Yesterday (3 July 2017) the French president Emmanuel Macron addressed the Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat en Congrès, in the Salle du Congrès at the palace of Versailles. Macron’s speech to the combined houses of the French parliament was an unusual move, though not without precedent – François Hollande addressed both houses at Versailles in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015, and Nicolas Sarkozy convened Congrès in June 2009 to respond to both the ongoing economic crisis and to criticism of his government’s legislative programme. However, both of these speeches were exceptional, in contrast to Macron’s stated intention to address the two houses annually.
Unsurprisingly, given the overt ancien régime connotations of the Château de Versailles, many critics denounced Macron as a would-be monarch. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who led the 17 MPs from his La France insoumise party in a boycott of the Congrès, couldn’t make up his mind whether Macron was Louis XVI or Napoleon:
For others, Macron’s choice of location evoked memories of the monarchist Assembly elected in 1871, which sat at Versailles (rather than Paris, seat of government since 1789 with the exception of the National Assembly’s brief stint in Bordeaux during the Franco-Prussian War). The French historian Mathilde Larrère, while recognising the use of the Salle du Congrès as part of republican government since 1871, hinted at ‘monarchist and anti-Communard’ undertones in the choice of location:
I’m not going to try to analyse Macron’s use of Versailles yesterday, to work out whether he’s a Bourbon or a Bonaparte in the making, or to reflect on the content of his speech or the significance of his promise to convene Congrès every year for a ‘State of the Union’-style address. (It is worth noting, though, that a similar speech was set down as a requirement for the President of the Republic in the Constitution of the Second Republic adopted in November 1848. Under the terms of this Constitution, the President had to ‘present annually a report to the National Assembly on the current state of the Republic.’)
Instead, I’d like to suggest an alternative reading of the President’s choice of Versailles – one that draws on nineteenth-century precedent, albeit not the legitimist politics of the early Third Republic or the Bonapartism of the Second Empire.
Versailles is, above all, marketed as a royal palace. It’s why tourists clamber on to RER C in their hundreds of thousands. It’s why Kimye had a bit of their wedding there (replete with an eighteenth-century carriage ride for the happy couple. Kim and Kanye know what happened to Marie-Antoinette, right?) Most of the visitors to the Château probably don’t even notice the inscription on each wing of the palace as they walk through those golden gates.
This inscription was erected in the late 1830s during the July Monarchy (1830 – 1848), when Louis-Philippe decided to transform part of the uninhabited Château into the Musée de l’Histoire de la France (Museum of the History of France). The key word in the inscription on the front of the Château is ‘toutes’ (all). In creating the Museum Louis-Philippe was attempting to reconcile the diverse strands of French history, from monarchy to republic to Empire and into his own constitutional monarchy (supposedly described by Lafayette, following the decision to put Louis-Philippe on the throne following the July Revolution of 1830, as ‘the best of all possible republics’.)
In so doing, Louis-Philippe could also attempt to cement his own regime by ostensibly reconciling seemingly diametrically opposed political traditions and histories. As a member of the Orléans branch of the French royal family, Louis-Philippe was considered a Prince of the Blood and was a cousin of Louis XVI, Louis XVIII and Charles X (who was deposed in the July Revolution that brought Louis-Philippe to power). However, he also boasted (in every sense of the word) a revolutionary pedigree. His father, Philippe-Égalité, sat in the Convention and voted in favour of executing his cousin Louis XVI. Louis-Philippe himself served in the Revolutionary armies and fought at Valmy and Jemappes in 1792 before exiling himself from France as the Revolution entered its more radical phase.
As king of a divided people, Louis-Philippe tried to use an image of French history as diverse but unified to rally support for the new regime. The Musée de l’Histoire de la France at Versailles was central to this project. Its crowning glory is the Galerie des Batailles, decorated with busts of French military leaders from the Middle Ages to the Napoleonic Wars and enormous history paintings of key battles in the history of France, from Tolbiac in 496 to Wagram in 1809. Louis-Philippe indulged his ego in the Salle de 1792, dedicated to the events and military leaders of that year, and the Salle de 1830, which combines vast paintings of the July Revolution with allegories of national reconciliation. The Salle du Sacre (Coronation Room), meanwhile, is all about Napoleon Bonaparte, featuring a full-scale copy of David’s painting of his coronation as Emperor. In 1840 Louis-Philippe gave further weight to the Napoleonic legend with the retour des cendres, the return of Napoleon’s remains to France.
What does all this have to do with Macron, then? In assessing his choice of Versailles it is worth remembering (his obvious love of pomp and ceremony aside) his emphasis on being neither left nor right – of occupying a political position that is centrist, but also intended to transcend political division to create a more unified whole. No doubt Macron, whose choice of the Louvre for his post-election celebration also led to accusations of monarchical tendencies, would agree with the basic premise of Louis-Philippe’s celebration of ‘toutes les gloires de la France’.
But the criticisms (and in some cases) erroneous comparisons to the ancien régime that greeted Macron’s address to the Congrès also rather obscure the many layers of meaning and symbolism embodied in a building like Versailles – or, indeed, the Louvre. Les Invalides is another case in point. This military hospital, built by Louis XIV and transformed into a Napoleonic shrine with the burial of Napoleon’s remains there in 1840 (thanks to Louis-Philippe), will on 5 July be the site of the republican state funeral for Simone Veil. These are buildings and spaces that can be simultaneously monarchist, revolutionary, imperial and republican.