President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s King Charles agreed on Friday to postpone the monarch’s three-day state visit to France, following the most violent incidents in two months of protests against a law on pension reform which will raise the retirement age to 64.
Opposition to the reform has grown fiercer since Macron passed the law without a vote on March 16th. Far from calming the situation, his television interview on Wednesday inflamed protesters.
The Élysée announced the postponement in a two-paragraph communiqué on Friday morning, after overnight riots in Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux and at least six other cities. Police blamed about 1,500 “radical elements” for the paroxysm of violence in the capital. Most of the damage occurred around the Opera Garnier and St Lazare station.
Trade unions announced that a tenth day of strikes and protests will be held on Tuesday, March 28th, the day the king and queen consort were to have taken a high-speed TGV train from Paris to Bordeaux.
“This decision was taken by the French and British governments after a telephone exchange between the president of the republic and the king this morning, to be able to welcome His Majesty King Charles III in conditions corresponding to our relationship of friendship,” the Élysée statement said. “The visit will be reprogrammed as soon as possible.”
Speaking later at the EU summit in Brussels, Macron said that “common sense and friendship” led to the postponement. He proposed that “at the beginning of the summer, in function of our respective agendas, we could schedule a new state visit together”.
The postponement is a blow to Macron because it highlights his inability to control events in his own country, and because Germany, France’s ally and rival for the leadership of Europe, will now be the first country to host the new monarch on a state visit.
Charles and Camilla were to have arrived in Paris on Sunday and travelled on Wednesday to Berlin, where he will deliver a speech in the Bundestag and meet Ukrainian refugees. The king, a committed environmentalist, will then discuss green technologies in Hamburg.
The British embassy in Paris said the state visit to Germany will take place as planned.
A scheduled banquet in the hall of mirrors at Versailles proved particularly controversial. The far-left environmentalist deputy Sandrine Rousseau demanded that Macron, who she calls the republican monarch, “cancel the visit of Charles III while the people are demonstrating in the street”.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left party France Unbowed, tweeted that “The meeting of the kings in Versailles is broken up by popular censure”.
Macron is often caricatured by demonstrators as Louis XIV or Louis XVI, and Versailles is associated with the 1789 revolution. The royal visit was beginning to feel like a modern version of Charles Dickens 1859 novel Tale of Two Cities, in which aristocrats are beheaded or flee to England.
The interior ministry announced it was deploying 4,000 police and gendarmes to ensure security for the royal visit. But every stage of the journey was problematic. Striking workers at the culture ministry said they would not roll out the red carpet, as required by protocol. Tram drivers in Bordeaux said they would not drive the British monarch. Macron could not take the risk that the king and queen would be attacked, heckled, or have their movement impeded by protesters on a railway line or in traffic.
Authorities said 903 fires were started across the country during the night of Thursday to Friday. Of 441 injured policemen and gendarmes, a dozen had to be hospitalised. More than 450 people were arrested.
Rioters set fire to the entrance of the 18th century Palais Rohan, the Bordeaux town hall where the British royals were to have met the environmentalist mayor. At Charleville-Mézières, eastern France, rioters attacked police with glass bottles filled with acid. A woman demonstrator in Rouen had a thumb torn off by a grenade.
Mr Macron said he had “seen scenes where many of our police and gendarmes were the object of totally disproportionate aggressions by extremely violent and equipped militants.”
Laurent Nunez, the prefect of Paris police, tweeted a video of a policeman who collapsed after his helmet was hit by a paving stone, and asked the state prosecutor to investigate violence against police.
But opponents of the government placed blame with the security forces. The Human Rights League and International Federation of Human rights issued a statement condemning “police violence” which went against “freedom to demonstrate and the duty of states to guarantee the rights and security of their population”.
Macron said he would be willing to talk to trade unions after the Constitutional Council rules on the legality of the pension reform law, which could take weeks. Until then, France stumbles along with no end in sight to the unrest.