Who’s winning?

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Paris, Thursday July 29, 1830 … The city was gripped by rioting and armed insurrection as the people rose in revolt against the king of six years, Charles X.

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From his home, the veteran diplomat and intriguer Count Talleyrand looked out of the window of his home at the Place de la Concorde. In the distance, church bells were being rung, and the tricolour was being raised from the top of a building nearby.

“We’re winning!” he remarked to his secretary.

“Who is ‘we’, mon Prince?” came the reply.

Talleyrand held a finger to his lips.

“Not a word!” he said. “I will tell you tomorrow.”

The story

That one might even be true, and even if it isn’t it pretty much captures what all his contemporaries thought of Count Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), one of the greatest schemers who ever lived.

Talleyrand’s life and extraordinary career saw him serve in various political and diplomatic roles from the Ancien Régime through the revolutionary government, then under Napoleon, followed by the restored Bourbons, and finally the liberal monarchy of Louis Philippe. Thanks to the influence of his aristocratic family, he was also Bishop of Autun for a while, despite being an atheist.

To some, he was an unscrupulous backroom Machiavelli, while to others he remains the epitome of patriotism; his supporters claim that whatever regime he served, he always put the interests of France first. Proponents of the latter argument cite the case of the Congress of Vienna, in which he used legal and moral arguments to ensure that France, following the defeat of Napoleon, would remain a great power rather than a second-tier one.

Combine his career with his love of good food and wine (he saw his table as an essential diplomatic tool), not to mention women and you end up with a life story full of pithy quotes and tales which may or may not be apocryphal. Certainly in the case above, Talleyrand emerged as a supporter of Louis Philippe, who came to power following “the three glorious days” of the July 1830 revolution. He went on to serve the new government as French Ambassador in London for four years.

Some stories about him aren’t true. Such as the one about Louis-Philippe visiting him as he lay dying. Talleyrand was in a lot of pain and supposedly said to the king: “I suffer the tortures of hell.” To which the king replied blandly: “Really? Already?”

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Even in death it was hard to believe he wasn’t up to something. When told of Talleyrand’s demise, his great rival at the Vienna Congress, the Austrian statesman Prince Metternich, supposedly said: “I wonder what he meant by doing that?”