COVER

THE REVOLUTION AT 200

THE BICENTENNIAL OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION HAS REOPENED DEBATE OVER ITS MEANING

ANDREW PHILLIPS May 15 1989
COVER

THE REVOLUTION AT 200

THE BICENTENNIAL OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION HAS REOPENED DEBATE OVER ITS MEANING

ANDREW PHILLIPS May 15 1989

There are disposable lighters for $2 and a special bicentennial champagne at $28 a bottle. Giant tricolor lollipops are selling for $7, and boxer shorts decorated with symbols of liberty go for $10 a pair. There is a board game at $50 in which the winners become revolutionary heroes—while the losers end up on the guillotine. Neighborhood bakeries sell red, white and blue baguettes, while a fast-food restaurant off the Place de la Bastille has named its hamburgers after the legendary figures of the revolutionary era (the big triple-decker is the Louis XVI). And at least one store sells condoms decorated with tiny portraits of the unfortunate king ($5 for a packet of three). In Paris now, it seems that nearly everyone is trying to make a fast franc out of the revolution. And many are attempting to read new meanings into that historic event.

Crush: For the French, commemorating the 200th anniversary of their tumultuous birth as a modern nation is part tourist promotion, part festival—and part self-examination. French authorities expect that the celebrations will attract almost six million more tourists than last year’s record 38 million visitors. The first of the main events was held last week with a reenactment in Versailles of the meeting of the Estates General, later the National Assembly. The crush of visitors in Paris is expected to reach its peak on the July 14 anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. A new opera house, designed by Canadian architect Carlos Ott, will be opened, and on Bastille Day as many as a million spectators are expected to watch a lavish parade proceeding from an imposing new arch-shaped building in the western suburb of La Défense to the Place de la Concorde—where thousands died under the guillotine.

But behind the festival atmosphere is an unsettled mood of ignorance and confusion. Polls have shown that the French know little about what they are celebrating this year—and that those who claim knowledge remain deeply divided over what it all meant. There is little of the national euphoria that gripped the United States during the 1976 bicentenary of its Declaration of Independence—or Canada in 1967 during the centennial of Confederation. Unlike those two events—the American colonies throwing off British rule, the Canadian colonies uniting—the French Revolution was an all-encompassing social upheaval.

Terror: Its legacy includes both the stirring Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 and the Reign of Terror in 1793-1794. Because theories of sweeping revolution are now widely discredited, even the bicentennial’s chief organizer concedes that his task has not been easy. “It is certainly easier to celebrate a birth than to celebrate a radical break like the revolution,” said Jean-Noël Jeanneney, the 47-year-old historian who heads the official organizing committee. “It is still at the centre of French consciousness—and it is still very controversial.”

The revolution remains an object of both fascination and controversy outside of France, as well. Scholars have long regarded it as an event that spoke to the whole world—with its themes of liberty, nation-building and class warfare. George Steiner, a University of Geneva professor, wrote recently that the revolution is “the pivotal historical-social date after that of the foundation of Christianity.” Democratic countries honor the legacy of human rights, while Communist states find the seeds of Leninism in the radical Jacobin faction that presided over the Terror. More than 150 countries will commemorate the bicentennial. They include Stalinist Albania (site of one of the 600 academic conferences on the revolution); Paraguay (where, before his recent overthrow, military strongman Alfredo Stroessner arranged to rename a major boulevard in the capital, Asunción, as the Avenue of the French Revolution); and Canada (page 41).

Political divisions are also at the root of the poor organization and underfunding that has surrounded the official bicentennial activities. In 1889, on the 100th anniversary of the revolution, France celebrated in grand style with a world’s fair, military processions—and the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower. This year’s festivities were hobbled from the start by tensions between the Socialist government of François Mitterrand and the city administration of Paris, headed by conservative Mayor Jacques Chirac. In 1982, Chirac refused to support a French bid for a 1989 world’s fair in Paris, an action that Jeanneney said effectively killed its chances.

While Chirac served as prime minister from 1986 to 1988, while remaining mayor of Paris, disagreement persisted over how extensive the celebrations should be and what form they should take. He refused to go along with a proposal for a spectacular sound-and-light show on the Place de la Concorde on July 14, arguing that it would conflict with security measures for the annual summit of the leaders of the seven major industrial democracies, which will be held in the city at that time.

The organizing committee also suffered a series of disasters. Its first president died in a plane crash five months after his appointment in 1986, and the man who replaced him died of natural causes in March, 1988. Jeanneney took over last May—with only seven months to go before the start of the bicentennial year. His budget is just $65 million—with barely $1.6 million contributed by private French companies, which Jeanneney said are still reticent about associating themselves with a “revolutionary” cause. “There were real doubts about how the revolution should be celebrated,” he acknowledged during an interview with Maclean’s in his office near the Eiffel Tower. “If the left had had its way all along, it would have pushed the bicentennial more strongly.”

Focus: The official events will focus on the early, less controversial aspects of the revolution. In keeping with Mitterrand’s policy of ouverture—opening his Socialist party to all political trends in a kind of national reconciliation—it will dwell on themes that just about every French citizen can agree on: human rights and the ending of aristocratic privileges. The Terror, the civil war in western France that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and the attempts by France’s armies to impose their version of liberty on the rest of Europe took place later—and are virtually ignored in the official program.

That approach has angered some people on both the left and the right. Among leftists, a committee of French professionals is campaigning for the rehabilitation of Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobin leader who came to symbolize the most radical and murderous phase of the revolution. Robespierre led the revolutionary Committee of Public Safety, which ordered the deaths of thousands of “enemies of the people”—before himself losing power and being sent to the guillotine in July, 1794. Unlike other major revolutionary figures, Robespierre has no monument in Paris—although a Métro station was named for him in an eastern suburb. The committee has asked the city to rename a stretch of the fashionable rue St-Honoré, where Robespierre lived at number 400, as rue Robespierre.

Gadget: Robespierre’s regime sent thousands of people to the guillotine, and he has been called “the Ayatollah Khomeini of his day” by a conservative councillor in a small French town that has also been rocked by a controversy over whether he should be honored. But Robespierre’s defenders contend that he only did what was necessary to defend the revolution in a time of civil war and foreign invasion. Jacques Vergès, a prominent left-wing Paris lawyer who is a member of the organizing committee, argued that the Mitterrand government wants to stage-manage a safe, antiseptic bicentennial that ignores the contributions of radicals like Robespierre. “They have turned the bicentennial into a kind of gadget with no content,” he said in an interview. “They want to acquire the legitimacy of the revolution—but they really represent the forces of reaction.”

Feeling runs just as high among right wingers who reject the revolution entirely. For them, it was a tragic first step on a road that led to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Implicitly, they draw a direct line from Robespierre to Stalin and to Cambodia’s murderous Pol Pot. Pierre Chaunu, a history professor at the Sorbonne, who is France’s most outspoken antirevolutionary academic, argues passionately that the revolution was based on “lies, robbery and murder.” Instead of liberating France from a backward, absolutist regime and permitting it to modernize—which is the traditional view—Chaunu contends that the revolution disrupted a process of modernization that was already well under way and allowed England to become the great industrial power of the 19th century. “This bicentennial is a cancer,” he said in an interview. “We are being asked to celebrate stupidity and failure.”

Chaunu notes that even the Marseillaise, France’s national anthem, was written as a battle song to inspire the revolutionary armies when France invaded its neighbors to spread what Robespierre called the “rule of liberty” to the rest of Europe in 1792. “It is incredible,” Chaunu exclaimed. “Just as France is looking forward to uniting with its European neighbors in 1992, we are asked to celebrate our declaration of war against them. Personally, I prefer God Save the Queen; at least it attacks no one.”

In other countries those historical disputes might pass unnoticed amid the tide of bicentennial souvenirs and showy parades. But not in France, where history has always occupied an unusually large place in the national consciousness. Prominent politicians—including the Socialist party founder Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum, prime minister during the 1930s—have also been respected historians. This year, French bookshops are bulging with about 800 new works on the revolution, and the country’s top historians have become media stars. Their sharp debates, on television talk shows and in special newspaper supplements devoted to the bicentennial, reflect both a re-evaluation of French history and a fundamental shift in the country’s intellectual climate.

Model: For decades, the standard view of the revolution taught in French universities was that it was an inevitable uprising against feudalism and autocracy that brought victory for the liberal bourgeoisie. As well, it was often seen as a harbinger of future socialist revolts—including the Russian Revolution of 1917. Soviet Communists adopted that view and often analysed the early years of their revolution according to stages that they discerned in the French model. In France itself, the academic Marxists who once occupied key posts in the universities made their class-based analysis of the revolution the orthodox version.

The nature of the radical phase of the French Revolution also fits into that world view. The French revolutionaries decreed that history would begin anew when the old monarchy ended on Sept. 22, 1792—and they instituted a new calendar that made that date the first day of Year 1 of the new era. The new calendar of 10-day weeks (used only until the end of 1805) was designed to be rational—as was a longer-lasting innovation in those years, the metric system. At the same time, people began addressing each other in egalitarian style as “citizen.” They adopted new modes of dress and discarded wigs for more natural hairstyles. Parents gave their children such revolutionary names as Liberté, Constitution and Spartacus. The revolution affected nearly every facet of life: even modern French cuisine was born as Parisian chefs who had cooked for aristocrats established restaurants for the new public.

Set: In the past dozen years, however, the once-dominant view of the revolution as a triumphant, liberating force has been dethroned. British and American historians laid the groundwork in the 1950s and 1960s by demonstrating that many long-held assumptions about the revolution were tenuous, at best. They argued that France was not groaning under a repressive feudal system before 1789—as the Marxists had contended—but was in fact set for rapid economic development.

But the key figure in rethinking the revolution is a Sorbonne professor, François Furet. A onetime member of the French Communist party, Furet published an influential book in 1978, Interpreting the Revolution, in which he described the upheaval as a much more complex event than previously thought—and one without any easy lessons for the present. Later, he wrote that the perennial division in French politics between left and right—revolution and counterrevolution—which began in the 1790s has become largely irrelevant.

Now, Furet’s “revisionist” approach dominates France’s debate over its past. Two massive new books by him—a history of the revolution and its aftermath, and a 1,122-page “critical dictionary” of the period co-written with historian Mona Ozouf—are selling well. Furet’s approach—presenting the revolution as an ambiguous process that cannot be contained by the simplistic categories of either Marxists or antirevolutionaries—has captured the intellectual mood of the 1980s. Around the world, socialist regimes and ideas are in retreat. Communist parties themselves have demolished the myths of Stalinism and Maoism—and are groping toward a rediscovery of human rights and market-based economics. “The Marxist model has crumbled,” Ozouf noted in a recent interview. “The Marxist school is still in the universities—but its reading of history has lost much of its force.”

The relevance of the events of two centuries ago for modem France—and the modem world—are now in dispute. In the individualistic mood of the late 1980s, many Frenchmen claim that the lasting legacy is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, proclaimed by the National Assembly in August, 1789. For the first time, a government outlined a concept of inalienable human rights that was meant to apply to all peoples and all places—the basis for the French claim that their revolution was of universal significance.

Credit: Since then, France has regarded itself as the homeland of human rights—often taking intellectual credit for the spread of such concepts throughout the world and into such documents as the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But this year, many French analysts have noted that France’s own record on human rights has been no better than that of many other democratic countries—and worse than some. The 101-year-old French League of Human Rights is using the bicentennial year to campaign for stronger legal rights for military personnel, immigrants and persons accused of crimes. Said Yves Joufïa, a Paris lawyer who is the league’s president: “In all these areas, there is a lot of room for improvement.”

But Jouffa also maintained that the concept of human rights is undergoing a revival in the 1980s—especially in parts of the world that once scorned it. Communist countries and many Western Marxists, in particular, traditionally preferred to emphasize instead such social issues as unemployment and housing. “But now we see the acceptance of the importance of human rights among the left—even in the Soviet Union,” Jouffa said in an interview. “This is a vital change.”

Rights: Others are using the bicentennial to draw attention to France’s biggest and most controversial human rights issue—the situation of its more than four million immigrants. France, with its colonialist past, has the largest immigrant population of any European country, but many are deprived of basic rights of citizenship even after years of residency. SOS Racisme, a 17,000-member organization that fights for the rights of immigrants in France, has launched a campaign called “89 for Equality” whose main demand is that immigrants should have the right to vote in local elections once they have lived in an area for about five years. “Immigrants pay taxes and send their children to school like everyone else, but they have no voice,” said Hayette Boudjema, a vice-president of SOS Racisme. “We are being asked to celebrate a symbolic year for human rights—so we want to take a step toward putting those rights into real force.”

Even France’s hardy royalists have been active. In January, 6,000 of them turned out for a noisy rally in Paris on the 196th anniversary of Louis XVl’s execution. They could have taken heart from the results of a re-enactment of his trial broadcast the previous month on French television. After the broadcast, 120,000 viewers phoned in their verdict—and 55 per cent voted to acquit the king. Polls have shown that about 17 per cent of French voters still favor a monarchy. But even active royalists do not argue that the revolution was all bad. Bertrand Renouvin, editor of Royaliste, a twice-monthly magazine with a circulation of 17,000, noted that many aristocrats participated in the early stages of the revolution.

Renouvin is a leader of Nouvelle Action Royaliste, a group that supports the 80-year-old Count of Paris, Prince Henri of Bourbon-Orléans, as heir to the French throne. The count, he said, favors a constitutional monarchy and “is no friend of privilege.” In fact, Renouvin said in an interview, the French remain royalist at heart. “The Fifth Republic, with its strong president acting as arbitrator over the politicians, is a monarchical type of system,” he said. “What we have in France is a republican monarchy combining republican principles with symbols of tradition and continuity. We are not uncomfortable with that.”

Party: Despite the debates and the doubts—what French sociologist Gérard Mermet calls “a great national psychoanalysis”—France will at least have a fine party. Across the country, about 5,000 events are planned, from a children’s opera about the revolution to a national rooster-crowing contest in Pompignan and a gathering of the world’s most spectacular tall ships in Rouen. And on Bastille Day, when the French pay tribute to themselves and the world pays tribute to France, they will be able to claim with a great deal of justification that it was they who first crossed the watershed between the old world and the new.