What is it about the French? Even Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who wears a “world citizen” badge on his tweed jacket like a ski pass, has had enough. He excoriates French “duplicity” at the United Nations, adding, “France is so caught up with its need to differentiate itself from America to feel important, it’s become silly.” Which brings to mind Karl Marx’s quip about Louis Napoleon: history repeats itself, but the first time was tragedy, and the second time was farce. Today’s French farce is the remnant of something tragic: the confusion of French national peculiarity with divine providence.
Recently a curious little book made its way into my hands, a long-out-of-print 1942 biography of the 17th century French diplomat Pere Joseph, by Aldous Huxley. Huxley, who foresaw a hideous fate for civilization in his celebrated dystopia Brave New World, struggled with the origins of the terrible world war then consuming Europe. The red thread of his research took him back to Father Joseph du Tremblay, the original “Grey Eminence.” Father Joseph’s skulduggery on behalf of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu became the stuff of legend, thanks in part to Alexander Dumas’s historical fiction.
Huxley was half-mad with mysticism by the time he fixed his gaze on Father Joseph, but sometimes it takes one to know one. Richelieu’s diplomat and spymaster trained in a school of mystical “self-annihilation” that substituted the interests of France for the plans of divine providence. France herself was God’s instrument for salvation of humanity, Father Joseph believed, such that her interests justified any means, no matter how horrible.
Not merely the temporal interests of the French state, but a self-deifying delusion prompted these French clerics to prolong the religious wars of the 1620s into the terrible 30 Years’ War (1618-48), killing most of the population of central Europe. Richelieu and Pere Joseph bribed and manipulated Protestant and Catholic alike to extend the conflict. When they ran out of prospective dupes, they deployed French forces. France emerged as the mistress of Europe, with a depopulated Germany divided into hundreds of impotent princedoms, and an exhausted Spain and Austria unable to challenge her.
Richelieu and Joseph made Henry Kissinger look like a pussycat by comparison. Louis XIII was a weakling, a homosexual masochist incapable of providing an heir to the French throne. Not the French monarchy, nor the squabbling nobility, but a coven of Catholic mystics ran the nastiest realpolitik of the modern period. France’s rival in Europe was the Habsburg dynasty, then occupying the thrones of Spain and Austria. To break Austria, leader of the Catholic party in the religious wars, Richelieu subsidized the Swedish intervention on the Protestant side. Notoriously, Father Joseph duped the Austrian emperor into dismissing his best general, Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein, in order to give Sweden a freer hand. Father Joseph and his spies probably had a hand in the Austrian decision to assassinate Wallenstein after he tried to make a separate peace with the Swedes. In the greater interest of France, this Catholic fanatic paid Protestant and Turk to harass the Habsburgs.
Huxley, searching for the causes of the terrible world wars of the 20th century, concluded that their source was to be found in this horrifying period. French clerical mysticism was the sacred heart of darkness.
It was in the French court itself, though, that Richelieu revealed his conspiratorial talents. Louis XIII’s frustrated consort was the Spanish princess Anne of Austria, a supporter of her home country, which Richelieu wished to ruin. Hormones outweighed homesickness, though, and Richelieu cowed Anne by controlling access to her bedchamber. His master stroke was to pair Anne with the dashing Italian adventurer Giulio Mazarini, a Vatican spy whom Richelieu recruited to French service. The future Cardinal Mazarin not only succeeded Richelieu as prime minister, but almost certainly (according to new evidence published by Anthony Levi) was the father of Louis XIV.
All nationalism worships God in the carnival-mirror of its own reflection, but these 17th century French mystics created a new and pernicious idea. Christian universal empire, from Charlemagne in AD 800 to the Habsburgs in 1914, was by definition multinational, if not anti-national. The Christians were the Ecclesia, those called out of the nations, and only a truly universal elite could rule them. Nationalism was to be suppressed. That is why the 16th century church did not tolerate translation of the scriptures into the vernacular. Richelieu and Father Joseph overthrew this. In place of universal empire, they proposed a Christian empire led by a particular nation divinely appointed for world mastery, namely France. Between the Sun King Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte, it became a going proposition for the better part of two centuries.
France, to be sure, was not the only nation that mistook itself for God. Adolf Hitler turned the idea into something unspeakably worse than the French ever could have imagined. The Greek-speaking remnant of the Roman Empire in Constantinople, the “Second Rome,” saw itself as the legitimate savior of the world. As Huxley observes, Father Joseph’s vision of France as the instrument of providence was of one piece with his vision of a French-led crusade to liberate Constantinople from the Turks. Nineteenth century Russia suffered from the same delusion of a liberated Constantinople. By some perverse twist of fate, the French ambassador to the court of the czar in 1914, Michael Paleologue, descended from the last ruling family of Constantinople. He spurred Russia toward a war that, he hoped, would wipe out the hated Habsburg monarchy of Austria forever.
Habsburg Austria, the embodiment of the medieval Catholic empire, became the target of the French messianists, because it was precisely this model that the French desired to supplant. Catholic universal empire, the “prison of the nations” in its 19th century Habsburg expression, ultimately was a failure. By contrast, the United States, a melting-pot nation of immigrants, achieved a transcendant kind of universality, and thereby became the world’s dominant power.
It is this that France cannot abide in its sacred heart of darkness. Habsburg Austria was a competitor, but America is an obsession. The fact that America twice saved France during the 20th century merely reinforces the French sentiment of ultimate irrelevance. Centuries of accumulated bile ooze and gurgle in mortification. None of it matters. France has no military power and a sclerotic economy. Along with the rest of Europe, its population is aging and soon will decline. Its protest against American hegemony is the last echo of an evil age in Europe whose passing will go unmourned.