Talleyrand, painted by François Gérard, in 1808
Of all French ambassadors to Britain none has been more famous or of greater ill-repute than Prince Talleyrand. A former Bishop of Autan, during a long career he not only served the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte but also secured a reputation as the very embodiment of vice and corruption. “When he is not intriguing he is trafficking,” wrote Chateaubriand. To save his life, Talleyrand fled to London in 1792, only to be told that he was not welcome. He was therefore obliged to seek refuge in the United States, a country, he remarked, where there were one hundred religions and only one thing to eat.
Thirty-six years later, having served as Napoleon’s foreign minister and brilliantly defended France’s interests at the Vienna Congress of 1815, Talleyrand, aged 76, returned to London as the representative not only of the newly-crowned Louis-Philippe but also of the non-legitimist and rather bourgeois July Monarchy. Thanks to Linda Kelly’s Talleyrand in London (I.B. Tauris, £19.99) we now have an elegantly written and insightful account of how this most cunning and shrewd of diplomats played out his final role.
Accompanied by his niece, and probable mistress, the Duchesse de Dino, Talleyrand poured his considerable (and ill-gotten) wealth into making the French Embassy, then situated in Portland Place, the salon where London society had to be seen. When not playing cards at the Travellers Club, where to this day the handrail added to the banister to help him climb the stairs remains, he was arranging the most lavish of dinners. Among his admirers were not only the radical habitués of Holland House but also the Duke of Wellington.
Yet Talleyrand also had an important job to do. For all that he had prevented the dismemberment of France after the defeat of Napoleon, France remained a diplomatic outcast and the decision to evict the Bourbon Charles X in 1830 brought the risk of war with the great powers of northern Europe. To add to the difficulties of the situation, rebellion in Belgium against the Dutch encouraged many in France to believe that, once again, her armies should be sent forth to liberate her neighbours.
Talleyrand’s task was to avoid the threat of European war and to establish France’s constitutional monarchy in the concert of nations. This he did admirably, not least through the creation of an independent Belgium. His job done, Talleyrand retired to his magnificent chateau at Valençay. He died in 1838, reconciled to the Church.
Since Talleyrand, there have been many distinguished French ambassadors to London. The most recent was Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, appointed by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. Who, we might ask, will the future bring to these shores? Obviously much will depend on the outcome of the French presidential elections, which is still uncertain at the time of writing.But we also should remember a crucial part of the Talleyrand story. Above all, Talleyrand believed in the importance of consolidating an Anglo-French alliance, of forging what Palmerston was the first to call “a firm and cordial entente”. For all the centuries of war, Britain was France’s most important ally and the means to secure peace in Europe. It was the pursuit of this strategy that was the key to his success.
Faced with a Britain heading at full speed and at any cost towards Brexit, what French government is likely to set much store by such an alliance? None that I can think of. And what person of calibre would want the job in any case? Let us recall that our Foreign Secretary compared the EU to Napoleon’s attempt to take over Europe. Rather than subtle and intelligent diplomacy and negotiation of the kind exemplified by Talleyrand, we indulge ourselves in lecturing and threatening our erstwhile partners, thereby only increasing the distrust with which we are seen. Be assured: no other country will be as eager to marginalise the UK as France and no other will take such delight in seeking to ensure that we rue the decision we have made. So, as Gourdault-Montagne’s hasty departure to Berlin illustrated, in the future we should expect mediocrity rather than greatness in France’s ambassadors. Still, we will always have our favoured trading partners and friends in the People’s Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Donald Trump’s United States of America to send us someone of distinction.