The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

King Charles III postpones first overseas visit as pension protests rock France

Protesters march in Paris on Thursday over plans to raise the minimum retirement age. (Aurelien Morissard/AP)
7 min

LONDON — A state visit to France by Britain’s King Charles III, meant to be the first official trip of his reign, was postponed Friday, in what critics described as a blow to French President Emmanuel Macron’s image as he contends with unrest over his effort to raise the retirement age.

Hobnobbing at the Versailles palace would hardly have been a good look for either figure, as union workers flood the streets to fight a policy Macron has portrayed as unpopular but necessary.

The postponement came the morning after protesters marched across France, and clashed with police, to decry the government having pushed through the pension bill. Police violence in response to the demonstrations has drawn international scrutiny, after videos circulated on social media this week showing riot police beating protesters.

Labor unions called for another nationwide mobilization on Tuesday, and the French civil aviation authority predicted further disruptions to flights to and from major airports next week.

France strikes intensify as anger mounts over retirement age hike

In a statement Friday, Éric Ciotti, the president of the right-wing Republicans party — which holds the majority in the French Senate but which is split over the pension reform bill — described the postponement of Charles’s visit as “a shame for our country” and a sign of “our international diminution.”

“The whole world is watching France with alarm,” Ciotti, who supports raising the retirement age, said on Twitter.

Opponents of the pension bill, on the left and right, described the last-minute disruption of the royal visit as a blow to a president who faces pressure to heed the sentiment of the street and resolve the crisis.

Macron told reporters in Brussels that “common sense and friendship” led to the delay, and that France has proposed rescheduling for the start of summer.

Macron’s office said the French and British governments made the decision jointly, after Macron and the British monarch spoke on the phone. Buckingham Palace confirmed the postponement.

The French leader staunchly condemned violence during Thursday’s demonstrations and said the government is awaiting a review on the pension measure from the Constitutional Council. The court is reviewing the legislation after the government used executive powers to pass it last week without a vote in Parliament’s lower house.

Macron has said the measure should be in effect by the end of the year, and while he acknowledged its unpopularity, he has defended it as the only viable way to protect the future of the country’s pension system as the population ages.

The move to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 has fueled anger for weeks in France, where retirement is a cherished phase of life and the pension system is considered by many to be a key part of the social contract.

Strikes have brought trains to a halt, as walkouts by trash collectors left garbage piling up on the streets of Paris. More than a million people, including rail workers and teachers, marched against the legislation Thursday, largely peacefully.

Yet, demonstrations spiraled into clashes in cities including Paris, Rennes and Nantes, with riot police using water cannons and tear gas. Protesters smashed storefronts and set trash on fire, while others burned the door to city hall in Bordeaux — where Charles was scheduled to make a stop during his visit.

Workers in France are on strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said early Friday that more than 450 people were detained across the country the day before and that 441 police officers were injured. He said authorities had registered hundreds of acts of arson. Darmanin has blamed the violence on fringe groups of far-left activists.

With a constitution that enshrines the individual right to strike, France has a rich tradition of labor action and mass protest. While many demonstrators march peacefully, previous protests have seen activists set fires, vandalize property or clash with police, who deploy tear gas, fire rubber bullets and make baton charges against crowds.

Viral videos of police beating protesters in recent weeks has drawn renewed attention to policing tactics. A coalition of leftist French deputies in the European Parliament submitted a motion Friday calling on the E.U. body to condemn the “disproportionate use of violence” against protesters and journalists in France — including arrests and the use of “dangerous arms” that fire projectiles.

In a statement, the lawmakers alleged that the police tactics were “part of a deliberate strategy of intimidation to discourage the mobilization of opponents of the reform.”

Dunja Mijatovic, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, raised concerns about the conduct of police and called on French authorities to protect peaceful protesters and journalists.

“The sporadic acts of violence of certain protesters or other reprehensible acts committed by other people during a protest cannot justify the excessive use of force,” she said in a statement Friday.

The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the motion and the conduct of police officers. Paris police chief Laurent Nuñez told television channel France 5 Friday “the police response was proportionate.”

The French presidency had been preparing to host Charles and his wife, Camilla, Queen Consort, from Sunday to Wednesday next week, before the royal pair continued on to Germany. The visit to Germany is expected to proceed as planned.

On the trip, which officials in both countries would have been planning for months, the royals were expected to join Macron and his wife for events that included a banquet at the Palace of Versailles.

The choice of venue inspired protest slogans portraying the palace as a symbol of the elite’s excesses, as Macron’s critics pounced on the timing and optics of the royal visit with taunts about a meeting “of two kings.”

Macron defends move to raise retirement age as protests roil France

Striking workers had refused to roll out a red carpet for the king’s visit — in opposition to the pension bill and in solidarity with workers on strike in Britain over wages and other grievances.

The French union CGT said this week that its members at the government agency that provides red carpets, flags and furniture would not take part, prompting officials to say that others would handle the customary arrangements for the monarch’s arrival, according to French media.

“The king won’t have tea at Versailles,” French European Parliament deputy Manon Aubry tweeted. “The French people know how to scare all the monarchs!”

The left-wing lawmaker Sandrine Rousseau, a staunch opponent of Macron’s and of the reform, said on Twitter that the postponement was “the one and only clue, to date, that Emmanuel Macron has grasped that a social movement (of historic proportions) was taking place in our country.”

The choice of France and Germany for the British monarch’s first official trip abroad was seen in Britain as part of efforts to help mend relations with other European nations; ties have been strained in the post-Brexit years. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met Macron in Paris this month at the first Anglo-French summit in half a decade.

“There will be no impact on the friendship between our two countries,” Anne-Claire Legendre, a spokeswoman for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a news conference Friday.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, called the postponement a “wise decision,” adding that she told the British ambassador the king and queen consort “will always be welcome in Paris.”

Rick Noack and Karla Adam contributed to this report.