Revolution as Play in France

On July 14, Americans celebrate Bastille Day. On this day, the French celebrate more than their National Day or the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille: They celebrate the everlasting spirit of the 1789 Revolution.
© Olivier Tallec

“The French are better at fighting revolutions than making reforms,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his notes in 1848. As a Deputy of the Manche département he was walking through revolutionary Paris, wrapped in his tricolor scarf in the hope of avoiding a confrontation, in order to judge for himself the extent of the fighting at the barricades between the army and the workers. In today’s summer rebellion against the government, the left’s opponent is the extreme left. But there are no more barricades in the capital: After the “events” of May 1968, the cobblestones were replaced by asphalt and Paris became a bourgeois city. The current demonstrations in the revolutionary style affect the provinces especially, where Marxist union activists burn mountains of tires in order to block gasoline stations.

The revolutionary temptation remains a political and cultural constant in contemporary France. Only certain activist minorities, unions and Trotskyist teachers commit acts of violence, but the polls show that 60% of the French see this resistance to the modest liberalization of the labor market proposed by François Hollande’s government as legitimate. In this mini-revolution of 2016 we do not find the conservative right opposed to a worker’s left, as in 1848, but rather a left that is moving towards reconciliation with the real economy against a utopian, anti-capitalist left that is hostile to any reform perceived to be an “Americanization” of French society. Over the centuries, the parties and the arguments evolve, but the very idea of revolution remains immutable and rather respectable, which is unique to France.

This distinctive French attitude stems from the glorification of the Revolution of 1789, which is considered to have founded modern France. Celebrated continuously, never contested and taught to all as unique and perfect, the Revolution is propagated as necessarily positive. The fact that it resulted in the Terror, beginning in October 1789, into the widespread massacres of 1793 and then into Napoleon’s dictatorship – are but minor matters. Since our school days we have been taught that these were merely circumstantial accidents. “The Revolution is one” – so declared Georges Clemenceau, journalist and statesman, in a famous campaign speech in 1891. It was only in the work of the historian François Furet, a professor in Paris and Chicago and the author of Interpreting the French Revolution (1978), that a distinction was drawn between the two French Revolutions; the essentially liberal one of 1789 and the totalitarian one of 1793. But this subtle distinction, though adopted by most historians, has hardly affected popular attitudes favorable to the oneness of the Revolution. Thus any party and any social or intellectual movement can automatically clothe itself in a kind of incontestable historical legitimacy by appealing to the Revolution. The French Communists have well understood this since the creation of their party in 1920, a party that still remains vigorous today. This is the exception in Europe, by appealing not to Lenin but to the Jacobins of 1793 and to the Parisian Communards of 1871. For almost a century Communist and Trotskyite rhetoric has claimed the exclusive pedigree and legacy of the French Revolution, rooted in the long history of an immutable France. I recall that in 1981 François Mitterrand, newly elected as President with the support of the Communist Party, explained to his interlocutors in intellectual circles that he was going to complete the work of the Revolution, begun in 1789 but still unfinished. At that time this translated into a campaign of shame against the “rich” and state confiscation of all large enterprises. In 1986, Jacques Chirac’s government restored these to their owners.

Thus it remains glorious in France to appeal to the Revolution, but it is notable that the term covers the most diverse ideological positions. In 1940 Marshall Pétain declared that the transformation of France into a fascist society was a “national Revolution.” In May 1968, it was the students who fought the Revolution – but their primary demand was sexual freedom and the dismissal of the “old folks,” which led the sociologist Raymond Aron to define May 1968 as a theatrical performance of Revolution rather than a revolution. The rebellion of 2016 takes a revolutionary form, but the main demand of the tire-burners is the maintenance of the status quo: what matters for them is that nothing must change and that the left must not embrace modern times. In a strange reversal, Revolution has mutated into nostalgia for yesterday’s Revolution, a golden age situated in the past rather than in the future. Revolution has become a revolution, a complete return to the starting point, and only Tocqueville’s analysis remains intact.

What Do the French Celebrate on July 14?

For Americans, July 14 is Bastille Day. But for the French, who do not use this expression, the commemoration is more ambiguous. In 1880, the Chamber of Deputies proclaimed July 14 a national holiday, but without the right and the left agreeing on just what there was to celebrate. The left invoked July 14, 1789, the Storming of the Bastille, a symbol of tyranny. For the right, the national holiday referred to July 14, 1790, the Fête de la Fédération, which was celebrated at the Champ de Mars park in Paris with a Latin mass and a parade of representatives from all the old French provinces, a moment of national reconciliation. Following a heated debate, the deputies were unable to decide which July 14 should take precedent. Today each person may therefore choose whether to celebrate the revolution or the reconciliation.