“The French are better at fighting revolutions than making reforms,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his notes in 1848. As a government deputy, he would walk through revolutionary Paris wrapped in his tricolor scarf in hopes of avoiding a confrontation. Tocqueville sought 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 French government, 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. These days, revolutionary-style demonstrations happen mostly in the provinces, 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. François Hollande’s modest proposal to liberalize the French labor market has inspired activist minorities, unions, and Trotskyist teachers to commit acts of violence. Polls show that 60 percent of the country supports their mini-revolution. In 2016, we don’t find the conservative Right opposed to the worker’s Left, as in 1848, but rather we find a Left moving toward reconciliation with the real economy against a utopian, anti-capitalist Left hostile to any hint of the “Americanization” of French society. Over the centuries, the parties and the arguments evolve, but the very idea of revolution remains immutable—and rather respectable. How very French.
This distinctive French attitude stems from the glorification of the Revolution of 1789, considered the founding of modern France. That the Revolution resulted in the widespread massacres of 1793—and, ultimately, in 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,” declared journalist and statesman Georges Clemenceau in 1891. It was only with the work of the historian François Furet, author of 1978’s Interpreting the French Revolution, that a distinction began to be drawn between the two French Revolutions: the essentially liberal one of 1789, and the totalitarian one of 1793. But this subtle distinction, though now adopted by many historians, has hardly affected popular attitudes favorable to the oneness of the Revolution.
Any French political, social, or intellectual movement can clothe itself in a kind of incontestable historical legitimacy by appealing to the French Revolution. The French Communists have well understood this since the creation of their party in 1920. The party remains vigorous in the country 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. In 1981, socialist François Mitterrand, newly elected president with the support of the Communist Party, explained 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 what had been stolen to its rightful owners.
While it remains glorious in France to appeal to the Revolution, 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 an actual revolution. The rebellion of 2016 takes a revolutionary form, but the main demand of the tire-burners is the maintenance of the status quo. They insist that nothing should change; the Left mustn’t embrace modernity. In a strange reversal, revolution has mutated into nostalgia for a golden age. Revolution has become a complete return to the starting point, and only Tocqueville’s analysis remains intact.
For Americans, July 14 is Bastille Day. But for the French, who don’t use this expression, the commemoration is more ambiguous. In 1880, the chamber of deputies proclaimed July 14 a national holiday, but without agreement 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 federation holiday, 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.