Von Habsburg on Presidents, Monarchs, Dictators

For anyone who thinks of blue bloods as worn out and effete, a chat with Otto Von Habsburg smacks like the backside of a duelist's glove.

On the current political scene, he's heartened by the "tremendous revival of religion," crediting George W. Bush's "openly religious attitude" as both a reason for his reelection and a warning to French President Jacques Chirac.

"France is certainly the weather vane of Europe," says Von Habsburg, who after World War II lived in France until 1954, when he moved to his current home near Munich in Pocking, Germany. He lives there with his wife, Princess Regina von Saxon Meinngen, now Archduchess Gabriela Von Habsburg. They have seven children and 23 grandchildren. His son, Gyorgy Von Habsburg, is Hungarian ambassador-at-large to the EU.

"There is an extraordinary revival of religion in France," says Von Habsburg, a Catholic who points to the French presidential election, slated for 2007, in which French candidate Nicolas Sarkozy stands as Chirac's leading opponent.

"I never would have thought one could dare to say in France what Sarkozy is saying — that the separation of church and state in France is wrong," says Von Habsburg. "He points out that a state which subsidizes football clubs and refuses to do any economic favors to religions who want to build churches is absurd."

Von Habsburg reserves his strongest attacks for Putin, though, and confides a bit of Habsburg family gossip to prove his point.

"Putin has the greatness of Stalin, but it is not a sure thing whether he has Stalin's stamina," he says. On the power side of the ledger, he lists the business interests of a half dozen members of Putin's cabinet, noting, "These people can do whatever they want. Their power is almost unlimited. But in the last few months, for the first time you have the phenomenon that Russians are no longer afraid of their power. A nephew of mine, whose children go to the same school as Putin's children, for the first time has started to speak against Putin."

Despite his openly conservative views, part of Von Habsburg's charisma comes from his ability to socialize with the opposition, including revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, both of whom he met soon after World War II.

"I was writing an article about the Soviet Union's Central Comitern organization operating from Panama City, and I wanted to see what was happening. There was a little nightclub on the border of Guatemala and Belize. All the members of El Legion del Caribe were flying in to relax," he recalls. "I met them all three — Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara. They talked all night long. After all, Castro was a very well educated person, having been trained by the Jesuits."
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