his first official overseas trip as King, as the monarch seeks to take a more active role in UK foreign diplomacy.
The French President made the decision to postpone the trip to Paris, which was due to start on Sunday, Friday morning as he battles to maintain a grip on the violent state pension protests that have engulfed the country.
A palace source told i: “The King is naturally very disappointed at the cancellation of his and the Queen Consort’s visit to France.
“He was looking forward to meeting with President Macron a great deal and hearing from him how our two great nations are working together to increase our ties even further.”
The state visit was seen on both sides of the Channel as a chance to re-establish relations between the UK and Europe after years of divisions caused by Brexit. Senior government sources told i that the decision to choose France as the King’s first official visit came from Buckingham Palace in the first instance.
Lord Ricketts, the former UK ambassador to France, who helped in the planning of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s last visit to Paris in 2014, insisted that while the King would not be more political per se, he will be more “agile” and “active” in responding to events.
“The improvement in relations only began a few months ago, so I suspect it [the state visit] hasn’t been all that long in the planning,” Lord Ricketts said. “I think we’re beginning to see the King’s style, which is different to his mother’s, although very much a kind of evolution from it.
“And perhaps you’ll see him taking a more active role in support of the issues that he is interested in, passionately.”
The speed of the decision to reconnect with France suggests the King was eager to capitalise on the work undertaken by Rishi Sunak and the Government to rebuild relations with Paris and Brussels in the wake of the Boris Johnson administration.
It had also been expected that the King would hold talks with the French President on the issue of climate change and the environment, an issue close to the monarch’s heart.
Another senior royal source close to the Palace added: “There will be a sense of sadness and frustration for the King, but he will understand the reasoning behind the cancellation. Not only do these thing take months of planning, but they will be something the King was really looking forward to.
“That France was chosen as his first overseas visit was something I am sure the King welcomed and he would have been practising his French for sure. But he and the Queen Consort are still going to Germany and that will remain a crucially important visit for them both and for Britain.
“Clearly the King is not involved in any form of negotiations but people have often underestimated the soft power these visits can exert, and how that can benefit relationship between Britain and the rest of the world.”
The state visit was also viewed by the Élysée as part of a wider efforts to “open a new chapter” in the Anglo-French relationship, following the signing of the new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland and the recent UK-France summit earlier this month.
Francois-Joseph Schichan, a former French diplomat and consultant at Flint Global, said the state visit was viewed as a symbolic moment that was meant to “complement” the recent improvement in relations.
He described the postponement as a “missed opportunity” coming after both Mr Macron and Mr Sunak had worked to rebuild trust.
“Boris Johnson and Emannuel Macron managed to have quite a stable relationship at the start, but it went downhill pretty quickly,” Mr Schichan said. “Johnson and Liz Truss took a confrontational stance towards the EU and the member states. I think Rishi Sunak decided you can get more from the EU member states by having a more pragmatic approach, by being a little bit more diplomatic.”
The EU was therefore more willing to allow Mr Sunak to make exaggerated claims about the concessions he had gained in the Windsor Framework as a result of the improved trust.
French interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Friday that 441 police and gendarmes were hurt as violence marred some marches.
He said 1,000 rubbish bins were set on fire in the capital during the previous day’s action.
The decision to postpone the visit came as it became increasingly clear for both France and the UK that the agenda was unworkable. The King was expected to meet and greet onlookers, while he and the Queen Consort were due to visit Bordeaux, where the town hall was set on fire on Thursday night.
According to sources, the King was to ride the tram in Bordeaux, but this plan was be abandoned as the tram workers refused to allow it as part of the protests. He and Queen Camilla were also expecting to visit the sites of the devastating wildfires in the Bordeaux countryside as well as visiting an organic vineyard, which has pioneered sustainable wine-making.
This was on top of the usual official duties, such as visiting Arc de Triomphe, lighting the flame of the Unknown Soldier, and addressing the French senate.
According to French news outlet BFMTV, Élysée Palace sources had a number of security concerns about the visit, in particular concerning the planned trip along the Champs-Élysées to lay a wreath at the Arc de Triomphe.
The monument has been the focus of gilets jaunes protests, and there was concern at an attempt to disrupt the road or arch. “The conditions had become too complicated,” said a source.
The first state visit for the King will now be Germany, where he will be hosted from Wednesday and is expected to address the Bundestag before making a trip to Hamburg.