The Ghost of Richelieu Laments the Humbling of France

The headlamp I brought from Temu had flickered out half a dozen levels above the subterranean gallery where I picked my way to the circular staircase that led to the secret ossuary of the Carthusian monks, deep below the sewers of Paris.

With a magnum of Chateau Margaux in one hand and a large brass spittoon in the other, I clenched my phone between my teeth and stumbled along the niter-covered walls by its flashlight.

The eroded stone steps of the staircase seemed to wobble under my feet, and I stumbled with tortuous languor until I felt the viscous muck of the ossuary floor. The stacked skulls of long-departed Carthusians grinned at me.

Once again, I kept tryst with the Ghost of Cardinal Richelieu, victor of the Thirty Years War and architect of France’s 200-year dominance on the European continent.

I waited for what seemed an eternity until the second hand on my watch swept towards night and planted the spittoon into the putrescent ooze below me. I uncorked the Margaux and poured it into the spittoon and waited.

Spirits of the French dead filtered out of the walls and drifted toward the wine. I made out the faces of General Weygand, the defeated commander of the Battle of France, and Marshal Ney, who commanded the rear guard during the Grand Armee’s catastrophic retreat from Moscow.

I waved them away until a translucent shadow crept up on the spittoon. It inserted a spectral proboscis into the narrow opening and took on color as it absorbed the Bordeaux, and then extracted its head with an audible pop.

“I warn you,” said the Ghost in his Maurice Chevalier accent. “I am in a rotten mood.”

“Eminence,” I ventured, “what will become of France? It seems ungovernable. President Macron’s party had less than 15% of the votes for the European Parliament last Sunday, half the votes of the Rassemblement National. The polls put his party at only 19% in next month’s snap elections for parliament. What will become of Macron’s promise to send French soldiers to Ukraine?”

“C’est plus qu’un crime, c’est une faut,” hissed the scarlet Ghost. “It’s more than a crime. It’s a blunder, as I used to say.”

“Begging your pardon, Eminence, you didn’t say that. It was Talleyrand.”

“Eh bien?” Richelieu sneered. “I didn’t have to say it, because I didn’t make that kind of blunder. Not every stratagem I devised was successful but I wasn’t stupid enough to fight Russia, like Talleyrand’s master Napoleon. A few thousand Legionnaires and a dozen obsolete Mirage fighters will simply give the Russians more opportunity for target practice. It is a petty gesture by a petty man.”

“But why is Ukraine so important to Macron, Eminence? Why risk his reputation playing a weak hand?”

“Irrelevant!” thundered the Cardinal. “France has become irrelevant! It will become a purveyor of overpriced handbags to the nouveau riche of China and a theme park for Chinese tourists! Its grandeur is gone but the self-importance of the past still infects the imagination of the elite of France!”

“But why irrelevant?” I pressed.

“The elite of France know that when Ukraine can no longer fight, they will find themselves in a world in which their services no longer are required. There is not a single industry in which France excels. It has less than half the level of industrial automation of China, Japan or Germany.

“It makes mediocre cars and exports a sixth of what the German auto industry sells.  It cannot compete with the Chinese. As the Eurasian landmass tilts towards China, Germany will pivot to the East, leaving France as the mendicant rump of a fading European Community.”

“Eminence, I am deeply confused. What does this have to do with sending French soldiers to Ukraine?”

“You are as dense as always, Spengler. Must I spell it out for you? If Ukraine is humiliated, Germany will return to buying Russian gas once again and open the door to China, just as the Hungarians have done. It will hitch a ride on China’s grand initiative toward the Global South, its auto companies will continue to integrate with their Chinese counterparts, its engineering giants will build factories in China for German investors, and its Mittelstand will export its products to markets prepared by Chinese infrastructure.”

“Eminence, Macron said that a Russian victory in Ukraine ‘would reduce Europe’s credibility to zero,’” I offered.

“Not exactly: It would reduce the credibility of France to zero; one could say the same of Italy but it has no credibility to begin with. Two generations ago, Charles DeGaulle still imagined that French grandeur could find a niche between the Americans and the Soviets.

“Now Macron wants desperately to preserve the American order, where at least he has a seat at the table. In truth, Macron did not want the Ukraine war; like the Germans, he hoped that the Minsk II compromise would avert it, and tried to mediate between Russia and Ukraine until the last minute. But now he’s stuck with it and terrified by the prospect of American humiliation.”

“Eminence,” I asked, “is that why the French voted against him?”

“They voted against Macron because his credibility already has been reduced to zero!” thundered the Cardinal. “The French don’t want to fight in Ukraine. They cannot win a war whose loss will humiliate them. They have neither the men nor the weapons to make a difference in Ukraine. It is an empty, impotent, silly gesture. If Napoleon I was tragedy and Napoleon III was farce, Macron is the cartoon version. The French can forgive fraud, concupiscence, arrogance and even defeat but they cannot stomach Canard Donald as their leader.”

“You were the most ruthless leader France ever had, Eminence: Is there any leader who might lift France out of its malaise?”

“Hélas,” sighed the specter. “The problem, it is the French themselves. They do not want to have children but they do not want immigrants, either. They do not want China to crowd out their industries but they do not want to work, either. They do not want to be bullied by Russia but neither do they want to fight.”

“The Rassemblement National of Marine le Pen claims to be a nationalist party,” I offered.

“Le Pen appeals not to the fading grandeur of the French but to their sloth,” the Cardinal replied. “Her most popular proposal is to reduce the retirement age, which would bankrupt the French Treasury.”

“What will become of France, Eminence?”

“The same thing that has become of me: It will be a ghost of its former self,” the Cardinal sighed, as his lustrous red robes turned diaphanous. Some of the bone stacks against the wall assembled themselves into skeletons, formed a circle and began to sing, “Dansons la carmagnole!”

After a couple of rounds, the now-fading Ghost of Richelieu dismissed them with a curt gesture, and the skeletons tumbled into piles of bones that twitched in the primal ooze of the ossuary floor. “Get up!” I cried – I do not know why – “Dance the Carmagnole!”

But by now the room was spinning around me. I awoke next to an empty bottle of Cognac and a cheap edition of Rabelais.


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