The Observer

The Eternal Conundrum of the Monarchy in France

Do you know your Capetian from your Merovingian? Or your légitimiste from your orléaniste? Welcome to the marvelously murky world of French monarchism. That’s right: Despite a head-chopping revolution in 1789, followed by centuries of democratic republican government, the king – or rather the idea of a king – is still alive somewhere in the French collective unconscious.
© Hervé Pinel

The monarchy trope resurfaced recently when President Emmanuel Macron, on a pre-election meet-and-greet in the Drôme département, was face-slapped by a member of the public, yelling Montjoie! Saint Denis! While much of the foreign media reported the physical assault, French commentators homed in on the verbal outburst, for those three words are a dog whistle to royalists. Just as E pluribus unum is an epoch-making phrase for Americans, with the thirteen letters symbolizing the Thirteen Colonies, so Montjoie! Saint Denis! recalls the yesteryear rallying cry of French kings as they thundered into battle. The literal meaning is obstruse.

Montjoie probably comes from a Latin phrase designating a mound (mons) of stones where ancient warriors would gather before an attack. This was then conflated with the oriflamme, the royal battle standard that originally served as the sacred flag of Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris. Another etymology gives the meaning of montjoie as “country protector.” Whatever the origin, though, it’s the resonance of the phrase, rather than its component words, that packs a punch
– as Macron’s assailant knew all too well. (Incidentally, slapping an adversary across the face was the aristocrat’s way of issuing a dueling challenge.)

For today’s alphabet generations, Montjoie! Saint Denis! is just a line from the 1993 hit comedy movie Les Visiteurs (remade unsuccessfully for the U.S. as Just Visiting), bellowed by a time-travelling medieval knight as he takes on a posse of modern-day cops. So why all the commotion about a phrase that was ousted more than two centuries ago by the republican rallying call Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité? In fact, the French monarchy is the elephant lurking in the republic’s living room. If you know your history, skip the simplified primer in the next three paragraphs. If not, take a deep breath – things get complicated – and read on.

From the 9th century onward, the kingdom of France was ruled by dynasties: first the Carolingians, named for the founder, Charles Martel; then the Capetians from the House of Hugues Capet, which ruled until the 1790s through a series of male-line descendants (the Valois, then the Bourbons – who, incidentally, gifted their name to Kentucky’s finest export). While the Bourbon monarchy was abolished in the wake of the Revolution – sit up at the back! – it was reinstated in 1815 after Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was forced into exile. But fifteen years later, in July 1830, the people rose up again, King Charles X abdicated, and the government replaced him with the Duke of Orleans, Louis-Philippe, considered a liberal.

However, a king is a king is a king, and the new one proved just as illiberal as his Bourbon predecessor. Realizing that his days were numbered, Louis-Philippe high-tailed it (to Britain, of all places), and the monarchy officially came to an end. But the regime change – a French term – created a rift that can still be seen today in two factions: the legitimists, who want to regain the throne and install Louis de Bourbon as king of France (even though he’s Spanish – I told you it was complicated), and the Orleanists, who argue for the reintroduction of an English-style constitutional monarchy à la Louis-Philippe. They, too, have a pretender. And just to spice things up, there’s also a House of Bonaparte, with its own claimant to the throne. Which, remember, was abolished not once, but three times: in 1792, 1848, and 1870.

Of course, the monarchy has no formal political presence in France today. There is an official party, the Alliance Royale, which claims that royalism is the only solution to the multiple crises plaguing the country. But despite being a broad tent that welcomes legitimists and Orleanists alike, the party has no visible presence or political clout. Another organization, the Association d’Entraide de la Noblesse Française (ANF), defends the interests of distressed noble families impoverished by the Revolution. (The ANF was supposedly founded in the 1930s when two noblemen realized that the station porter carrying their bags was a fellow blue-blood fallen on hard times.) In short, no one seriously expects a royal restoration anytime soon, even among conservatives who talk up the cause.

© Hervé Pinel

How does all this relate to the assault on Mr. Macron? True, some of the president’s pundits have regularly criticized his supposedly regal style. But the same can be said of many of his predecessors – General de Gaulle proclaimed himself a monarchist – and the reproach has more to do with France’s quasi-monarchical presidency than with the incumbents themselves. The truth is that the monarchy, or rather, pro-monarchists, have not gone away. Their core tenet is that a president, whoever he (never she) might be, is always affiliated to a political party and so cannot represent the entire nation. The old dynastic rivalries are very much alive, reflected in a host of organizations such as the UCLF (Union des Cercles Légitimistes de France), a grouping of legitimist sympathizers; the NAR (Nouvelle Action Royaliste), which supports a constitutional monarchy; and the IMB (Institut de la Maison de Bourbon), dedicated to the Capetian dynasty. But all are patriotically united in what the veteran American journalist Harold Hyman calls “a weird political posture – a sort of anti-progress protest against the modern world and mass culture and television and American influence.”

All is not pride, pomp, and nostalgia for bygone glory, though. Part of the pro-monarchist movement is rooted in unsavory soil, a belief that the Revolution replaced patriotism with nationalism, and swapped the old, holy order for the “four modern evils” of Judaism, Protestantism, free-masonry, and foreigners. That counter-revolutionary spirit is embodied in royalist movements like Action Française (AF), a far-right group formed at the end of the 19th century as a political party with the explicit aim of restoring the monarchy by any and all means. The movement evolved to become, in its own words, une idée conquérante (a conquering idea), more political philosophy than royal faction.

AF’s popularity waned in the run-up to the Second World War, due in particular to its support for fascism and then the Vichy regime. It subsequently split into various factions and is no longer a prominent political entity, though it continues to plow a pro-monarchy, anti-parliamentary furrow. And to attract a new, younger generation that is rowdier and more activist, according to political scientist Jean-Yves Camus. Two years ago, a member of that generation shouted Montjoie! Saint Denis! as he aggressed a politician from the left-wing La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party. At the time, the use of the slogan seemed somewhat quaint, even though the connotation was unsettling. The recent attack on President Macron rekindled those discomfiting memories, compounded by the symbolism of the slap. Commentators have been quick to point out that the attacker was more marginal than maniacal (he’s a devotee of medieval European martial arts). But the implication is very clear: Democracy is all well and good, but there is still a wistful longing for those seemingly simpler times when society was royally ordered, and everyone knew their place.

One politician expressed the conundrum plainly in a recent interview. “Something is missing in the democratic process and the way it functions. In French politics, that missing something is the figure of the king.” The pol’s name? Emmanuel Macron. Le roi est mort, vive le roi?

Article published in the August 2021 issue of
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