France and the UK have postponed the highly symbolic state visit of King Charles III that had been due to begin on Sunday because of the escalating protest movement against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age.
The delay is an embarrassing setback for Macron, who has staked his reformist credentials in his second term on raising the retirement age in the face of widespread opposition.
The Élysée Palace said Macron and the King had spoken by phone about the trip, which had been due to run from Sunday to Wednesday and was set to include a dinner at the Versailles Palace and a trip to Bordeaux.
“The visit will be rescheduled as soon as possible,” said the Élysée. The planned trip’s second leg, a visit to Germany, is expected to go ahead, making that journey the King’s first trip overseas as monarch.
The delay was prompted by chaotic scenes in Paris and elsewhere, including a fire at the Bordeaux town hall, on Thursday after labour unions held demonstrations that attracted more than 1mn people. Unions have also called for another day of mobilisation on Tuesday, which would have coincided with the King’s trip, making security a big challenge.
Buckingham Palace, the UK royals’ official residence, confirmed that the visit by the King and his wife Camilla, Queen Consort, had been “postponed”. “Their majesties greatly look forward to the opportunity to visit France as soon as dates can be found,” the palace said.
Leftwing political leaders in France, who had called in recent days for the King’s visit to be cancelled, celebrated their victory. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who often criticises Macron as a top-down authoritarian ruler, said in a tweet: “The meeting of the kings at Versailles has been scuppered by popular censure.”
Communist leader Fabien Roussel posted on Twitter an ironic jab to the president, who has refused to back down on his pensions reform: “Macron has found his reverse gear after all.”
Unions such as the hard-left CGT welcomed the postponement, including representatives of energy sector workers who have been striking at nuclear plants, affecting output, and targeting some sites such as bank offices with occasional power cuts.
French and British officials had in recent days been considering changes to the logistics and details of the visit to salvage what was meant to be King Charles’s first trip abroad as monarch. The state visit had been intended to symbolise warming relations between the two countries after years of Brexit-related tensions.
Days before the King was meant to visit the south-western city of Bordeaux, unidentified people set the wooden doors of the town hall ablaze on Thursday, in a striking image of the violent edge to some of the protests.
The King had also been due to dine in the ornate Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and attend a parade on the Champs-Élysées with 140 horse-mounted Republican guards. France had been planning to deploy 4,000 police officers to secure the visit.
The UK prime minister’s office said the decision to postpone “was taken with the consent of all parties after the president of France asked the British government to postpone the visit”.
On Thursday, more than 1mn people protested across France in demonstrations that were largely peaceful until nightfall, when small groups clashed with police and set fires to the tonnes of uncollected rubbish that has accumulated because of strikes.
About 900 fires were set in Paris alone and 457 arrests made nationally, according to the interior ministry.
Macron has long argued that pension reform is necessary to ensure the viability of France’s pension system as the population ages. If finalised, the plan will raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, and require people to work for 43 years to receive a full pension.
The protest movement has become more unpredictable since Macron’s government chose this month to push through the pensions law without a parliamentary vote. The government survived no-confidence votes on Monday following that decision, but public anger has continued to fester.
Labour unions, which have largely controlled nationwide protests since January, are now struggling to keep a lid on more radical activists, including a small hardcore of anarchists and thugs known as casseurs in French who often join big protests.
Bordeaux’s mayor Pierre Hurmic expressed “pain, shock and indignation” at the huge blaze that engulfed the wooden doors of the 18th-century Palais Rohan, which houses the town hall. Asked ahead of the delay to King Charles’s visit whether the monarch should still come to Bordeaux, he said cancelling would amount to handing a victory to “thugs”.
Additional reporting by Domitille Alain