By Juliette Jabkhiro and Louise Dalmasso
PARIS (Reuters) -King Charles arrived in France on Wednesday for a three-day state visit, during which he and President Emmanuel Macron will hope to build on symbolism and personal bonds to turn the page on years of rocky relations between the two nations.
The king and his wife, Queen Camilla, were greeted by French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne in a windy Paris, before heading to a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, where they paid tribute to French and British soldiers who died in two world wars.
They then drove down the Champs-Elysees avenue in a French DS car, waving at the thin crowds that had gathered along the tree-lined boulevard.
"Shame he didn't drive down in a carriage," Marie-Noelle Ahanso, a 62-year old employee, told Reuters. "People will talk, will complain (about the expense), but he's worthy of Versailles, I can't see where the problem is," she said.
The visit comes as French and British citizens feel the pinch of inflation at multi-decade highs, and a planned dinner at the sumptuous Palace of Versailles, a symbol of privilege, has been criticised by some as insensitive.
"The French complain all the time, anyway," Marie-Noelle added.
Before the dinner at Versailles, the two men held a meeting in Macron's office at the Elysee Palace.
Though Charles only has an advisory role in British politics, the topics the pair would discuss include the war in Ukraine, the coups in the Sahel as well as climate change, according to French officials.
More than 150 guests have been invited to the banquet, including British actor Hugh Grant, rock star Mick Jagger, former Arsenal football coach Arsene Wenger, French soccer star Didier Drogba, as well as French billionaire Bernard Arnault.
On Thursday, Charles, Camilla, Macron and his wife Brigitte will visit the Notre-Dame cathedral to view restoration works following a massive blaze in 2019 that destroyed its roof.
Charles and Camilla will then head to the southwestern city of Bordeaux on Friday, where excursions will include a visit to an organic vineyard.
The king, a fluent French speaker like his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth, is keen to walk in her footsteps and is likely to refer to Elizabeth's deep affection for France, officials said, with the trip also being a chance to rebuild ties that have been frayed by Britain's chaotic exit from the EU in 2020.
"He's an authentic francophile," Adelaide de Clermont-Tonnerre, editor-in-chief of French celebrity magazine Point de Vue told Reuters TV. "His mother was an icon, she had become Europe's grandmother. Charles had a more polarising life."
Charles had hoped for a state visit to France to have been his first as king, but a March trip was postponed due to tense protests in France over pension reforms, much to Macron's embarrassment.
On their second attempt at meeting in France, the 74-year-old king and the 45-year-old president will set out to build on a relationship already bolstered by their communications over Notre-Dame. Charles had written to Macron when the cathedral burnt down, and the pair also share interests in climate and heritage, royal aides and royal watchers said.
"They're both intellectuals, erudite men," Clermont-Tonnerre said. "And they both had to impose an unconventional, much-decried love story."
Camilla, 76, Charles's second wife after the much-loved and popular Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris in 1997, will launch a new book prize in Paris with the French president's wife, Brigitte Macron.
The warm words, visits and symbolic gestures come after several tense years over the negotiation of Britain's exit in 2020 from the European Union, and after that, rows over issues ranging from immigration to the sale of submarines.
Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss once said the jury was out on whether France was a friend or foe, before settling on calling it a friend last year. Her successor, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, visited France in March to kick off what he called an "entente renewed".
Still, some Parisians remained sceptical about the visit.
"He's just the son, they are old already, we don't have a long history," said 88-year old Mireille Mauve.
Fifteen year-old Alexia Aubert said: "I think since Elizabeth died, the royal family isn't as important as it was, King Charles isn't as important and symbolic as Elizabeth, so it doesn't really matter if he comes or not."
(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Michel Rose, Noemie Olive, Juliette Jabkhiro and Louise Dalmasso in Paris, Michael Holden in London; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Michel Rose; Editing by Bernadette Baum)