A Royal Pain in La France

Tossed off the throne two centuries ago, French monarchists are ready to stick their necks out again.

First published in Mother Jones, 1989

Paris, December 1988
In a meeting hall festooned with fleur-de-lis banners, a young man steps up to the dais, clears his throat, and stares out at a sea of four hundred well-scrubbed faces. “I will not begin my speech by saying the French Republic is a drooling, stinking bitch,” he states with a coy smile. No one else in the room smiles back. “I will not say it,” his voice rises, “because everyone knows it!” A conservatively dressed man seated beside me looks at his wife in relief, then joins in the thunderous applause. For one spine-tingling moment, the speaker sounded as if he were going to say something nice about democracy.

That, given the nature of the crowd, would have been an enormous blunder. The meeting’s sponsor, a movement known as l’Action Française, has long likened la République to a trick played on the French nation by people in league with the Antichrist. Now in full throttle, the speaker begins to vent his spleen about the upcoming bicentennial of the French Revolution. As the crowd listens in indignant pleasure, he barks out, “This bicentennial is nothing less than an obscene commemoration of a pagan baptism in blood!” My neighbor roars his approval, and his wife and two pretty teenage daughters smile indulgently: Dad is in his element.

Dad eventually turns to me, searching for the knowing look of a fellow traveler. His hands abruptly stop clapping when his eyes fall on the notepad in my lap. Could I be one of those hounds from hell who thinks Action Française is composed of crackpots? I manage a silly grin meant to reassure, then look vaguely up at the speaker, who is now building to a polemical paroxysm about Arab immigrants. The guards of honor in front of the podium, twenty or so cane-wielding skinheads in leather jackets, pay no attention to the speech. They’re busy studying the audience for people reluctant to applaud.

Then the inevitable occurs. A young woman walks up the aisle, stops a few feet away from me, and takes my picture. Dad stares at me in undisguised contempt. The crowd, oblivious to our private crisis, is now chanting in unison with the speaker, “Vive le roi! Vive le roi! Vive le roi!” The last time I felt this way, I had appendicitis.

 

That’s right: Vive le roi. France is not, as most foreigners fondly think, the great, unrepentant regicide of Europe. In the annals of the modern age, 1789 is commonly considered a historic cataclysm, an unprecedented rupture with the past, as democrats defeated feudalism on its home turf and established the prototype for both radical revolution and the modern state. But while officially the ethic of “Liberté-Egalité-Fraternité” holds sway here, there are many in this age-old nation who view the French Revolution as an embarrassment, a temporary corrective that somehow ended up trashing the country’s past and crippling its future. There were, after all, losers.

Unlike the American Revolution, which by its two-hundredth birthday had been sanitized into a love-fest with all the controversy of Mother’s Day, the French Revolution has left a bitter, ambiguous legacy. In France, where current events are often viewed as recurring events, there is a sizable group of people for whom the Republic is just a national mid-life crisis. To them, France is not France without a king.

Of the royalist movements, Action Française is perhaps the most notorious for its ungenerous, far-Right nationalism. Started in anti-Semitic splendor during the turn-of-the-century Dreyfus Affair and noted in the interwar period for a rabid brand of French chauvinism, it is shrugged off by most French as little more than a satanic toastmasters’ club. But every now and then the antics of these radical royalists make headlines. In January, at a solo recital of revolutionary songs intended to kick off Paris’s bicentennial celebrations, a flying squad of ardent young reactionaries came out of the mists of history to wreak havoc. Midway through the performer’s lyric recital of bloodthirsty revolutionary hymns, the royalist yahoos stormed the stage and sprayed tear gas into the face of the startled singer. Having taken the precaution of cutting the theater’s phone lines, they made their getaway long before paramedics and police arrived to escort the coughing singer to a hospital. Police linked the attackers to Restauration Nationale, another name used by Action Française. Official condemnation of the attack was swift, but, as with any interesting prank played in the capital, public opinion was mixed: if we’re going to celebrate the Revolution, ran the reasoning, shouldn’t we at least invite the losers?

The French, its should be remembered, revolted against themselves – and by so doing created classes of republicans and reactionaries that lasted for generations. The fires of resentment over the Reign of Terror are still smoldering – and not just among skinhead royalists. In the Vendée, a western province of France where a grass-roots counterrevolution that briefly united the local aristocracy and peasantry was savagely repressed in 1793-94, the word “republic” has always had diabolical connotations.

Since the mid-1970s, the village of Puy-du-Fou, in the heart of the Vendée, has hosted an outdoor sound-and-light show featuring an all-volunteer cast that plays out the doomed revolt for thousands of rapt royalists on warm summer evenings. The Puy-du-Fou spectacle, complete with period costumes, fireworks, and horses, is now the Oberammergau of the militantly nostalgic, those people fond of revisionist historians who compare Danton to Pol Pot and call the suppression of Vendée resistance a “Franco-French genocide.”

With the Vendée upholding the stalwart tradtions of anti-republican sentiment, the monarchical principle has spread throughout the country. The year 1987 marked the thousandth birthday of the accession of Hugh Capet to the French throne (Hugh was the first king in the Capetian-Valois-Bourbon ascendancy that ruled France for eight uninterrupted centuries), an event that gave rise to solemn celebrations in the cathedrals of France and allowed royalists to sniff at the puny two-hundred-year pedigree of republican pretensions. By 1987, a full 17 percent of respondents in a national poll declared themselves “unopposed” to a restoration of the monarchy. Further proof of republican backsliding came last December, when a state-owned television network held a retrial of Louis XVI in which viewers could vote for either his death or his acquittal. In 1793, the hapless Louis got the chop on the strength of just one vote. In the retrial he was acquitted by 55 percent of the TV audience, despite the handicap of having his case argued by Jacques Vergès, the lawyer who defended Klaus Barbie for the sheer pleasure of digging up dirt about wartime France. Clearly, some of the children of the guillotine are losing their edge.

 

Paris, January 1987
A royalist friend, always eager to win new converts to the cause, has brought me along to a mass for the soul Louis XVI at St. Eustache Church. It is January 21, the day two centuries or so ago when the revolutionaries sent his kingly noggin tumbling into a basket at the nearby Place de la Concorde. A few hundred nobles shiver in the chilly Gothic sanctuary, listening to a young curé wax erotic-historic about “our dear, our sweet, our tender Marie Antoinette.” Never mind that she was one of the most hated queen in French history, the priest’s precious embroidering of reality draws wistful looks from the assembly of aristos. In the back of the nave, three young women, strings of pearls and Hermès scarves proving their allegiance to wealthy western Paris, kneel on the cold stone floor in an attitude of abject piety. They are far from the front row, where a senior aristocratic thoroughbred, the prince of Orléans, prepares to rouse the morale of his troops. The regal spokesman rises to the altar and reads a declaration invoking God’s mercy for the soul of Louis XVI and asking forgiveness for Louis Philippe, Louis XVI’s cousin, a man who betrayed his class by voting in favor of the king’s execution.

Outside in the snow a few moments later, amid the crash of flashbulbs from a few royalist fanzine paparazzi, the aristos huddle together to one side of the church’s façade; on the opposite side, twenty or so homeless people watch in fascination. The two orphans of the contemporary Republic, the titled and the disentitled, do not deign to mix.

The Orléans prince greets his entourage and glad-hands any prospective supporters. Most people address him as “Monseigneur” (“My Lord”), instead of the customary French “Monsieur” (“Sir”). A creaking duke, his nose a road map from too many evenings spent swilling Armagnac in the family château, steps up and seizes the prince’s hand. “Take hope, my lord. There is always hope.” At this, the faces of the prince’s lackeys give new meaning to the notion of bittersweet.

At last the crowd has thinned enough for my friend to judge it time for a commoner like myself to meet the prince. I say the words “Good evening, sir” out of habit, not out of lèse-majesté. The prince’s hand freezes in midair, until my friend stammers something about an “American magazine.” A smile of compassion at my lowly state in life, then the regal paw closes over mine.

“There was something I didn’t understand in your speech,” I admit. “When you mentioned Louis Philippe, surely you didn’t mean King Louis Philippe, of the July monarchy?”

The prince now holds my hands with both of his. “No, not that Louis Philippe. I meant his father, the one they called Philippe-Egalité, the one who was a cousin of the king, the one who was a revolutionary.” He pauses, then continues slowly. “That man was my ancestor, and he was responsible…” – his eyes grow cloudly and his head bows – “…for the death of our beloved Louis XVI.”

We are alone in the snow; the man holding my hand seems genuinely distressed. “I’m sorry,” I say. The prince regains his composure and walks to a waiting car. Then it hits me: what in the world am I apologizing for?

 

In the two hundred years since the Revolution, France has had five republics, two imperial governments, two monarchies, and, in 1875, barely missed yet another restoration on the strength of – you guessed it – just one vote. Thus any man who would be king takes the long view of history.

The source of pretenders is, predictably, the same as it ever was: the families of Bourbon and Orléans. As there is no direct descendant of the last Bourbon king – though someone married to a waitress in northern Ontario insists that he is, in fact, a great-great-great-grandchild of the son of Louis XVI – the offspring of the parallel lineages are the fellows fighting it out among themselves. The Orléans, descended from the younger brother of Louis XIV, are the “junior branch” of the Bourbon line. As for the “senior branch,” they descend from the younger brother of the father of Louis XV. This gives them dynastic dibs in claiming the throne of France, but, as chance would have it, they are Spaniards. The reigning Juan Carlos of Spain belongs to this clan, and it is his cousins whose blood is closest to that spilled in the Revolution.

To make matters even more Byzantine, the pretenders have been bewildering their supporters recently with spectacular disappearances, public disownings, and legal disputes. The octogenarian head of the House of Orléans, Henri, Count of Paris, enraged his conservative followers by issuing an edict last spring urging his subjects to vote for François Mitterrand, whose regal way of governing suited the count’s taste. The previous year, during the celebration of the Capetian millennium, the Count of Paris flouted tradition by naming his grandson, Jean, Count of Amboise, as his immediate successor. The ostensible reason for this generational skip lay in his son’s divorce and remarriage outside of the Catholic church. Not to be robbed of his birthright, the son, Henri, Count of Clermont, brought the matter before the courts. Last year, Henri sued the Spanish Bourbon pretender, Don Alfonso, Duke of Cádiz and Anjou, for the right to bear the title Duke of Anjou, which is usually reserved for the dauphin (i.e., the next-in-line to the throne of France).

As royalist France breathlessly awaited the verdict last fall, republican France snickered at the sight of a Bourbon and an Orléans pleading their dynastic suits before a democratic tribunal. To raise the historical cholesterol level even more, the Paris courtroom in which the battle royal took place was the same one used for the trial of Marie Antoinette. The modern judge proved more lenient than his predecessors: he wisely threw the case out of court on the grounds that the disputed title was absolutely meaningless under the laws of the Republic. Thus, by default, the family feud was resolved in favor of the Spaniard. Don Alfonso got to keep his fancy, if meaningless, title, and Bourbon backers everywhere rejoiced.

Unfortunately, soon afterward, Don Alfonso, the former husband of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s granddaughter and inveterate jet-setter, suffered a setback of the permanent variety. During a ski holiday in Colorado last January, on one particularly swift downhill run, the descendant of the kings of France careened into a cable slung just a few feet over the ground. His neck snapped and he died instantly. A spokesman for his bereaved entourage, fully aware that this is the two-hundredth anniversary of another distasteful event, felt compelled to pre-empt ghoulish speculation by issuing the statement: “We should stress that the accident did not result in the decapitation of the duke.”

 

Paris, October 1988
Henri, Count of Clermont, the battling and embattled dauphin of the House of Orléans, has granted a brief audience at home to a plenipotentiary from Mother Jones. We are seated in a study cluttered with oil paintings of illustrious ancestors. On a small side table stands a scale-model replica of a bejeweled royal coach. Henri, a slight, balding man in his fifties, remains behind his desk toying with a monogrammed letter opener for the duration of our parley. Not once does he let me eat cake, for the simple reason that none is offered.

“The people are tired of political parties disputing among themselves,” he says in his curiously high-pitched voice. “They want to be ruled.” Does this mean abolishing party politics and democracy? “No, not at all. Royalism is above all that. It is not a political party, it is a state of mind.”

Henri speaks softly and carries a big shtick. The French, he maintains, are now ready for a king. That’s why, after years in the army and banking circles, he has recently embarked on this quest for recognition in the service of the nation. Isn’t it worrying to have loonies like Action Française on your side? His eyes flash, but the voice remains serenely contralto. “As a prince of France, I represent all Frenchmen.”

Even the revolutionaries? How are you going to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Revolution? “‘Celebrate’ is not the word,” he says with princely understatement. “I am going to commemorate it.” Enthusiasm finally creeps in. “Besides, it was our families that led the Revolution, only it was diverted by other forces. The French Revolution was interrupted by what is called the Terror. It is now time to complete it.”

I’m beginning to understand. The French got rid of their king because they wanted a king. Simple, really. Henri rises and – noblesse oblige – shows me to the door. When he smiles farewell, I try to imagine his face on a postage stamp. Maybe he does the same thing when he looks in the mirror.

Henri does have a point, though: the French seem to like their kings. France’s most prominent and, arguably, most reasonable royalist, Bertrand Renouvin, head of the centrist Nouvelle Action Royaliste, puts it quite succinctly: “The Constitution of the Fifth Republic is entirely monarchical in inspiration.” Most of the royalist cadre find the result of this situation to be immensely distasteful: the man who would be king appears to be, at least by behavior and position, none other than François Mitterrand. Recently the press has taken to calling him “God,” given his Pharaonic ways of announcing major projects for his capital and fondness for appearing above the vulgar fray of partisan politics. In Mitterrand, the royalists have their most formidable enemy – not because he wants to govern as a socialist, but because he tries to reign as a monarch.

Yet this year the ruler will not have an easy time of it – precisely because the commemoration of the Revolution looms so large on the political calendar. Mitterrand’s Socialists try to glorify Danton and the Rights of Man, while their more conservative opponents, such as Jacques Chirac’s Rally for the Republic, ignore the more radical of their republican ancestors and play up the notion of a France united against foreign invaders. The Communists, if they do not eschew the whole affair as a bourgeois sideshow, usually plump for Robespierre. With all these conflicting views of the Revolution, the organizer of the commemorative festivities has had to move cautiously. But this has proved hazardous: two Mitterrand appointees to the post have already died in office. Mindful of what happened to the Bourbon pretender on the ski slopes of Colorado, the metaphysical royalists, a group of extreme-Right Catholics who publish a newsletter called Anti-89, remarked on the death’s of Mitterrand’s men: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

 

Paris, February 1989
The marquis, whose dealings with the present government are, he assures me, “sensitive,” consents to talk on the condition that his name be withheld. An aristocratic mole in the republican system, the short, well-dressed fifty-year-old launches into a lesson about political “lucidity” at Angelina’s, a Belle Epoque café on the Rue de Rivoli famous for its hot chocolate and its blue-blood clientele. “France needs a prince now. The French cannot accept other European countries having royal families and outclassing them, so to speak.”

He adjusts his glasses for additional lucidity: “But we don’t necessarily need a Bourbon or an Orléans.” His friend, Stanislas – who consented to the publication of his first name – gasps in astonishment, then dresses down the marquis for suggesting that tradition be so vilely flouted. “It was Louis XIV who messed everything up!” the marquis explodes. “And Louis XVI – no one asked him to be a good king, they just wanted him to be a king!”

The argument rages well into the nineteenth century. “If we don’t have a Bourbon or an Orléans,” Stanislas says at last, “then who could we possibly crown?”

The marquis senses victory. He pauses for effect, then utters, “The Bonapartes are still a very able family.”

I nod approvingly, the nod of a conspirator. I hate to admit it, but I’m beginning to take this seriously.