François Mitterrand: Metternich or Gladstone?

Letter From Paris

Two troublesome problems have, from time immemorial, bedeviled political regimes of every sort, from the most autocratic despotisms to the most wildly permissive of democracies. The first is the problem of advancing age and the kind of rigor mentis that is apt to afflict rulers during the final years of their "reigns." The second, closely linked to the first, is the perennial problem of political succession—the problem that hereditary monarchies long sought to solve through the principle of primogeniture, but which, as the recent downfall of Margaret Thatcher proved, can also plague constitutional monarchies.

The extravagantly long reign of Louis XIV—no less than 72 years (1643-1715)—is a classic case of the rigor mentis that can all too easily overtake rulers in their declining years. Although it would be rash and simplistic to claim that everything he did during the first forty years of his reign was truly enlightened, it is certain that from the year 1685 on, when under the influence of a bigoted mistress he repealed the Edict of Nantes that had granted French Protestants freedom of worship in a predominantly Catholic France, thus precipitating a catastrophic exodus of honest, hardworking Huguenots toward Protestant Prussia, almost everything Louis XIV undertook was to the long-term detriment of France.

Another classic example of mental ossification is that of Metternich...

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