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Is the king dead?

Reports of a royalist revival in France have been greatly exaggerated. Richard Christiansen reports from Paris

In some respects, the French are lucky. They may share problems of unemployment, poverty and repression with their British neighbours, but they are at least spared the inanity of Charles' liaisons with Camilla being considered worthy of high-level debate. It may seem that 'Lady Di' is never off the cover of Paris Match, but that is because the French enjoy a bit of gossip as much as we do and like to laugh at dusty old Britain's antiquated traditions.

They can count themselves relatively lucky, as 200 years ago the leaders of the French Revolution, under pressure from the insurgent masses, dealt with the opulent and bloated royal body by cutting off its head. French royalism has since enjoyed periodic revivals, particularly in the nineteenth century, when the vexed question of ruling the unruly raised its head. But by and large, France's rulers have felt more secure singing the praises of 'Liberty, equality, fraternity', the better to disguise the real, privileged nature of society. Consequently, royalists have tended to get a rather bad press.

On with his head

At least that was how it seemed until the week before the two hundredth anniversary of Louis XVI's beheading was due to be commemorated on 21 January. Suddenly the French press was full of intellectuals wrestling with the question 'Should the king have been killed?'. The Louis XVI commemoration was shunned by most representatives of the French state. Yet when I arrived at work at the Place de la Concorde on the day, 5000 people had got there before me. So is France going royalist?

Well, not really. It is important to put these things into some perspective. Most of those commemorating the event were firmly in the senior citizen category. For the purposes of the event, the city council had allowed a few square metres at the edge of the Place to be given over for people to lay wreaths and white lilies. It was a bizarre scene. When the organiser of the mourning asked journalists to respect the 'sacred ground' during the ceremony, as cars tore past on their way to work, it looked as if they were trying to conduct a burial in the middle of a motorway. Whatever has created renewed interest in the execution of the king, it is not the vibrancy of a mass movement to restore the monarchy.

Writing in Libération, Jacques Rancière suggested that the debate wasn't really about the execution of Louis, 'a transhistorical event which is always there to interrogate us'. Rather, it related to the fact that the French 'are at a juncture where thinking through what a "good democracy" is means one that is not linked to revolutions and decapitations' (20 January 1993). Or, as the royalist Jean-Claude Casanova put it, the debate reflects a search for a 'lucid and serene version of the past' (L'Express, 14 January).

The turning point in this discussion came in 1989, when the bicentenary of the French Revolution coincided with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Historians of all persuasions seized the moment to condemn the French, Russian and all other revolutions as the work of bloodthirsty maniacs which could only lead to totalitarianism. Since then, the intellectual climate has been dominated by a horror of anything that smacks of radicalism. In this climate people can become more receptive to wildly distorted views of history; so if it was only the revolutionary masses' bloodlust that cost Louis XVI his life, perhaps he wasn't such a bad chap after all. And this is indeed, from left to right, what the finest minds have been saying.

Louis XVI did implement a lot of minor reforms, particularly in response to the demands of the third estate - aspirant capitalists whose economic ambitions were held back by feudal ties. But Louis XVI could not implement the abolition of feudal privilege and repression which the masses demanded without cutting his own throat. So the revolutionaries did it for him. They disposed of the king, not so much because of his personal characteristics as because he represented a powerful rallying point for the defenders of the old order. As Danton said, it was not a question of judging the king, but of killing him.

Today, however, Louis is being judged as a progressive with liberal ideas on race, the Jewish question and (occasionally) women's rights. One West Indian royalist present at the commemoration felt sure that 'he would have abolished slavery'. But the king's high level of culture could not save him from the 'rabble', and so he became another senseless victim of the revolutionary terror.

The revisionism that took off in 1989 has led to some outrageous claims for Louis XVI's progressiveness. (The best that anybody could honestly say of him was that he was a bumbling fool caught in the wrong place at the wrong moment in history.) But most of the new lawyers for the king's defence would still describe themselves as republicans. It is just that, as Alain Decaux of the Académie Francaise put it in the right-wing Figaro Magazine, 'Louis was one of the necessary links in the long chain of kings, emperors and republics that have made France' (23 January 1993).

'The sacred being'

The 'serene' view of history does not want violent breaks with the past, it wants harmony and continuity. For Casanova this is important because 'with Louis XVI, the sacred being that incarnated French unity disappeared forever'. He may say that because he is a royalist, but he has a point in relating the renewed debate about Louis to the problem of disunity.

For the past half-century, right wingers in France as elsewhere have sought to unite against the 'red menace'. Now, deprived of an external focus for unity, they fragment further. This can be seen not just among royalists, but within the mainstream right which is having enormous difficulties agreeing what to do when the Socialist government loses the March elections. This uneasiness pervades all sides of the French political establishment, to the point where they believe the whole nation is coming apart. Issues which have divided the French suddenly become important again. The problem is, do they try to set the record straight and defend Louis, or do they keep quiet for fear of provoking more division? And so the debate goes on.

The old royalists can congratulate themselves for having gained five minutes of respectability. But their quaint battiness will not win any big battles. Although polls suggest that only nine per cent of the French today might condemn Louis to death, fighting for funny wigs and Fergie clones is not a priority. Yet, in the search for a new way of projecting the French identity into the future, even an idea as outdated and ludicrous as a royal family can briefly become good coin again.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

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