The rue du Chevalier Saint-George in Paris forms the border between the 1st and 8th arrondissements. It was once called the rue Richepance after a slaver in Guadeloupe but was renamed in 2001 to recognise an Afro-French composer and to honour L’Association d’entraide de la Noblesse Francaise who occupy offices at number 9.
The Association for Mutual Aid for the French Nobility is a curious throwback to former times. In revolutionary days the aristocracy numbered 140,000 from 9,000 families, yet this 0.5% of the population owned one fifth of all land. They enjoyed privileges including hunting, tax exemptions, feudal land rights and reserved senior ecclesiastic, civic and military positions. Nobles owned seigneurial rights over free peasants who worked on their lands, which entitled them to demand a portion of the harvest, to levy taxes and apply banalités for the compulsory use of the lord’s mills, ovens and wine presses. Peasants might be required to work the master’s land for free several days each year, called the corvée. No-one but the seigneur could own a bull or a boar. The nobility also increased their wealth through investments in state-owned enterprise, trading with colonial settlements, real estate speculation, mining, textiles, metalwork and investment in church or French Crown backed bonds and debt. Well-off noble families could expect to make the equivalent of over a million US dollars a year, while the most prestigious families received many times that much. The revolution ended most of these practices and the nobility became subject to the same taxes as everyone else. They were, however, allowed to retain their titles and Napoléon Bonaparte created a further 2,200 titles between 1804 and 1808. Today there are around 3,200 aristocratic families remaining in France.
The awakening of the Third Estate
But let us return to L’Association d’entraide de la Noblesse Francaise, the ANF. The association exists to provide admirable services including scholarships, job search guidance, annuities for needy nobles and counselling in business and other walks of life. But then its published goals become decidedly murky. The association website criticises what it sees as:
“….the uniform world that is trivialised, egalitarian with unbridled social diversity…..a contemporary world that exalts the individual man with no memory of his past, no family history…….. A younger generation less cultivated because of the shortcomings of current education”, and the association promotes “a sense of values that give the nobility today its true purpose…….. quality linked to birth is to admit that part of ourselves is predestined”.
A constant theme is family honour, together with loyalty to religion, even to the extent of suggesting that religious obligations rise above military duty. The connection with the church is evident in the claim that nobles are twenty times more prevalent in the clergy than are the general population. But the real goal here is preservation of privilege:
“To ensure the sustainability of socially recognised families through economic wealth and land, social heritage and symbolic heritage…….. Understandably the centuries-old possession of a name, a fortune and a major castle used to establish his social identity for all to see…….. This social capital is obviously transmitted almost exclusively by family or kin, but may be strengthened by attending certain schools or institutions such as the Order of Malta, the Jockey Club, the Society of Cincinnati, or this Association”.
Exclusivity is central:
“We express our admiration for all those worthy to belong to the elite by their sacrifices, their taste, their talent and altruism…….. the value system of noblesse oblige…….. heritage notions such as honour, name, lineage, seniority, contracted alliances, family gatherings, exalted memories…….. Primacy at birth…….. This heritage is undoubtedly the most important and most precious because it is the essence of the nobility and cannot be taken away”.
Each June the titled of France assemble for mass at the private cemetery of Picpus in the Paris 12eme to honour nobility executed during the revolution 220 years ago.
Marriage is seen as an alliance of two families, so marrying outside the nobility is gently frowned upon:
“In the mad evolution of our society, the present danger facing noble families is the dilution of identity”.
Yet the association seems encouraged that noble families have a higher fertility rate, between 3 and 4, which is helping to offset the falling number of families as male-only lines die out.
The ANF has close links with the secretive catholic Order of Malta with whom they hold a joint members ball each year, presumably because many adherents are members of both organisations. Nobility is a key criterion for membership of the Order with over 40 percent of membership from Europe’s oldest and most powerful Catholic families. Serious wealth, hard-line Catholicism and sworn allegiance to defend the Holy Mother Church are the other prerequisites.
The Order of Malta also operates as a charity assisting the needy – which may explain why it assisted Nazi war criminals to escape to South America after the war, including Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyons”. In more recent years the Order has maintained strong connections with the CIA and assisted in anti-communist activities.
And so the common links between the French nobility and the catholic church are manifest. Both share an unswerving belief in self-worth and entitlement, reactionary convictions, the distrust of democracy and a covert approach to power and influence. Neither is a force for good.
Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back. – Carl Sagan
I am from the Third Estate