Macron loves to dazzle people with Versailles. Credit: ETIENNE LAURENT/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

June 1, 2022   5 mins

When it comes to longevity of reign, one European monarch eclipses even Elizabeth II. Louis XIV took the throne in 1643 aged four and departed it 72 years later in 1715 (gangrene had ravaged his leg, thus beating various unmentionable fistulas to the Reaper’s job). In the intervening years, he aggrandised France into a major power via aggressive attacks on neighbours, reshaped the notion of ordinary monarchy into absolutist monarchy, ushered in a golden Baroque age of culture, and turned an obscure hunting lodge in a marsh into the glittering Palace of Versailles, the most imposing gaff in the world.

He was excessive in everything except height; preening in his stockinged feet, he was five foot four. And so he invented high heels, anticipating Christian Louboutin by almost four centuries. King Louis’ aristocratic intimates at Versailles were also permitted to totter on three-inch heels, meaning it was literally the high court.

The Sun King dazzled his peers, and has dazzled France ever since. Only whisper it on arriving at Calais, but contemporary France, despite its claim to being a modern republic, is more accurately a Louisian monarchy, without the blood monarch. As Emmanuel Macron once sagely observed, France suffers a political lacuna: “the presence of a King, a King whom, fundamentally, I don’t think the French people wanted dead”. Having disposed of the royal family in the Revolution of 1789, the French immediately regretted it, and sought to heal the psychological wound by elevating Napoleon into an Emperor, a perfectly satisfactory state of affairs inside the hexagon, and only undone by le petit corporal‘s megalomaniac efforts to extend France at the end of a musket.

Since then, France’s yearning for a strong quasi-regal hand on the tiller has failed to abate. Think what you will of Macron, but he has sufficient self-awareness to understand that he is the Sun King’s incarnation. Macron describes his detached presidential style as “Jupiterian”, a deliberate latter-day echo of King Louis’ self-styling as Jupiter, the Roman King of all Gods. “I am never late”, Macron once stated in true Sun King manner, “because nothing can start without me”.

Macron uses Versailles as a palatial propaganda weapon to strike awe in the beholder — Putin was an early recipient of the Versailles effect, a magisterial trick of arts and mirrors pioneered by King Louis himself. He kept the entire uppity nobility of France mesmerised by its self-important reflection in the Hall of Mirrors. More recently, the heads of the EU were invited to the 1000-room Palace of Versailles, where they must have wept with envy, not just at the splendour of the place, but the immense and unrivalled powers Macron wields. He not only single-handedly commands the executive, including the armed forces, but drives the national political agenda with minimal parliamentary restraint.

But the authoritarian legacy of the Sun King lies in more than the crypto-monarchism of the Fifth Republic, and the command nature of the French presidency. The dirigisme of the French economy, and the tight rein on the overseas imperial colonies (officially “France d’outre-mer”, despite being way off in the Pacific and Caribbean), are obvious fruits of the centralising Sun King, who never actually said “L’État, c’est moi”, but may as well have done. (He did utter the sentence, almost as his last words, “Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours”, “I’m going, but the State will always remain”.)

One only has to keep scratching to discern the endless Louisian legacies in the working of modern political France. Consider the bloated civil service and its bottomless pension schemes; these date from the generous deal Louis gave the royal martines in 1673 (hence Louis being known as “the grandfather of the modern occupational pension”.) And then there’s the spend, spend, spend reflex of government: the Sun King virtually bankrupted the nation; Macron has tolerated a debt-to-GDP ratio of 115%. France then and now is curiously defensive in its mindset: the fortifications of the military architect Vauban were as typical a product of Louis’s reign as Versailles palace, while de nos jours the Academie Francaise patrols the French language to prevent the infiltration of Anglo-Saxonisms. With more than a touch of  the Sun King, Macron is spending millions of euros on a “master plan” to  promote French against the world’s lingua franca of English.

Of course, any ship of Foucaults can critique the Louisian political ossifications of contemporary France. But I am writing this at a restaurant near the historic, Vauban-built harbour of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. I have dined, been to a state-funded art-house French-language film, and enjoying the “patrimoine” of the place, and the spectacle of the chic people passing by. I, my table, and all of the promenaders are participating in the greatest of all French arts, perhaps the greatest of all arts: the art de vivre.

For this, one gives prayers of thanks to Louis XIV. France as the land of high culture and les beaux arts was invented by the Sun King: the supporter of Molière, France’s Shakespeare; founder of the Académie Royale de Danse (and dancer in ballets himself) and the Académie d’Opéra; patron of the aforementioned Academie Francaise. Tireless in his promotion of the arts, he nonetheless found the time and appetite to found France as the de luxe land of haute couture. In the 17th century, he forever changed the fashion landscape. He created, you might say, the other Louis. Louis Vuitton.

Before the Sun King took the throne, Spain led the European style, with heavy, dark clothing worn all year round. But Louis set a dress code bi-annually at court, which at various times included lace, ruffles, ribbons, jewels. Plus en suite, the forerunner of the suit. And, of course, heels. Best-dressed nobles got perks, such as watching the Sun King rise from his bed in the morning.

Louis, working with finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, practised an embryonic form of dirigisme by directing the national textile industry to focus on up-market fabric. The import of fabric from outside France was outlawed. By the end of Louis XIV’s reign, an entire third of the French population were employed in textile or fashion industries. His radical fashion reforms spread across Europe, establishing France as the world’s leading capital of haute couture. Chanel, YSL, Vuitton, Hermes, Dior, are all in their way the children of the “Roi-Soleil”.

The Sun King’s promotion of the opulent lifestyle was not confined to the silk clothes on his back and the high-heeled shoes on his feet. Terrified of bathing — he is said to have taken only three baths in his life — he sprayed himself and Versailles with perfume, commissioning his perfumer to create a new scent for each day of the week. And so the French perfume industry, based at Grasse, got a blast of patronage and came to rule the atmosphere.

Louis also quaffed champagne daily with meals, and imbibed it as medicine. And so the champers business fizzed with the bubbles of global success. A keen trencherman, Louis XIV played a significant role in the culinary innovation that became haute cuisine. Before Louis, food was heavily spiced, and light on the five-a-day of vegetables and fruit. The king’s preference was for the produce of his potager du roi, his kitchen garden, which inaugurated a craze for fresh food with natural flavours, le goût naturel, served in separate courses (another novelty), all supervised by a maître d’.  In 2010, UNESCO made French cuisine of the Louisian type — the multi-course, ritualised, gastronomic meal — a “world intangible heritage”.

When Macron lifted Covid Lockdown II he rushed out to a Parisian cafe to tweet: ‘‘Nous y sommes ! Terrasses, musées, cinémas, théâtres… Retrouvons ce qui fait notre art de vivre.” Which, with the royal “‘we” and the promotion of la vie, was very Louis XIV indeed. He also re-opened the country for tourism, and in flooded the holidaymakers, for a glimpse of La Belle France and taste of art de vivre.

Thanks to Louis XIV France is France. And France is the world’s leading tourist destination. Not a bad result for a guy in heels.

France? C’est lui.

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.