Storming the Bastille—Again
France’s mild pension reform is merely the latest opportunity to indulge in revolutionary nostalgia.
Karl Marx was a mediocre economist and a poor prophet. Still, he had some style. There is his famous aphorism about “the men who make History but know nothing of the History they are making.” Today, given the extreme agitation that has taken hold of French society, another of Marx’s famous formulas comes to mind: “History,” Marx wrote, “repeats itself twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.” He was thinking at the time of the farce of the future Napoleon III’s coup d’état. In 1851, France’s new ruler decided to proclaim himself emperor, just as had his illustrious uncle, Napoleon I, a generation earlier.
If we apply Marx’s aphorism to France’s current situation, we could enhance it by observing that, in France, History does not repeat itself twice but rather ten times. The French live in nostalgia of the storming of the Bastille and are always replaying the Revolution of 1789 every chance the government gives them. They take comfort in nostalgia for the barricades, persuaded that all revolutions are positive and that the power of the street is more legitimate than that of an elected democracy. The proof of this is that, since its constitution, produced in 1791, France has seen 14 more. This shows that the French do not believe in the virtues of the rule of law. And when they somehow fail to change constitutions, they are always amending one: the present one, which dates from 1958, the founding of our Fifth Republic, has already been modified 24 times. President Emmanuel Macron is considering a twenty-fifth, one that would introduce a right to abortion.
The sobering reality that all French revolutions have resulted either in dictatorship (Napoleon I, Napoleon III, Marshall Pétain) or in massacre (The Terror of 1793, the military repressions of 1830, 1848, and 1871) is not enough to prevent the French from backsliding; any pretext is good enough to justify overthrowing the government by violence. Sometimes this pretext has been legitimate, for example, the restoration of freedom of the press in 1830. Other pretexts are more doubtful, such as that of establishing a Communist regime in Paris in 1871 or, in 1940, bringing French law into line with Nazism. Of course, regardless of what the insurgents proclaim, revolutions are never “popular.” They are always guided by activist minorities to satisfy their own interests, ideologies, or whims.
Another particularity is that revolutions in France are always Parisian and are staged in a restricted part of the capital, as in a theater, around the National Assembly and the Latin Quarter. Students play their role, which is always decisive, in connection with leftist syndicate leaders and small Trotskyite sects that have never succeeded in getting elected democratically.
As for the present revolution du jour, it is hard to say whether it will turn out as tragedy or farce. Unlike all previous revolutions, this one is totally conservative (in the sense of being resistant to change). The government proposes to delay the retirement age from 62 to 64 in order to prevent the financial failure of the public retirement system, and the Left organizes to prevent any change. The evidence grows that there are no longer enough active workers to finance the retirements of those no longer working, and the Left proposes no alternative. A further paradox is that, in this debate, the Left takes a position against work, as if work were in itself something detestable. If we try to understand the hostility of the Left to this mini-reform of the retirement system, we find constant opposition to the market economy, to business, to capitalism, and to finance in all its forms. Retirement reform is therefore detestable to the Left (as well as to the extreme, anti-capitalist Right), because the fundamental reason behind it is financial: the Left is horrified by economics and by its arithmetic. It prefers utopia, a world where two plus two would make five rather than four. It puts up barricades against additions that come out right.
This does not excuse President Macron. He is a pure financial technician who fails to understand that the French do not want to be governed; they want to be inspired. Between tragedy and farce, the revolution, or what looks like a revolution, is a dream factory. Macron, to say the least, does not inspire dreams.
In this sense, Marx was right: people are prisoners of their history, and what we think, mistakenly, is the past, is never completely past. For the French, some Bastille, whether real or imaginary, will always be there for the storming; no one can avoid reliving some founding myth. Even the United States has plenty of them. Nothing in contemporary life can be understood except against the background of a collective past, however mythical. In politics, myths are real.
Photo by Aurelien Morissard/Xinhua via Getty Images
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