On Adieux and the ancien régime in France today

On this night, the 218th anniversary of Louis XVI’s Adieux, it is appropriate to remember the once and only Pitiful King.
Knowing of the masses that are still held to commemorate Louis XVI’s execution each year, on January 21, 2003, I went to the designated church in my then-hometown of Angers for the king’s annual memorial. I had hoped to espy some vestiges of monarchical politics, but instead of a glittering aristocracy of loyalists spouting fiery rhetoric against the Republic, I found only a sad little bunch of devotees (what my friends call intégristes) in a humdrum Sunday ritual. The nondescript congregation was no different from any other cold and shabby provincial gathering of tired-looking parents, where large families in hand-me-downs went through the motions of Catholic worship in subdued voices and damp spirits.

On the other hand, I also witnessed an event in Paris in 2009 that revealed how the ancien régime lives on for the chosen few. After battling our way through unexpectedly heavy traffic and a chaotic sense of an emergency-in-the making one night, a friend and I found ourselves in the midst of a dazzlingly group of 1,000 or so people, all decked out in impeccable white clothing (complete to the shoes, scarves, and hats) as they enjoyed milling around candle-lit dinner tables in the midst of the Place de la Concorde. “What is it?” I asked, thinking that it must be a state function for a visiting dignitary. Un dîner blanc, my friend—a lifetime Parisian—sighed in awe. He explained that he had never seen one of these legendary gatherings before, but that rumor had it that they take place each year à l’improviste after a secret message is sent around to the elect telling them where and when to show up for the lavishly catered dinner. Although they tie up traffic for hours and cause countless headaches for the Paris municipal government, the police, and the unsuspecting motorists who are forced to drive around them, the dîners blancs are apparently not only tolerated, they are revered. If you’re lucky, you might even get to take their picture. Noblesse oblige…

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