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Swapping of the Guard: French, British troops mark Entente Cordiale

By AFP - Apr 09,2024 - Last updated at Apr 09,2024

British members of Number 7 Company Coldstream Guards march along the street outside the Elysee Palace, as they make their way into the courtyard, in Paris on Monday (AFP photo)

LONDON — French and British troops on Monday swapped roles to take part in ceremonies outside the palaces of the other country’s head of state, in a historic move to celebrate 120 years since the Entente Cordiale.

Signed in 1904, the accord cemented an improvement in relations after the Napoleonic Wars and is seen as the foundation of the two NATO members’ alliance to this day.

Even after Brexit and with war back in Europe, “this entente cordiale is somehow the cornerstone... that allows us to maintain the bilateral relationship”, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a social media video.

“Long live the Entente Cordiale and long live the Franco-British friendship,” he said, switching to English.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hailed the anniversary as “a powerful symbol of the enduring friendship between our nations” in a call with Macron.

They also discussed shared challenges, from wars in the Middle East and Ukraine to migrants crossing the Channel on small boats, Sunak’s office said.

Macron and Britain’s Ambassador to France Menna Rawlings watched British guards taking part in the changing of the guard outside the Elysee Palace.

French guards then did the same in London outside Buckingham Palace, the official residence of King Charles III.

At the Elysee, 16 members of the Number 7 Company Coldstream Guards, wearing traditional bearskin hats, relieved French counterparts from the first infantry regiment.

The French army choir then sang the two national anthems — God Save the King and La Marseillaise.

‘More to defeat Russia’

British Foreign Minister David Cameron and his French counterpart, Stephane Sejourne, celebrated their countries’ “close friendship” in a joint op-ed.

They said it was key at a time when NATO is mobilised to ensure Ukraine does not lose its fight against Russia.

“Britain and France, two founding members and Europe’s nuclear powers, have a responsibility in driving the alliance to deal with the challenges before it,” the diplomats wrote in Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper.

“We must do even more to ensure we defeat Russia. The world is watching — and will judge us if we fail.”

A French presidential official said it was “the first time in the history of the Elysee” that foreign troops had been invited to participate in the military ritual.

At the end of 2023, Macron made the changing of the Republican Guard public again, on the first Tuesday of each month, although the ceremony is less spectacular than the event outside Buckingham Palace.

Two sections of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiment of France’s Republican Guard participated in the London ceremony alongside guards from F Company Scots Guards and other British forces, the French presidential official said.

It was watched by the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh — Prince Edward and his wife Sophie — accompanied by the UK chief of the general staff, General Patrick Sanders, and French chief of the army staff Pierre Schill.

Tensions after Brexit

The event on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace was the first time a country from outside the Commonwealth — mostly English-speaking former British colonies and possessions — has taken part in the changing of the guard.

Tourists crowded around the palace fence as the two groups of soldiers conducted the unprecedented ceremony.

“It really is a monumental occasion,” said Jamie Drummond-Moray, officer commanding F Company Scots Guards.

The signing of the Entente Cordiale on April 8, 1904, is widely seen as preparing the way for France and Britain to join forces against Germany in World War I.

While the accord is often used as shorthand to describe the Franco-British relationship, ties have been bedevilled by tensions in recent years, particularly since Britain left the European Union.

Migration has been a particular sticking point, with London pressuring Paris to stop undocumented migrants crossing the Channel.

But a state visit by King Charles last year was widely seen as a success that showed the fundamental strength of the relationship.

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