The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are in Paris on their first official visit to the French capital – the first time Prince William has been on royal duty in the city since his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash there almost 20 years ago.
William and Catherine flew to the city on Friday in a private jet from London and were driven to the Elysée Palace for a meeting with French president François Hollande. They were greeted on the steps of the palace by Hollande, who was flanked by two members of the Garde républicaine. After posing for photographers, he led them into the president’s residence.
The duchess was wearing the same green Catherine Walker coat she had worn at an earlier engagement in the UK, but had let her hair down.
Before they left, the president took them outside into the gardens of the palace for a second photocall, walking them down a sun-bathed terrace in front of the waiting cameras, stopping to chat occasionally as he pointed out items of interest.
The trip is part of a campaign of “soft” diplomacy aimed at forging links on the continent as Britain starts delicate and complicated Brexit negotiations.
An aide said of the meeting: “They [the royal couple] are very grateful that the president has invited them to the Elysée Palace for a meeting at the very start of their trip, which gives you an indication of the importance and status of the visit.”
The Cambridges were later driven 100 yards in a black Range Rover for a reception at the British ambassador’s residence, where they met young entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, musicians and other guests. William gave a speech to launch Les Voisins – The Neighbours – a year-long celebration of Anglo-French links.
The duchess, wearing a black Alexander McQueen cocktail dress, smiled as her husband began speaking in French then switched to English, saying: “And forgive me if I now continue in the language of Shakespeare, so as to reduce the risk of mangling the language of Molière.”
Speaking of historic, current and future links between the two countries, William made reference to Brexit.
“Like all neighbours, sometimes our two nations encourage each other through mutual support,” he told guests. “Sometimes we attempt to outdo the other through rivalry – as we will see tomorrow when Wales play France at the rugby. But always our two nations continually inspire one another to become better: more creative, more prosperous, more innovative.
“This partnership will continue despite Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Union. The depth of our friendship and the breadth of our cooperation will not change.”
The duke spoke to a group of athletes, including Col Bertrand Gebuhrer, the leader of the French Invictus team, who appeared confused about whether it was Prince William or Prince Harry who launched the Paralympic games for wounded servicemen and women.
After he suggested that it was William’s idea, the duke replied: “As much as it pains me, I have to give my brother credit for that.”
The duchess met Elizabeth Kesses, a British Paris-based author of books about body issues in young girls. “We talked about how important these issues are for young girls, and she said I should send her my book,” said Kesses.
On Friday evening the Cambridges attended a dinner hosted by the British ambassador Lord Edward Llewellyn with British and French guests, including actress Kristin Scott-Thomas and French stars Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou.
At the dinner the duke read a message from the Queen. “It is nearly 70 years since Prince Philip and I first visited France together – not long after we were married – and I retain the fondest memories of my five state visits over the years, as well as an enduring affection for this beautiful country and its people,” it said. “Although much has changed since my first visit, the ties between our nations have stood the test of time and will, I am sure, continue to prosper.”
On Saturday the royal couple will visit Les Invalides, the French military hospital, where they will meet two survivors of the Paris terror attacks as well as former French servicemen, and visit the Impressionists gallery at the Musée d’Orsay before attending the France v Wales Six Nations rugby match.
Royals and Anglo-French diplomacy
William and Kate are not the first royals to head to France amid diplomatic difficulties. Queen Elizabeth II’s first state visit there, in April 1957, coincided with the Suez crisis.
Although the two nations were united in the opposition to Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and their aim to regain western control of the Suez Canal, France’s failure to to inform Britain about the involvement of Israel until very close to the commencement of military action in late 1956 strained relations. The Queen’s official visit to President Coty sought to both soothe and reinforce the UK’s relationship with France.
The Queen’s second state visit in May 1972 was an attempt by France, rather than the United Kingdom, to improve relations regarding UK’s entry into, rather than departure from, the European Economic Community. President Georges Pompidou’s new government was keen for friendlier dialogue with Britain, welcoming their membership of the EEC, which President de Gaulle had previously opposed. This would help to pave the way for Britain to do so the next year.
Against a backdrop of gathering menace in Europe in the 1930s, the Queen’s father George VI made similar attempts to bolster Anglo-French relations with an official trip to France in 1938, which aimed to emphasise the values of the two “liberal democracies” in the face of the threat from Nazi Germany.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010