Storming the Bastille, an Endless Fantasy

The French enjoy replaying the Revolution and the storming of the Bastille. Anything will set them off, from rising gas prices to pushing the retirement age to 64.
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault

In light of the agitation that seems to constantly grip French society, a famous quote from Karl Marx comes to mind. He wrote that history repeats itself twice, “first as tragedy, then as farce.” The “farce” of the philosopher’s time was the coup led by the future Napoleon III. He declared himself emperor in 1852, just like his uncle Napoleon I before him. If we apply this Marxian aphorism to the present day, it appears that history in France repeats itself not twice but ten times. The French nurture an unshakable nostalgia for the storming of the Bastille, and replay the 1789 Revolution whenever their government gives them a chance. Would-be revolutionaries in Paris dream of raising barricades, convinced that any revolution is inevitably positive and that the power of the street is more legitimate than that of democracy. Case in point: France has had 16 Constitutions since 1791.

The French do not believe in the immutability of the law. And when the Constitution is not changed altogether, it is heavily amended. The current version, which dates back to 1958, has already been revised 24 times. President Emmanuel Macron is considering a 25th amendment to introduce the right to abortion – a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling. The fact that previous revolutions have ended either in dictatorship (Napoleon I, Napoleon III) or massacre (the Terror of 1793-1794, the military suppressions of 1830, 1848, and 1871) is not a sufficiently effective deterrent. Any reason for toppling the government is credible. There have been occasional legitimate pretexts, such as the restoration of press freedoms in 1830, for example. But others are far less clearcut, such as instating a communist regime in Paris in 1871. In another dubious example, Marshal Pétain aligned French laws with those of Nazi Germany in 1940 and called this collaboration a “National Revolution.”

Despite what insurgents may declare, these revolutions are not “of the people.” Highly active niche groups steer them in pursuit of their own interests, ideologies, and whims. Another unique French characteristic is that revolutions are Parisian and performed, like theatrical productions, in confined settings near the National Assembly and the Latin Quarter. In May 1968, students made a decisive contribution, along with union leaders and Trotskyist groupuscules who never managed to win a democratic election. It is hard to give any credibility to the futile sparks that light these repeated revolutionary powder kegs. July 14, 1789, began in Parisian bakeries. A shortage of bread was compounded by high prices and poor quality, leading angry crowds to loot grain and flour storehouses before marching on the Bastille prison. Two centuries later, in 1968, a ban on coed college dorms is what made students take to the streets!

Let us take a closer look at the uprisings that have punctuated Emmanuel Macron’s time in office. The first one, the “yellow vest” movement, took place three years ago and was inspired by what was considered an excessive hike on gas prices. This was followed by demonstrations against the new pension reform starting in December 2022. Tragedy or farce? Only time will tell. However, this latter revolution is conservative in nature. The French government is trying to shift the retirement age from 62 to 64 to save the public system from bankruptcy, but opponents on both the left and the right are taking a stand to block the change. If we dive deeper into the hostile reaction to this reform, we find a constant and very French distrust of the market economy, of capitalism, and of finance in any form.

The pension reform is detestable for the left, but also for the far right, as it is driven by financial reasons. Most French people have always hated economics – “economic horror,” as Rimbaud once wrote. After all, economics is American and far removed from the superior French way of thinking! As a result, France raises barricades to ward off even sensible calculations. Emmanuel Macron, himself a product of the financial world, struggles to understand that the French want to be enchanted, not governed. Will he meet the same fate as Louis XVI? Probably not. Fortunately, the guillotine is long gone, replaced by a cacophony of crashing saucepans, which now accompany the president wherever he goes.

Whether tragedy or farce, revolutions are always a source of fantasy. To paraphrase French poet Max Jacob, rebels don’t love revolutions for the new government that they promise, but rather for the hope that they inspire. People are drawn to the joy, disorder, action, hatred, blood, and enthusiasm. As France sees things, the Bastille is always ripe for storming. Yet this obvious French characteristic is true of all nations. We all constantly relive some founding myth, and the United States has many of its own. Only our collective past – real or otherwise – can shed light on our present.

Editorial published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.