PARIS — Paris. -- It is frightening to see a man methodically, if unwittingly, destroy his public reputation. Prince Charles may also have destroyed the British monarchy, but only because he has submitted to the logic of decisions taken by his parents and their advisers.
The prince's collaboration in a biography that provides a whining and self-pitying account of the misfortunes life has dealt him -- heir to possibly the world's greatest private fortune as well as to the throne of Britain -- is an appalling affair. His mother, he says, was distant, his father tough and unsympathetic, his sister the favored child, and the other boys at his school were bullies. He was sensitive and misunderstood. He married the wrong woman because his father told him to make up his mind and either leave the girl or wed her. He claims society's sympathy for his plight. He is a victim. He is a sad spectacle.
The British monarchy survived another Prince of Wales' self-indulgence -- the Duke of Windsor's romance with Wallis Warfield. That it can survive the derision and contempt engendered by the conduct and egoism of both Charles and Andrew, and their ill-chosen spouses, is unlikely because the House of Windsor has abandoned the sacral role of monarchy, without apparently understanding the significance of this decision.
It is this abandonment, not Charles' conduct, that is the crucial weakness in their position. Monarchy is a phenomenon of earliest society. In the Mediterranean, civilized political society seems to have begun with the city-empire ruled by a god-king, as in Mesopotamia and Egypt. After imperial Rome's collapse, a new Christian emperor for the West was anointed by the pope. This emperor was to be God's instrument in the political governance of God's people.
Thus the subsequent claim by Europe's dynastic families that monarchy was divinely instituted, and that monarchs possessed divine right'' and a form of priestly power. The bishops of the Church of England have always consecrated the kings and queens of England with holy oils at their coronations, and an equivalent ceremony takes place in nearly all other monarchies.
However, the sacral function of the monarch was in the past held to be what theologians call ''ex opere operato'' -- ''from the work wrought'' -- meaning that its validity was not subject to the personal merits of the monarch. The legitimacy of the monarchical succession continued whatever the crimes of individual monarchs. Sovereignty lay in legitimate succession. (This is why in British law adultery with the prince-heir's spouse is high treason. If Britain today were serious, the pathetic Captain James Hewitt would be hung, drawn and quartered.)
Britain has known more bad or indifferent kings than meritorious ones. The British public has always known about their kings' adulteries, and in pre-Victorian times cheerfully derided and mocked them. Since Victoria's puritan regime, the love affairs of Edward VII and of Charles' own uncle, briefly Edward VIII before his abdication, were never secrets, even if the press did not write about them. It was generally understood that a good king could be a bad man, and that even a bad king was a real king, inheritor of the nation's sovereignty.
This generation of Windsors, with the help of press, television and public-relations counselors, decided that the monarchy could no longer stand on the old principles. They set out to modernize and re-establish their claim to the monarchy on the grounds that they deserve to be queens and kings because they are a family of nice, likable, hard-working people holding a public trust -- the Good Queen Mum, Our Dear Queen Elizabeth, that nice, hard-working Philip. And there, unfortunately for the Windsors, it stopped.
Theirs was a fatal choice.
No monarchy can survive on personal popularity, least of all today, with the hounds of both scandal and celebrity press baying after its members. The monarchs of Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain may all be nice people, but they do not rest their claim to their crowns on their niceness. They go about their duties, live unassumingly and are conscious of their sacral roles; and, of course, they too are by no means certain to survive. The latter three all have gone through tricky periods in recent years.
A symbol of the Windsors' confusion was Prince Charles' own statement, in a television interview earlier this year, that instead of being crowned as ''Defender of the Faith,'' he would prefer ''Defender of Faith.''
Faith? Faith in what? He obviously said this out of a muddled consciousness that Christianity is a shrunken force in secularized Britain today and that many of his believing subjects are Muslims or Hindus. ''Faith'' undoubtedly seemed to him an inoffensive, ecumenical and politically correct substitution for ''the Faith,'' and could probably be extended to include ''faith'' in the virtues of good citizenship as well, so that no one was left out.
Does anybody care about all this? Obviously the British do. But they must ask themselves what they want in a monarch. The monarchy is embedded in the nation's history and political civilization. When kings ceased to be feared and obeyed the British monarchy had to make itself respected, which it did, without its members necessarily becoming liked (but at a time when the vast majority of people had no way of knowing whether they were likable or not).
Now they have decided that they have to court personal popularity. They have decided that the British people will not accept an unlikable king. If this really is true the monarchy is finished, whether the Windsors realize it or not. The public reaction to Charles' book suggests that it is true.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.