Bastille Day celebrations mark a historical motif that has been imprinted on French society since, writes LARA MARLOWEin Paris
THE CITY bristled with rumours that morning, 220 years ago today. It was a time of economic crisis, even hunger, and the spring had been taken up with the election of deputies to the Estates General (a consultative body that had not convened for 175 years) and the drafting of lists of grievances.
The king’s soldiers had carried out manoeuvres around Paris for several days, strengthening fears of a plot by the aristocracy to end growing demands by the Third Estate, as the commoners were known. “What is the Third Estate?” the revolutionary Abbé Sieyès wrote in January 1789.
“Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing.What does it want to be? Something.”
The word went out: the people needed arms to defend themselves and there were weapons in the old Bastille fortress, which was used as a prison. Thousands of Parisians flocked there. The governor, the Marquis de Launay, attempted to negotiate with the mob.
At about 5pm, the mob lost patience, stormed the fortress and freed its seven prisoners. De Launay was executed and decapitated, along with Flesselles, the provost of merchants. Their heads were stuck on pikes and paraded through the streets of the city. The French Revolution had claimed its first two victims.
Some 30,000 more people would die in political violence before Napoleon seized power, ending the revolution, a decade later.
Or perhaps it wasn’t over. President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks of the difficulty of governing a country that has committed regicide. The late 20th-century French historian François Furet argued that the French Revolution never ended – an idea that has become widespread.
Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, an amateur historian, adopted a similar theme in a text he wrote for a 98-page magazine published by Le Monde newspaper to commemorate the 220th anniversary of the taking of the Bastille.
“There is a predisposition to revolutions that has always been specific to France,” Villepin wrote. “Did the French Revolution ever end? The debate is more relevant than ever . . . France is quick to flare up because she has not managed, in two centuries, to build a lasting political and social consensus, constantly replaying the confrontations of her past.”
Furet defined the Jacobins (members of the Society of Friends of the Constitution, who multiplied across France in 1789) as “the civilian army of the Revolution . . . its tribunal, the guardians of orthodoxy that excommunicated and in turn founded the Terror”.
Although the word Jacobinism often holds a negative connotation, it has become synonymous with strong central government and national independence – two hallmarks of the modern French state.
French people seem surprised to learn that foreigners regard their revolution as unnecessarily bloody. Although the American revolution predated theirs by 13 years, there’s a certain pride in the fact that the more violent French experience became the yardstick by which other revolutions were measured. The 1979 Iranian revolution and its subsequent terror were compared many times to the French Revolution.
The revolution imbued France with a certain romanticism about rebellion. Camus wrote lyrically of his love for l’homme révolté. Acts that would be considered antisocial in any other society – farmers burning food, lorry drivers blocking highways – were for decades tolerated here on the grounds that everyone has a right to dissatisfaction. Sarkozy has only begun to dent the practice.
Public protest is a ritualised, theatrical tradition. Riot police have a legal adviser behind their helmeted ranks and protesters organise their own services d’ordre.
I live in a neighbourhood of government ministries and scarcely a week passes without riot police facing bellowing demonstrators beneath my windows.
I’ll never forget the middle- aged, middle-class woman lawyer whom I met in a protest march by lycée students about 10 years ago. She had no personal interest in the issue, but regarded protest as sport: “J’ADORE manifester!” (I LOVE protesting), she told me.
Then there was the young man from the immigrant suburbs I met at one of the marches that brought down Villepin’s First Job Contract (CPE) in 2005. He was perfectly polite while we chatted, but as the confrontation with the cops heated up, he pulled on his hoodie, said, “Excuse me, but I have to go to work”, and bounded off across the Place de l’Italie to throw stones at policemen.
Protesters are the modern-day descendants of the sans-culottes, the vigilantes who patrolled the streets during the Terror. The aristocrats too have their 21st- century equivalent. In Farewell to the Queen, an award-winning novel about the last days of Marie- Antoinette in the palace at Versailles, Chantal Thomas described how, after the servants fled, members of the court would stand before a door, waiting in vain for it to open, because they didn’t know how to turn a doorknob. I couldn’t help thinking of an énarque (graduate of a prestigious grande école) and former minister who boasted to me he did not know how to use a computer or drive a car.
Left-wing 20th-century French historians tended to see the revolution as a proto-communist precursor of modern rebellions.
More recently, the interpretation has shifted back to something resembling Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessment in The Old Régime and the French Revolution, which the French nobleman, historian and politician published in 1856.
Tocqueville believed the revolution was more conservative than it appeared and that it was the result of long-term trends, not a brief explosion. And although France’s revolutionary tradition survived, he noted, it inevitably ended with the rule of a strong man.
France beheaded Louis XVI, then Robespierre, was governed by the Emperor Napoleon, the Bourbon restoration, a second republic, a bourgeois monarchy, the third and fourth republics, and finally the monarchical presidents of the fifth republic.
With the possible exception of the third and fourth republics, criticised as weak and unstable, the search for a providential leader – a king by any other name – has survived repeated revolutions; as enduring a legacy as revolt and the simulacre of political violence. The king is dead. Long live the king.