Cooley and Smyth are in the area soon to become Place Louis XV, talking about Louis le Bien-Aimé’s reign and France’s run up to the revolution
“Louis XV is in touch with the trouble brewing beneath the surface of French society. He feels it in his bones but cannot stop it. He cannot explain it. All he can do is follow his instincts and play his part, hoping his enlightened approach will somehow serve both France and the monarchy equally well.”
Cooley gets up from the grass and begins to walk again, bidding me to follow him, leading the way into the field. The sun is bright, burning its way through the crisp air. It must be well past noon by now because it is sliding down the sky, toward the horizon.
“Of course, Louis XV is not based in Paris. Like his predecessors, he is conducting the state’s affairs from the palace of Versailles. There, secluded from the populace of France, and beyond his administrational duties, he is free to pursue the hearts and bodies of countless women. His male libido runs amok and his rampant infidelities eventually mark his eventual fallout with his subjects.”
I smirk. I don’t see what the big deal is. He is not the first king to be surrounded openly by mistresses. What does it matter anyway? Of all the things a despot can do wrong! Who cares about his love life?
“Many people do. He is the successor to the ruthless Louis XIV and the people have different expectations of him. They deem him more human, less prone to vice and avarice, more virtuous and intelligent than a man fornicating like a rabbit, or a faun. He has a good reputation, a name for being different, genuine, superior. He surely cannot be prone to sinful temptation. He is better than that. Enlightened as he is, and with Cardinal de Fleury as prime minister and adviser, France is entering a dream state. His policies of relative peace are bearing fruit. Prosperity is spreading. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, which only an able, moral captain can manage.
“Alas, appearances, appearances. Facades, clearances. And whims of fate and tricks of light and shadows in the dark, shadows of the coming night. In 1743, de Fleury dies and everything changes. Louis XV loses his tutor, his friend. It is a loss from which he cannot recover. Stricken with grief and disillusionment, he does not replace him. He decides to rule alone, without a prime minister, just like his staunch predecessor did.”
Cooley nudges me and points toward an outcropping of rock in the clearing. We climb on top of it and gaze round the area. It is empty and serene. The air feels chilly all of a sudden and the shadows are getting longer. The Paris evening is creeping up on us. I am getting an eerie feeling. Cooley is nonplussed, ready to resume his story. I try to see through him, to gage whether this is the time he was talking about, the moment when I should not let my guard down. “You never know what comes next in a tour.” I look round again for suspicious activity. Everything is calm. The field is empty, save those hovering little insects, and the growing shadows, stemming from the trees in the distance and from little bumps and mounds here and there, elongating as we speak. As if time is moving a little faster than normal.
“It is. Especially when times are good – it just flies. Peace and stability once supposed to last forever give way to sudden, pressing changes. Cracks appear in the hull and the boat creaks. The ‘Cardinal de Fleury’ era is now over and a new period is beginning, a period of unhedged, solitary monarchy. Louis presides over France alone, gradually losing his edge. The challenges are increasing and pressure is mounting from all sides. He begins to make one mistake after the other. The momentum behind France’s progress quickly evaporates and the well-meaning sovereign is too insecure and well-meaning for his own good. He knows he is exposed and vulnerable, and no longer counseled well, so he overcompensates for his shortcomings with bouts of staunchness and severity.
“It does not befit his previous manner and character. He begins to come across as erratic and capricious, subject to the whims of the times and to the games fate plays on him.” Cooley smiles his impish smile. “Fate loves playing games, especially on the self-important and indulgent. In 1744, while on a military expedition, Louis XV falls sick in Metz. News of his impending death spreads across France and the populace offer their prayers for their Well-Beloved sovereign. Just like that he earns the sympathy of the nation again, his shortcomings eclipsed by a rush of compassion. The entire country is praying for his salvation.
“It works. Le Bien-Aimé eventually recovers, probably due to a strong organism, his physicians think, or because of the love of his people and their powerful prayers, say the priests – it could have also been a false alarm; a misdiagnosis of a severe but passing crisis – but whatever the case, one things is certain: Louis XV is alive and well again.
“He is also damned in the nation’s eyes. His dirty laundry has finally been exposed.
“You see, while on his deathbed, with his demise imminent and his need for absolution in the eyes of the Lord pressing on him, he makes his confession to a priest, as dying people did those days. But contrary to all protocol, and in a rare choice of transparency that is encouraged by another cleric of dubious intentions, the king decides to make his confession public, for all of France to hear, eager to receive absolution in the minds of his beloved people and be remembered as the king who was so close to his subjects that his dying words were theirs to hear and his secrets theirs to share.
“It is a spectacularly bad choice. The content of his dying confession spreads to the four corners of France, making Le Bien-Aimé’s lifetime sins a matter of public scrutiny, his countless infidelities exposed for all to see. Public outrage follows. Far from appreciating his candor, the French are flabbergasted and a moral backdraft explodes onto French society. Rex Christianissimus, protector of the Church and Papacy – was he capable of the fornication and adultery he had confessed to? Of such shocking wrongdoings? What a disgrace!
“The episode emasculates the ‘Well-Beloved’ despot and the entire monarchy monumentally. Louis XV’s subsequent rule is characterized by a lack of conviction and self confidence. He does not possess the power to grab the French bull by the horns again and lock it steady on course. Further wars down the timeline erode his standing and everything begins to slip away from his grasp.
“Yet fate intercedes again, playing her wicked games on him. Namely, the armies of France score an unprecedented victory in the War of the Austrian Succession, capturing the Austrian Netherlands, or modern-day Belgium. Just like that, things turn completely around. The area conquered is one of the richest on the continent, not only bringing France’s borders very close to the River Rhine but also fulfilling a long-held dream of French grandeur. These territories expand France’s continental dominion beyond the established French hexagon, or the pré carré, as it is known, into the fertile northwest. Judgment of the king’s questionable character suddenly softens up. In the wake of victory, the people seem to revere their disappointing ruler once more.
“So up goes Louis XV to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 to ratify the victory and secure French dominion – and in a startling, unparalleled gesture of magnanimity he resigns all his conquests, ceding them back to Austria! He just hands it all back and walks away, testifying to the grandness of his spirit, the infinity of his largesse.
“Naturally, Europe is stunned, from corner to corner. Louis XV becomes the talk of every town and is regarded as the Arbiter of Europe, a great and generous ruler, the man who made peace ‘as a king and not as a merchant’. Except in France. There, public opinion goes the other way. They cannot believe what he has done, how insane he must be to give everything away. In Paris, they coin a phrase about him and his treaty: Bête comme la paix. As stupid as peace.”
Cooley stops and turns round, facing me. He looks somber, his face half lit by the setting sun, the rays and shadows cutting across his calm features.
“I know what you are thinking. Poor and war-stricken people should not be reacting like this. They despise war, which is always waged at their expense. They ought not to be so damning and selfish when restitution is exercised, even when riches that could have been theirs are ceded back to their rightful owners. But spoils are hard to come by and even harder to give away, especially in times of hardship. When down on your luck you get what you can, and the French, troubled as they had been and in need of a good tonic, believed they had finally hit the jackpot with the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands. It was too much for them to see everything snatched out of their hands and given back to their opponents.
“The expectations of the French people aside, and their self-righteous anger disregarded for a moment, there is another point to make: an issue of how goodwill is readily confused with weakness. Business as usual and things don’t get better – but do the right thing and others take advantage. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Louis learns the lesson the hard way. He makes a generous gesture, laying out a bold initiative for the good of everyone, only to be crucified for it. Because politics has little room for goodwill.”
“As expected, following the treaty Europe does not bow to ‘Louis the Arbiter’. No ruler offers him eternal devotion and gratitude, nobody shows him any respect. Instead, more conflict is brewing under the lid of the Aix-la-Chapelle fiasco. Prussia, an emerging power, deserts France, allying with Britain. The formidable, rising, modern German states are beginning to grow and assert themselves over Middle Europe, and Le Bien-Aimé seems too flimsy a figure to pose an obstacle. More like a satellite than a planet, and engaged in an undeclared war of attrition against Britain in foreign lands and colonies, his presence does not bear weight anymore, and neither does his kingdom.
“Of course, Mr. Smyth, you must bear in mind that the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was not the result of Le Bien-Aimé’s largesse of soul. It was instead the result of international consensus – an agreement orchestrated by Britain and France and ratified by the rest, which called for a status quo ante bellum, a return to things as they were prior to the war. Status quo ante bellum. All the leaders involved unanimously agreed that almost all seized lands were to be given back to their former sovereigns, for the sake of stability and peace. The war? Never happened.”
So it was not all Louis’s doing. Nor was it a romantic instance of royal grandeur. This was a calculated decision taken by a group of rulers and politicians for some political purpose. Louis XV just takes the main credit for it.
“Correct. He does it because he thinks it will make him look enlightened, possibly earning him valuable points with people and rulers across Europe. The vanquisher who showed mercy to the vanquished. The grand ‘Arbiter of Europe’.
“His adversaries are all too eager to play along and oblige him, playing him for a fool. They swap lands and shake hands and bow deceptively to him. Public opinion does the rest. Louis XV is regarded as a weak, stupid leader who cannot hold on to his own spoils. He is disrespected and ridiculed while they are free to prepare for war down the line. Prussia has allied with Britain, forming a fearsome alliance. Europe’s political, economic and military dynamics are changing drastically.
“To counter the threat, France seeks the friendship of Austria, traditionally a French foe for the past 200 years or so, and secures it. But only in theory. The new and historic Franco-Austrian friendship is of little practical significance. France, with her subjects disillusioned and her rivals empowered and emboldened, is standing on shaky ground. The glory days of Louis XIV, ruthless Sun King, are gone, and so is the enthusiasm of the de-Fleury era. The vessel of France is creaking on all sides and making her crew nervous and belligerent.
“In 1756, Prussia invades Saxony without a declaration of war. Europe is once again entangled in a brawl. The new, post-Aix-la-Chapelle pacts are tested for the first time since 1748. Britain and Prussia stick together and take on the whole of Europe. Their alliance is a strong and logical one: Britain has the most formidable navy in the world and can control the waters, while Prussia is ‘an army with a country’, a truly terrifying nation. The coalition seems invincible. Prussian superiority on land is not only an advantage in situ – it also allows Britain to commit fewer troops on European soil and focus on her navally-supported, colonial expeditions.
“The Seven Years’ War ensues. It is to become one of the most instrumental armed conflicts in modern history. France loses several key battles, eventually relinquishing most of her influence in North America. The outcome is profound and far-reaching, laying down the foundation for the American War of Independence. In essence, the Seven Years War is the prelude to the American Revolution.
“France is battered by the developments but not completely broken. As time passes, during the American rebellion, with the ‘Well-Beloved’ gone and his successor, Louis XVI, in charge, the French make a bold move. Shrunken and tattered, both globally and fiscally, they see a narrow window of opportunity, an unparalleled chance to avenge themselves against Britain and make sure their foes lose as much as they did. They aid the Patriots with troops and large sums of money, galvanizing their insurrection. This is money that could, of course, have been used to avert the famine emasculating France at the time, but, as fate would have it, it goes instead to the American cause, a rebellious institution that proves to be highly successful in its purpose – and fatal to the source of its support. Lacking national preference, and totally indiscriminate after its birth, the fight of liberty sets its targets on all authoritarian rule, not just British. The first place it spreads to is of course France! The deluge Le Bien-Aimé had been fearing all his life.”
Cooley snaps his fingers in front of my eyes and the story disintegrates like a dream. It is now dark. We are standing in the clearing, under the light of the stars. There are people all around, working away, carving fountains, paving paths, planting new trees and creating what seems to be a magnificent park.
“The octagon of splendor, Mr. Smyth. Place Louis XV – a square in honor of the deluge king. A pool of inspiration that will eventually sweep away its inspirers and change the land forever. Have a look at it now, the way it is, promising and magnificent, testament to man’s creativity and splendor, for it will mutate soon. This beautiful initiative here is soon going to grow teeth and turn vicious, clawing its way into the future, fighting for survival. It will turn wild, too wild for its own good. It will start hunting down its own kind, self-mutilating its way ahead. It will get worse before it gets better. Come – break is over. Our time here is done. Time to split.”
I look around. People are bustling here and there, worker ants and busy bees. I can smell crushed stone and welded iron, and sweat, and irony, lots of it, ripe and musty and wafting in the air, blending with destiny. An historic chain reaction ready to kick into the next level, arranged perfectly, since time immemorial, set to take place across the ages. There can be only one outcome: a great, groundbreaking, ongoing transition.
Cooley grabs me by the face with both hands. He winks at me.
“Evolution, Mr. Smyth. The name of the game.” He winks at me again, the other eye. “By the way, I forgot to tell you that this place here, Place Louis XV, is going to be renamed. It will soon be called Place de la Révolution. The republic’s front stage will be set here and the guillotine will be mounted right over there.”
He points to the side. I have little time to process what he has just said to me. He blinks, laughs and takes a little step back; then clicks his tongue and punches me across the jaw. The darkness shatters and bursts into broad sheaths of light. I spin around in the midst of an angry crowd. They are chanting and raging in unison.
FOR MORE: Wake Of Liberty