Given all the years that have passed, and despite all of this history, one might well wonder why we should care about the French Monarchy and its claimants. It has been gone, after all, for a long time. For that matter, why should its claimants and their partisans struggle so strenuously for it? The answer is several-fold.
For Frenchmen, of course, the shadow of the Monarchy is heavy over everything. In the Church, of course, every older institution is connected with some sort of royal foundation or patronage — from the Annonciades Sisters to the royal parish of St. Germain l’Auxerrois (where the Kings’ weddings were celebrated) to such shrines as Corbeny, Le Puy, Boulogne, and countless others. Every parish church near a royal palace, and every old cathedral can make the same boast. The palaces themselves — the Louvre, Versailles, Fontainebleau, Compiegne, Saint Germain-en-Laye, Rambouillet, Chambord, Blois, and the others still reflect the grandeur of their builders and remain among the top attractions in the country: there is even a move afoot to rebuild the Tuileries.
But the work of the Kings is further afield than the realms of prayer and memory. The oldest hospitals such as Paris’ Hotel Dieu, Bicetre, and Salpetriere are royal foundations, as is the Hotel des Invalides (and its museum) for old soldiers. Education? No, you cannot escape the Monarchy there either. The Sorbonne, College de France , and the University of Poitiers, for example, on college level; so too with some of the country’s most distinguished secondary schools, such as the Lycées Louis-le-Grand, Charlemagne, and Henri IV. The scientific and cultural institutions that are the country’s great boast also claim royal roots: the Institut de France, Academie Francaise, Biblioteque Nationale, Mobilier Nationale, Opera National de Paris, Jardin des Plantes, National School of Equitation, Legion of Honour; the national stud farms and sheepfold, and so on. The Office of National Forests likewise began under the Kings, to administer their royal forests and hunting. In a word, all that France enjoys was given it by its Kings.
Of course, the King’s mark is strongest on the shape of government. The emptiness of the throne is emphasized by the regal trappings still clung to by successive presidents — the Garde Republicaine (successor to the Royal Guard); the Presidential Hunt (given up recently for reasons of cultural effeminacy); honorary canonries (including St. John Lateran); and co-princeship (with the Spanish Bishop of Urgel) of Andorra. In much the same vein — regardless of the religiosity of the President of the Republic, after Sunday High Masses, a prayer “for the republic” is intoned — just as the King was once prayed for (and the Queen of Great Britain still is). The special relationship of the Kings of France with the Holy See resulting in French control of various Roman properties is continued for the President (including protection of the chapel of St. Petronilla in St. Peter’s). So too, in continuation of the alliance of the Most Christian King with the Ottoman Sultan, the French Consul-General in Jerusalem oversees certain properties and institutions in the Holy Land, and receives on behalf of the President various liturgical honours. So too with the French Consulate in Istanbul and its attendant parish church.
But it is not only the substitute Head of State who revels in royal trappings. The three highest judicial bodies in the land, the Conseil de l’Etat, the Cour de Cassation and the Chambre des Comptes all claim descent from the Curia Regis. Judicial dress originated under the Monarchy, while the Court of Appeal in Paris, nestled in the Palais de Justice (former royal palace) claims descent from the old Parlement of Paris. Many of the other regional courts of appeal make similar claims. Today’s legislative Parliament has some similar connections. The Senate maintains some descent from the Chamber of Peers of the Restoration and Louis Philippe (though few today belong to the French Nobility Association), and Napoleon III’s Senate. The Assembly Nationale likes to think of itself as having had a continuous existence since 1789. For royal roots in government, though, the Cabinet ministries are a jackpot: the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice (and its headquarters), and the Interior (and the Departmental Prefects it appoints). As might be expected, the military is strongly attached to several royal traditions — the army served long centuries under Kings and Emperors, and most of the Cavalry, Infantry, Marine, Foreign Legion, and Artillery regiments trace their lineages back to royal or imperial units. The Navy too is very much a child of the Kings.
It will be by now obvious that there is precious little in all France that does not remind one of the Old Regime, if he is conscious of any history. But why should Americans care? Well, if not quite so heavily as on their homeland and its colonies, France’s Monarchs left their mark here as well. Obviously, the many groups of French-Americans, whose ancestors came here at royal command, have played a role in the development of this country out of all proportion to their numbers. But even if one is not of Quebecois, Acadian, Creole, Cajun, or Metis descent, or a resident of an area settled first by the French, the Kings of France are as much a part of our heritage as the Founding Fathers. Without the intervention of Louis XVI, thirteen rebellious colonies would never have been able to defeat the might of the British Empire and their own Loyalist countrymen. The pictures of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall; towns called “Louisville” in Georgia, New York, and Kentucky in the King’s honour; the statue of the King in the Kentucky City; and above all, the continuing existence of the Society of the Cincinnati affirm a forgotten truth: that Louis XVI deserves to be called “Father of Our Country” almost as much as any Virginian.
On a larger level, it looks rather unlikely that a son of St. Louis will one day again ascend the throne, be crowned at Reims, and bind together the bits and pieces of the shattered Royal and Catholic heritage that is today’s France. But however unlikely it be that Louis XX, Henry VII, or their progeny will accomplish that feat, it is a far happier future than an Islamic Republic of France, which looks like the only other viable alternative. On the one hand, it will happen, perhaps, if the stalwarts we looked at in the beginning have their way. On the other, grand as the French Monarchy has been, Dom Prosper Gueranger — himself a Royalist — had this cogent comment: “Other faults alas ! were to compromise still further, and then, twice over, to wither up or break the branches of the royal tree. Long did [St. Louis’] personal merits outweigh before God the scandalous immorality, which our princes had made their family mark, their odious privilege: a shame, which was transmitted by the expiring Valois to the Bourbons; which had to be expiated, but not effaced, by the blood of the just Louis XVI; and which so many illustrious exiles are still expiating in lowliness and sorrow in a foreign land. Would that thou couldst at least recognise these thy remaining sons by their imitation of thy virtues! For it is only by striving to win back this spiritual inheritance, that they can hope that God will one day restore them the other.” May it be so — for France’s sake, for Europe’s, and for ours.