A while back, I was dropping off one of my kids at a friend's and when I went to push the buzzer, I noticed that one of the other residents of the building was "Comtesse de" well, I forget what she was the countess of, but a countess nevertheless. I asked the mom of my child's friend about it, she said, oh yes, the comtesse lives right above her, a lovely lady widowed a while back, and her grown son, le comte, lives on the floor below. They have a chateau or two somewhere in the provinces as well.
So what's the deal here? France got rid of the monarchy a couple of times, once with Louis XVI lost his head (the anniversary of his death was just a couple days ago by the way) and again after his brothers, restored to power after Napoleon, gave it up, and then again when Louis Phillipe couldn't sustain his rule, abdicating in 1848. Revolutions abolished the hereditary claims to royal status and the made up claims under the two empires. And yet, in this land of egalité, there are still those clinging to the trappings of nobility.
Thus the beginning of my investigation. I've asked a number of French friends about this and pretty much got a round of shoulder shrugs. The official weight of the titles was abolished long ago. Some of today's nobility are the descendants of the nobles of yesteryear; others have just adopted them for their own reasons. As my friend in Marseille wrote to me, "Best to leave them with their delusions."
Postscript: For more information, go to the blog Ask a Frenchman .