Thursday 4 March 2010

The Times tells the story of the original eminence grise.

The Times tells the story of the original eminence grise

The most famous painting of the original éminence grise, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, depicts the French monk in his habit, descending the stairs of the Palais Cardinal, the magnificent Paris residence that Cardinal Richelieu had had built for himself. The courtiers bow and scrape in obeisance to  Father Joseph's veiled authority, but he appears to be buried in his Bible, oblivious to the fawning.

Ben MacIntyre, a Times columnist sought to keep the Lord Ashcroft affair still simmering by comparing him to the original “Eminence Grise” of history. It is a far-fetched analogy, but, as a French specialist, I am grateful to him for filling a gap in my historical knowledge

Ben MacIntyre tells us that the name of the original éminence grise was François Leclerc du Tremblay, who was more familiarly called Father Joseph. He was the shadowy adviser to Cardinal Richelieu, and he died nearly 400 years ago. Father Joseph was, in theory, one of the lowlier minions of Louis XIII’s court, a mere secretary to Richelieu, the king’s chief minister. In reality, he was a figure of immense prestige and considerable menace, Richelieu’s confessor, confidant and secret agent, de facto foreign minister, warmonger and scourge of those whom he deemed heretics.

The inconspicuous friar dreamt of launching another crusade against the Turks and also of forcing all of Europe’s Protestants back into the Catholic fold. He had a profound impact on the course of European history and his ruthlessness helped to prolong the bloody Thirty Years War

Father Joseph came to be seen as the most powerful politician in France, his influence eclipsing that of his patron Richelieu. As with squirrels, the grey can drive out the red.

In spite of his power, he remained all but invisible, his grey eminence in sharp contrast to the flaming scarlet cardinal’s robes of Richelieu himself, the red eminence. His power was great, but cloaked and secretive. He was trusted by a powerful few, feared by his rivals, and a mystery to everyone else: the three essential characteristics of the Eminence Grise.

The ruthless, intolerant dictatorship of Church and State achieved in 17th century France had been the ideal of the eminence Grise.  In a later article, Ben McIntyre vividly describes the character of this political system, when he compares it with the contemporary regime in North Korea:

North Korea’s leader is more like Louis XIV than a modern tyrant and will burn out like all absolute monarchs

Article by BEN MACINTYRE  April 14 2017, 6:00pm, in “The Times”

Kim Jong-un styles himself “The Sun of the 21st Century”. Supreme Leader, Marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Commander of the Army, Chairman of the Workers’ Party, the chain-smoking, podgy potentate with the bad haircut and the nuclear arsenal is both a joke and a menace. He is widely seen as the last truly dangerous dictator.

But Kim is not a dictator in the modern sense. Though not formally crowned, he is really King Kim III, a hereditary absolute monarch in the 17th-century mould, unconstrained by written laws, customs, or legislative bodies. In the vast prison camp that is North Korea, he is the sole focus of judicial, executive and military authority. He exercises the power of life and death over his people, to whom he is a living god. He rules not by election or acclamation, but by inherited divine right.

To understand Kim Jong-un we should look not to examples of modern tyranny but to King Louis XIV of France. North Korea’s Sun of the 21st Century, like France’s Sun King, can declare: “L’état, c’est moi” (“I am the nation”).

The North Korean regime has all the strengths of an absolute monarchy, but also some of its weaknesses. For Kim is a historical anomaly, a throwback to an earlier age of monarchical power and the cult of kingship: once that is understood he becomes less preposterous, perhaps more containable, and more vulnerable.

Absolute monarchy is a delicate balancing act, as Louis XIV knew, and his descendant,Louis XVI, did not, to his cost. He was guillotined in 1793 under the French Revolution.

Another monarch also, Charles I of England,  had believed he ruled by divine right, until parliament demonstrated his mortality.  Charles had been beheaded in 1649.

Kim’s repressive techniques are Stalinist, but his style of despotism is from an earlier age. Like Louis XIV and every other absolutist ruler, Kim uses symbolic display and the icons and hereditary semi-religious rituals to cow and impress his subjects: parades of weaponry, synchronised waving and joyful weeping, and orchestrated demonstrations of public affection.

Where Louis built Versailles, Kim has the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a £700 million edifice that has become a mausoleum to his father. 

He cultivates the mystique of kingship, deliberately concealing his personality, surrounding himself with "Eminences grises" — faceless, fawning men in identical uniforms, the better to stand out as the supreme being.

Kim claims descent from the nation’s mythical founder, Tangun, just as European kings once rested their authority on a God-given ancestral lineage. Ruler-worship is embedded in Korean culture: before the country was annexed by imperial Japan in 1910 Koreans lived under a monarchy.

However,  like most absolute sovereigns, Kim is also exceptionally isolated.  He has no advisers or confidants, let alone critics, merely dispensable yes-men and courtiers and thus remains friendless and alone on his throne.  No modern ruler is quite so absolute as Kim. Even the monarchs of Saudi Arabia are constrained by Sharia.
Stand too close to the Sun and you get burned — or in North Korea, it is said, fed to wild dogs or tied to an artillery gun and blown to shreds. His uncle and brother have both been liquidated. The humiliation and execution of an enemy, rival or relative was always a favoured technique of absolute monarchy.

Kim is also spoilt, as only a pampered princeling risen to the throne can be. Brought up in the artificial, paranoid atmosphere of the court, most absolute monarchs have little concept of the real world. While ordinary people comprehend, from the age of about five, that they are not the centre of the universe, the absolute ruler never does.

He briefly attended two Swiss schools, where he was known as “Un Pak”, the son of a North Korean diplomat, but since he spoke little English and German, and seldom interacted with classmates, the outer world had little impact on him, save to instill a taste for video games, Disney and pornography.

Otherwise, he has grown up within the weird confines of the North Korean court, schooled only in his own inherited supremacy, confined in a series of vast palaces, surrounded by bodyguards. The only people Kim meets are there to serve him and execute his will. The only language he hears is flattery. Immune to criticism inside his country, he is almost certainly unaware of the mockery that swirls around him outside it. In some ways he is as divorced from the rest of the planet as his people.

Kim is not mad but deformed by his experience. It is even possible to feel slightly sorry for the dauphin who has had the crown thrust upon him. The life he has led, the society he has grown up in and now rules, has produced exactly the sort of person one might expect: paranoid, ignorant, self-indulgent and entirely believing the myth on which his supremacy rests.

Kim Jong-un is not just absolute but a pure product of absolutism: supremely powerful, but absolutely isolated from reality — brutal and insecure. 

If absolute monarchy is the key to understanding how North Korea works, it may also offer a clue to its future. Absolute monarchies crumble when the Sun King ceases to dazzle, when education undermines the myth, when hunger becomes more pressing than reverence. For Louis XVI, the beginning of the end came when the women of Paris marched on Versailles demanding bread, and laughing at the king.

One day the citizens of North Korea, like Europeans in the past, will look on the glittering apparel of Kim’s absolute rule and see that the emperor has no clothes.

Links to David Yendley’s French Culture Websites

Anatole France – Les Dieux ont Soif – Summary and Historical Background

Balzac – Le Père Goriot – Summary -  Author’s Biography and Complete Student Notes

Bazin (Hervé)  Vipère au Poing -  Summary – Author’s Biography and Essay Topics

Camus – L’étranger - Summary and Author’s Biography – Essay Topics

Camus – La Chute - Summary - Author’s Biography and Essay Topics

Duhamel- Le Notaire du Havre – Summary -  Author’s Biography and Essay Topics

Mme de Lafayette – La Princesse de Clèves - Summary and Essay Topics

Voltaire – Candide – Summary -  Author’s Biography and Complete Student Notes

Pagnol -Le Château de ma mère Summary - Background –Marcel Pagnol's Biography

Links to my Blogsites for Two of my favourite French Singers

Brassens – 80+ songs with English translations and commentary
With videos from YouTube

Carla Bruni – Most of her songs with English translations and commentary - With videos from YouTube


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