Barricades and stinking bin bags: Welcome to France, your majesty!

PARIS — When King Charles III sets foot on French soil this weekend on his first overseas visit as monarch, he may not get quite the red carpet welcome he was expecting.

The last few days in Paris have been marked by rioting in trash-strewn streets, turmoil in parliament and an embattled Emmanuel Macron trying to save his second presidential term from disaster. Scenes in the French capital at times have been reminiscent of “Les Misérables,” with almost nightly protests, barricades of rotting bin bags and a spirit bordering on revolutionary. 

That the cause of the chaos is Macron’s wildly unpopular decision to raise the pension age —rather than any animosity to Charles himself — will come as little comfort to the British. 

“A state visit has an element of splendor, with a gala dinner, and it’s not compatible with what’s happening — the demonstrations across Paris, the bins spilling out on the street,” said Pierre-Henri Dumont, an opposition MP for the conservative Les Républicains.

Macron himself is caught in a deepening political crisis after he forced through his pensions reform without even a vote in parliament. His government just about saved its skin in a tight no-confidence vote on Monday but the president’s political credibility is now in the hands of protesters on the streets.

In addition to the potential for disruption to their official itinerary, the British monarch and his queen consort, Camilla, may also have to hold their noses as they move around Paris. A rolling strike by garbage collectors has led to mountains of bin bags accumulating on the city’s narrow pavements. With warm weather returning there’s now a distinctly undesirable bouquet in some neighborhoods of the French capital. 

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The king’s visit had been carefully timed to round off weeks of gradually improving Anglo-French relations, unlocked by a landmark deal on post-Brexit trade, cooperation on the Ukraine war and the arrival of Rishi Sunak in Downing Street.

After years of Brexit-fueled cross-Channel tensions, exacerbated by Boris Johnson’s combative and chaotic premiership, the recent U.K.-France summit was seen as “a moment of reunion” between the two neighbors. 

“The sequence of events is very complimentary and not coincidental,” said Peter Ricketts, a former U.K. ambassador to France, “expressing a joint wish by No. 10 and the king to signal how much they value this relationship.”

But the goodwill vibe around the Anglo-French relationship may well be lost on the Parisian population. In recent days Macron has been accused of flouting parliament and of trampling on democracy, in short of acting rather like a high-handed monarch himself. 

Parading in Paris and dining in Versailles with an actual king will do little to dispel the image of a leader who seems dangerously out of touch. 

Among the pomp and ceremony will be a parade through the Champs Elysées avenue in Paris with 140 horse-mounted republican guards. There are fears in the French government that the occasion will attract protesters who might try to disrupt the parade.

Spilled waste containers and debris during a demonstration | Geoffroy Van der Hasselt /AFP via Getty

Down with the king!

Needless to say, the far-left NUPES coalition is having a field day. 

“Incredible! We are going to see Emmanuel Macron, the republican monarch, welcoming Charles III while the people are taking to the street to protest,” said Sandrine Rousseau, a Green MP, who called for the visit to be canceled. 

The British monarch may also find the echoes of regicide a little discomforting. 

In several cities, effigies of Macron have been burnt on bonfires during protests. The far left has called for demonstrations on Place de la Concorde — the very square in Paris where Louis XVI was beheaded. A Le Monde editorial said the move was “aimed at reviving the regicidal impulses of the people.” 

Ahead of Charles’ arrival, Macron’s allies have been trying to claim the moral high ground. The head of the Anglo-French friendship group in parliament, Alexandre Holroyd, said people must remain “level-headed.”

“France is facing a period of tension, which is not completely exceptional in our country,” he said. “The rest of the world carries on, people are dying in Ukraine. We have to face up to our responsibilities on the international scene.” 

Macron’s inner circle now appears to be in damage control mode. The dinner at Versailles, Louis XIV’s grandiose palace, may be off the cards

While Charles won’t be too fearful of the French mood, it is perhaps unsettling that any assurances need to be made at all. “Let me reassure you,’ said Les Républicains’ MP Dumont, “the trade unionists are not going to chop off his head.”