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France holds rich state banquet for King Charles III

Nadine Wojcik
September 21, 2023

When Europe's key partners dine: President Emmanuel Macron welcomed King Charles III and Queen Camilla with full pomp at the historical Palace of Versailles.

Frankreich König Charles zu Besuch in Paris
Britain's King Charles and French President Emmanuel Macron meeting in ParisImage: Christian Hartmann/REUTERS

President Emmanuel Macron spoke of an "homage to our past" and a "guarantee for the future" at a state dinner in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on Wednesday.

Among the 180 guests invited to join the state banquet on the first evening of the British royals' three-day visit were celebrities from both countries, including Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, British actor Hugh Grant and French-British actor Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Mick Jagger waving, holding his partner Melanie Hamrick by the arm, on a red carpet at the Versailles Palace in France.
Mick Jagger and Melanie Hamrick, former ballerina, were among the guests at the Chateau de Versailles state dinnerImage: Christophe Ena/AP/picture alliance

Versailles, a center of French power

The historically significant location, 19 kilometers (12 miles) west of Paris, was once the center of French power. It is where King Louis XIV welcomed guests in the 17th century, and in 1919, the Hall of Mirrors was where the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, was signed.

Although the French Revolution led to the abolishment of the monarchy, with the last king and queen of the country beheaded in 1793, the one-time royal residence holds a special place in French culture and remains full of political symbolism.

A long list of state visitors

In the years following World War II, French President Charles de Gaulle welcomed the US Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon here.

Later, Francois Mitterrand opened the palace gates to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nicolas Sarkozy once hosted the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi at the opulent palace; Francois Hollande the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

And in 2017, Macron welcomed Vladimir Putin to Versailles, before his full-scale invasion of Ukraine made the Russian president persona non grata in Europe.

From Queen Victoria to King Charles

The Palace of Versailles has also played a role in Franco-British history, beginning with Napoleon, who threw a ball for Queen Victoria and 1,200 other guests in 1855. That marked the first state visit of a British monarch to France in more than 400 years — a reflection of the strained relations and repeated wars between the two countries.

In 1938, King George VI was greeted by cries of "Vive le roi" from crowds of onlookers as he arrived for lunch at Versailles.

When she visited in 1957, King George's daughter and successor to the throne, Queen Elizabeth II, did not dine at Versailles but rather at the Elysee Palace, the official residence of the French President.

Foie gras, a French delicacy made of duck or goose liver, was served at that state dinner. Queen Elizabeth was apparently fond of this type of liver pâté, whose name translates to "fatty liver."

A change of menu

But for her son's visit, foie gras was absent from the table. King Charles III has banned it from his household because the controversial pâté is made by force-feeding ducks or geese.

Instead, King Charles and the other guests were treated to a menu of blue lobster and crab cake and a regional poultry dish. The gala banquet was a highlight of the first day of the three-day visit.

A long table in the Palace of Versailles' Hall of Mirrors filled with guests attending a state banquet,
Many prominent guests attended the state banquet at the Palace of Versailles' Hall of MirrorsImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

Earlier, King Charles and Queen Camilla had taken part in a memorial ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe.

It's the 73-year-old monarch's 35th official visit to France, but his first in his new role as king

Giving their toasts, Charles III and Macron reaffirmed Franco-British relations: "We must reinvigorate our friendship so that it is up to the challenges of the 21st century," said the king.

The president responded: "Despite Brexit and because our ties are so old, I know that we will continue to write together part of our continent's history."

Britain's King Charles III (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron (R) toasting with a glass of champagne.
Toasting to British-French tiesImage: Arthur Edwards/Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

"I promise to do everything during my reign as king to strengthen the irreplaceable relationship between the United Kingdom and France, and I invite you to do the same," the king told MPs in his speech to the French Senate on Thursday, the second day of his state visit to France.

Official royal visit had been postponed due to protests

King Charles III was originally meant to visit France six months ago, ahead of his coronation, but the violent protests over France's pension reforms forced a rescheduling.

Those reforms have since been passed, and Paris is now calm enough for a royal state visit.

Neither the president nor the king mentioned publicly the widespread unrest from earlier in the year.

The urgent question of migration policy was also not officially addressed. In early September, British officials noted a record number of migrants reaching the UK coast from Calais.

Britain's King Charles III addresses French lawmakers at the French Senate, a historical space with statues overlooking the podium.
King Charles is the first British monarch to hold a speech at the French SenateImage: Emmanuel Dunand/Pool/AP/picture alliance

But Charles III had clearer words for the topic perhaps dearest to his heart, environmental and climate protection: "Let us renew the 'Entente Cordiale' and make it an 'Entente for Sustainability' to jointly tackle the climate crisis and the threat to biodiversity," he stated in his speech at the French Senate.

The "Entente Cordiale" (cordial understanding) is a 1904 agreement between the United Kingdom and France, which at the time regulated the spheres of influence of the two countries in Africa. 

King Charles III and Queen Camilla coming out of a plane.
King Charles III and Queen Camilla arrived by plane, but will pursue their journey by trainImage: Miguel Medina/AFP/pool/AP/picture alliance

In addition to Paris, the southwestern city of Bordeaux is on the itinerary on the third and final day of the state visit. The royal couple will cover the roughly 500-kilometer distance in just two hours on the high-speed TGV train.

Meanwhile, Macron and his ministers are repeatedly criticized for traveling short distances using the government jet, which is not much faster than the TGV.

In Bordeaux, which was partly under British rule during the Hundred Years' War (1337 to 1453), the royal couple will visit a reforestation program and organic winegrowers.

This article was originally written in German.