On July 14, 1789, in Paris, the price of bread had reached its highest point in a century. Parisians held the king responsible, which was in part justified. The royal administration’s meddlesome regulation had made grain commerce among the provinces difficult, leading to local famines. The result: a riot in the capital, and the taking of the Bastille—a mostly empty prison but a hated symbol of the absolute monarchy.
What then followed was a revolution—the French Revolution—taken over by an elite fired by the mad ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: this generation of twentysomething men would invent the first modern dictatorship and shed much French blood before taking on Europe, all in the name of the Republic and according to a Virtue that it claimed to embody. Robespierre, one of the most wild-eyed of the revolutionaries, designated himself the Republic’s messiah, charged with the “purification” of the old world. This history is well known, but it is generally reconstituted in a positive light, baptized with the ideology of “the common good” or “the general will.”
One can’t help but recall this French taste for rebellion, idealized as progressive and ultimately positive, as rioters are currently setting fire to the Champs-Élysées. Might this symbol of consumer society be the equivalent, for contemporary protesters, of the Bastille two centuries ago?
The origin of the present protest is not the price of bread but an increase in gasoline taxes. Yet, with gasoline now occupying a central place in our way of life as bread once did, there is at least some link between the two eruptions. And Louis XVI was guilty by inattention, just as Emmanuel Macron the First, France’s president, seems strangely indifferent to public sentiment. To enact policies that raise gasoline prices—already the highest in Europe—on the eve of the year-end holidays and without offering a justification, was a major political error.
Macron’s mistake was made worse by the justification given after the uprising: the government explained to skeptical citizens that the new tax was actually an ecological measure, and therefore justified, since the goal was not to add to the state’s coffers but to help fight climate change. Obviously no one believes this excuse, including the government that issued it, or so we must hope.
The truth is that the French state, since Louis XIV and the construction of the castle at Versailles, demonstrates again and again its incapacity to balance its budget; it is constantly having recourse to some urgent measure to make ends meet. Once upon a time, monarchs sold public positions to the highest bidder to raise funds; today, the government taxes gasoline.
Will Macron end up as a modern-day Louis XVI? It was not written in advance that Louis XVI would end up on the scaffold and that the Terror would succeed the monarchy, which would then give way to the Empire and then, not for another century, to the liberal Republic we now know. The apparent necessity of these events is but an a posteriori reconstitution by some clever philosopher. It is a sign of History’s stumbling missteps that republican regimes these days are in reverse gear, as they move from liberal to increasingly illiberal democracies. Even the United States, where modern democracy was invented, is not safe from such a regression.
Thus, it would be bold to try to deduce the future from France’s riots. We should be wary of all grandiloquence in the descriptions of these riots and of the actors involved. President Macron blames the disorder on the far-Right, in keeping with his propensity to see fascists everywhere, especially among those who cannot understand his political strategy (if he has one). More likely, the rioters are a jumble of citizens impoverished by taxes and political militants given to violence, as well as ordinary thugs attracted by the shop windows of the Champs-Élysées. The mob of July 14, 1789 was, as far as we know, just as heterogeneous, and probably drunk.
For my part, unlike more visionary commentators, I find that vandals—even drunk ones—are less a threat than militants. Militants of the extreme Left and the extreme Right, brought together by a common taste for violence, are carriers of absolutist ideologies, virtuous tomorrows that are glorious—and therefore dangerous. When we reread the words of Robespierre (cited by philosopher Marcel Gauchet, who has just published a remarkable volume examining the revolutionary’s writings and speeches), expressing his intention to legislate “for the world and for the centuries,” we are reminded to be skeptical of the virtuous. A thug who beats up a cop does not want to remake the world; a believer in a messianic ideology does. The latter is therefore more fearsome than the former.
Unfortunately, the French believe that revolution is a good thing—it’s what they learn in school. What is truly good in politics, however, is very different. The ideologues of upper-left benches of the “the Mountain” in the French Revolutionary assembly referred contemptuously to the constitutional moderates of the lower seats as “the Marsh.” Today’s ideologues show the same disdain for citizens seeking practical, intermediate solutions. We must learn to listen to, and love, the Marsh.
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