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The Twilight of France’s Republican Aristocracy

PARIS – No tumbrils have appeared in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, but a revolution may be underway in France nonetheless. Recent weeks have seen the trial of former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and the conviction of former Defense Minister Charles Pasqua. Now even former President Jacques Chirac has learned that he is not immune from prosecution. Is France’s “Republican Monarchy,” to borrow a phrase from Jean-François Revel, about to be overthrown?

The French Revolution never actually ended the privileges of France’s ruling elites. True enough, some aristocratic heads rolled, but the nobility eventually returned to France. When the Republic replaced the monarchy for good, in 1875, ballots replaced birthright, but the new governing elite believed that it possessed the same rights and perks as the former aristocrats.

But the concept of the “Republican monarchy,” which is mostly concerned with the mores of French presidents and their entourages, did not really take hold until the Fifth Republic. Once elected, the French president and his court gain access to financial privileges that are not always legal. Moreover, they live behind a shroud of secrecy: how they use official airplanes, the civil servants they employ for personal service, not to mention the mistresses, has always been more or less considered private territory. Journalists avoided commenting on these matters. The public either was unaware of any excesses, or deemed the ruling elite corrupt by definition.

The apex of the aristocratic Republic was reached under the Socialist President François Mitterrand, who ruled from 1981 to 1995. Unknown to the public, a government jet would ferry him to Egypt to spend weekends with his mistress and his illegitimate daughter. Only the media elite knew, and they never mentioned it. Chirac, who succeeded Mitterrand as president, was only slightly more cautious.