Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What's a Poor French Noble to Do Without a King to Call His Own?

From The Wall Street Journal:

Answer: Form a Union, Do Good Works And Purge the Ranks of Pretenders.Article Video Comments

CHÂTEAU DE PARENTIGNAT, France—For Count Dominique de Causans helping fellow aristocrats in distress is a noble cause.

"It is not easy to be a noble in modern France," he said as he addressed a crowd of fellow nobles at a recent gathering at this 18th-century château. "We have to carry the values of the nobility, set an example and prove [to be] irreproachable."

Nobles mingling in a castle, talking about unemployment? At an event by the Association for the Mutual Assistance of the French Nobility, aristocrats got help on how to make it through hard times. WSJ's Max Colchester reports from, France.

.Seeking to offer a helping hand is the Association for the Mutual Assistance of the French Nobility. The Paris group helps down-and-out nobles rediscover some of the glory. It takes legal action against commoners trying to claim noble names, pays the school fees of promising young nobles and offers an informal meeting service to single nobles.

"The problem with France is that there is no king," says Count de Raffin, the vice president of the association, known as the ANF. "We need to help these people climb back up the social ladder and join us." (In France, the eldest son of a noble lineage is not officially referred to by his first name. "People who know me will recognize me," explains Count de Raffin, whose first name is Pierre).

Across Europe, nobles have weathered the effects of the rise of the middle class, fluctuating farming revenue, financial crises and tax increases. But in France the situation is particularly complicated. Following a series of revolutions, no official nobles have been created since around 1870, says the ANF. In today's French Republic, a noble title confers no formal power.

Hindered by the fact that it was long considered un-noble to have a job—unless it was to serve the king—some French nobles fell on hard times. Today many have simply inherited the financial burden of caring for an old castle. In the past 50 years, without a king to promote new members, about 600 French noble family names disappeared, many of the nobles having married into obscurity.

Count de Causans and other French nobles met to mingle and share ideas.

.In 1932, a group of nobles waiting for a train in Paris noticed that the porter carrying the baggage was a fellow aristocrat. "They were shocked," recounts Count de Raffin. The ANF was subsequently born. Every year the association doles out around €200,000 (around $270,000) to noble families, mostly in scholarships, and offers moral support to those feeling the pinch. Clothing sales, a bridge club, walking tours and a noble youth club are all at the disposal of its 6,000 members.

One day recently, several dozen ANF members from the southern French region of Auvergne gathered in the castle of Parentignat to mingle and share ideas.

After mass in the château's church, Count de Causans, who heads up the local ANF chapter here, brought up the issue of the future during a luncheon speech. Around 55% of ANF members find it difficult to be a noble in modern society, he said, quoting a recent poll called ANF 2020. Still, 87% of respondents said they feel they serve a purpose in French society.

."We need to open the ANF to the outside world and to the media," said Count de Causans, who is a retired public-relations man. "We need to define what the ANF is tomorrow."

During a digestive tour of the vast castle of Parentignat, Count de Causans decried the pigeonholing of the nobility. "A noble can live in a house with no great historical or aesthetic value," he said, admiring a set of leather-bound books in the gilded library. "My great-grandfather built mine. It has 20 bedrooms and looks like a train station."

But helping nobles is a delicate process. After lunch, one white-haired marquis, who hails from a neighboring region, explained how he was recently tipped off about some less fortunate nobles who were seen selling vegetables at the local market. "It took me 30 minutes on the phone to convince them they needed help," he explained over coffee. "Pride, you see."

Even harder is drumming up new recruits. To join, members need to offer historical proof that a French king or emperor bestowed a noble title on their family and that they are directly linked to that noble via male heirs who had a Christian wedding. "A letter from the king suffices," Count de Raffin explains. Children from second marriages, those who are adopted or those related to nobles through their mother can't join the club. Just five or six new families join a year, he says. The result is that many wealthy castle owners are excluded from the ANF.

In the late 19th century, after the last defeat of the monarchy, some French families decided to give themselves noble-sounding names or just started using titles like "baron." Today, to discover that one is not a real noble "can be quite traumatic," said Pierre-Marie Dioudonnat, a historian who specializes in tracking down fake nobles and publishing their names.

The 18th-century castle of Parentignat

.To amuse the masses, the ANF considered setting up a group called "Friends of the ANF" that would allow non-nobles to hang out with real nobles during day trips and such. But more than half of ANF members pooh-poohed the proposal in a recent survey.

The ANF will instead continue to focus on boosting its ties with foreign noble associations and local French families, said Count de Causans. Every three years, ANF members hobnob with other noble associations from around Europe at a convention organized by the Commission of Information and Liaison of the Noble Associations of Europe. The last event took place near the Palace of Versailles.

Talks were entitled: "The role of the nobility in European civilization," "The nobility in a Europe on the move," "The role of the nobility in the evolution of Europe" and "The place of Europe in the world and the nobility in Europe." This month, nobles will travel to Malta for a second helping.

Following the tour of the Parentignat castle, the day drew to a close and the nobles returned to their various houses. "There is a great phenomenon of helping each other," said Count de Causans as he waved off a group of nobles packed into a people carrier resembling a minivan. "We are a big family that shares a common feature: that of being noble."

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