What's Up With the French Nobility These Days?

In Depth
What's Up With the French Nobility These Days?
Image:Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Getty Images)

The “House of Terror” episode of the rebooted Unsolved Mysteries in fact contains multiple mysteries. First: Where is Count Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, the man whose entire family was brutally murdered before his highly suspicious disappearance in 2011? Second: Why on Earth do the French still have an aristocracy, centuries after the French Revolution, and what do they even do anymore?

Before the Revolution, French aristocrats were some of the richest, most powerful people on earth—even after Louis XIV clipped their wings in the 1600s, forcing them to spend more time dancing attendance on him at Versailles in lavish style. But, of course, the over-the-top opulence backfired, and the palace came to symbolize everything that was wrong with the ancien regime, where aristocrats gambled and schemed and lived large while vast numbers of the French suffered and starved. Hence: revolution. One of the first orders of business was doing away with noble status, the National Assembly effectively abolishing aristocracy in 1790.

But that wasn’t actually the end of aristocracy in France—far from it. There are, in fact, several different batches of French nobility. This video from France 24 lays it out pretty helpfully. Before the revolution, under the ancien regime, there were 17,000 noble families, which Madame Guillotine and the rest of the turmoil winnowed down to 2,800. Then along came Napoleon, who created his own batch of nobles, as did the Bourbons when they were restored to power after Napoleon was defeated, as did Napoleon III, the last French monarch.

Each regime had its own logic dictating who ought to be a noble. When Napoleon relaunched the aristocracy in 1808, he chose “not only successful officers and former nobles, but regicides such as Sieyes, author of the revolutionary pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat? of 1789; and Carnot, ‘organiser of victory’ during the reign of terror,” Philip Mansel wrote at History Extra. And, to be clear, this was not some scaled-down version of the concept. “The 19th century would be a golden age for the French nobility: more chateaux were built than in the 18th century.” The Bourbons of the Restoration tacked back toward glorifying the ancien regime, but the monarchs and the nobles would never have the same level of power again.

There haven’t been any French titles created since 1870, and nowadays, France doesn’t have an aristocracy in the sense that the United Kingdom does. The British nobility exists, legally, in a way that the French nobility just doesn’t; there are still heredity peers in the House of Lords, even if reforms slashed their numbers, and Britain still creates “life peers.” But the logic of hereditary aristocracy says that titles are conferred by birth. And so—while it doesn’t mean anything—there are still plenty of nobles with a sense of themselves as nobles knocking around France. You get a tantalizing peek at this world in the Unsolved Mysteries episode. “Versailles remains the city of the palace of Louis XIV,” de Ligonnès’s longtime friend Bruno De Stabenrath explains. “The city of the Sun King. And many aristocratic Catholic families still remain. We were all from that world. Meaning we were all nobles.”

Jacqueline de Ribes is perhaps one of the best-known French nobles, a famous socialite dubbed “The Last Queen of Paris” by Valentino who got her own style retrospective at the Met’s Costume Institute in 2015. Her parents were a count and countess from an ancien regime lineage, according to a 2010 Vanity Fair profile, but much of the money came from her father’s aggressive expansion of their investment house, Rivaud, especially “rubber, banana, and palm-oil plantations in Africa, Indonesia, and Indochina.”

Meanwhile, her husband Édouard was a Vicomte when they married and then a comte once his father died, but the title only went back to the Bourbon restoration, thanks to an ancestor who had funded Louis XVI’s ill-fated escape attempt. (One of the items in her massive personal fashion collection: a “vintage Hermès crocodile purse is studded below its clasp with a tiny coronet, emblem of her earlier title, Vicomtesse.”) Her in-laws were apparently die-hard about their royalism: the profile recounts how, early in her marriage, she informed her father-in-law she’d scheduled a party, but he made her cancel because it was the anniversary of the death of Louis XVI and therefore a day of mourning.

Nobles who’ve managed to hang onto their ancestral homes all these centuries have to stay creative, just like the English aristocrats who’ve opened their estates to the public. For instance, the Château de Cheverny has been in the hands of the Hurault family since the 17th century, but now it’s a popular tourist attraction, taking advantage of the fact that not only is it in great shape, but it also served as the inspiration for Captain Haddock’s home in Tintin, a connection they’re happy to tout: “It was one of the first châteaus to open its doors to the public in 1914, and now houses a permanent Tintin exhibition in addition to its extravagant collection of furniture, paintings and tapestries,” Atlas Obscura reported.

But not all the nobles are in such as good a shape as de Ribes’ family and in-laws, which is where the ANF, or Association for the Mutual Assistance of the French Nobility, comes in. The Wall Street Journal explained in a 2011 profile of the organization:

In 1932, a group of nobles waiting for a train in Paris noticed that the porter carrying the baggage was a fellow aristocrat. “They were shocked,” recounts Count de Raffin. The ANF was subsequently born. Every year the association doles out around €200,000 (around $270,000) to noble families, mostly in scholarships, and offers moral support to those feeling the pinch. Clothing sales, a bridge club, walking tours and a noble youth club are all at the disposal of its 6,000 members.

They also act as the closest thing to an official body overseeing titles, almost like a trade organization for aristocrats. Because there are plenty of fakes, whose ancestors just up and declared themselves nobles at some point in the last century and a half, because a title doesn’t have any legal status and afford no rights and so it’s not like it mattered, anyway. Because, again: None of this means anything!

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