Most foreigners believe that the French Revolution has a glorious image in France. After all, July 14, the anniversary of the revolutionary storming of the Bastille, is France’s national day. The revolutionary “Marseillaise” is the national anthem. And France will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the revolution in 1989.
Yet, as the celebration nears, it is more and more obvious that a large minority of French has trouble embracing the revolution. Some fret over its bloody excesses and accuse generations of teachers and historians of hiding those stark and frightful realities. Some conservatives accuse leftists of exaggerating the place of the revolution in the mythology of France.
“Let’s simply be done with the French Revolution,” Louis Pauwels, the conservative editor of Le Figaro magazine, wrote in a recent editorial attacking more than a century of glorification.
Such comments make some historians bristle. Even Francois Furet, a historian whose works have been cited to condemn the revolution, said recently: “It’s an absurdity. The revolution is the great universal event in the history of France. It is the birth of democracy.”
“An American who questioned the legitimacy of the insurrection led by George Washington would be regarded as mentally deranged,” wrote Jean-Francois Kahn, editor of the French news weekly L’Evenement du Jeudi. But France, Kahn said, “has no national consensus around the events that created the Declaration of the Rights of Man and wiped out privilege based on noble blood.”
Although controversy over the meaning and legacy of the revolution still festers, its mythology remains deeply rooted among the French.
The Bastille is a good example. The fortress, which often housed political prisoners and so became a hated symbol of the monarchy, was demolished after it was seized by the revolutionaries in 1789. Its site, the Place de la Bastille, is an enormous, open traffic circle these days. Parisians hardly ever notice the few stones of the fortress that have been carted away to a tiny park a few blocks away by the Seine River.
Yet the Bastille is still the symbol of protest to the French. Without thinking about it at all, almost all protesters in Paris now stage their demonstrations or begin their marches in the Place de la Bastille. Even conservatives, when they prevented the enactment of the Socialist government’s education bill in 1984, mounted their successful mass protest on the site.
Moreover, images of the revolution abound in Paris: the enormous Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine beheaded Louis XVI and 1,118 other prisoners of the revolution; the Conciergerie, where Queen Marie Antoinette was held prisoner before her execution and where patient women knitted the time away while watching prisoners board the carts that would take them to the guillotine; the gardens of the Palais Royal, where orators harangued mobs to rise up against a tyrannical, absolute monarchy. Almost every palace of Paris keeps its reminders of the revolution.
For the bicentennial celebration, French officials promise to complete a new opera house on the Place de la Bastille, dedicate a spectacular architectural cube on the outskirts of Paris to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and sponsor a grand spectacle organized by French electronic jazz musician Jean-Michel Jarre.
Scholars are bracing for rounds of books and seminars on the revolution. Edgar Faure, a 79-year-old former premier who commands widespread respect, heads the official organizing committee.
But plans for a huge world’s fair like that of the first centenary in 1889 were dropped several years ago in a squabble between Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and his conservative rival, Mayor Jacques Chirac of Paris.
When Chirac, now premier of France, seemed to drag his feet on the project, Mitterrand abruptly dropped it. The move took Chirac by surprise and made him look stubborn, but some French suspect that neither politician had his heart in lavish celebrations.
1793 Uprising in Vendee
In their search for symbols to counter those of the revolution, many critics have latched on to the Vendee, a western region that lies between the Loire Valley and the Atlantic coast. The Vendee, in their view, reflects all that went wrong with the French Revolution. Historians, trying to lay the revolution bare, have been delving deeply into the terrifying and depressing story of the Vendee.
In 1793, the peasants of the Vendee joined some fiery aristocrats in an uprising against the leaders of the French Revolution in Paris. The Vendeans resented the revolution’s laws attacking the Roman Catholic clergy, chafed under endless fiats from Paris and finally rebelled over a call from Paris for conscription of tens of thousands of men into the army. It was not the only counterrevolutionary uprising in France in those days, but it was probably the most significant.
Paris, in the midst of wars against much of Europe, sent columns of republican troops into the Vendee to squelch the rebellion. Maximilien Robespierre, the tyrannical leader in Paris, said, “We must stifle the internal enemies of the republic or perish with it.”
The National Convention, the revolution’s ruling body, told its troops in the field, “Soldiers of liberty, it is necessary that the brigands of the Vendee be exterminated.”
It took four years and terrible killing to do the job. Historian Reynald Secher recently estimated that the republican troops killed 118,000 people, or about 15% of the Vendee’s population. He said women were singled out for death as potential reproducers of brigands. Small children were killed as possible spies. In their march of destruction, Secher said, the republicans demolished one out every five buildings in the region.
Secher calls the war in the Vendee “Franco-French genocide.”
In a similar vein, Pierre Chaunu, a well-known historian at the Sorbonne, shocked many French by insisting that “the sadistic imagination” of the republican soldiers in the Vendee equaled that of Nazi SS troops, Soviet Gulag guards and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
“We can no longer tear out this shameful page . . . from the history of the revolution,” he said.
A visitor to Cholet, the main town of the Vendee, now finds an industrial city of 60,000 with a museum that honors the martyrs of the uprising.
Talking over lunch at his 19th-Century home, Maurice Ligot, the mayor of Cholet, laughed when asked if the townspeople would take part in the bicentennial celebration two years from now.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “we will have a commemoration here. But we will commemorate what happened to us.
“But, you know,” Ligot, a soft-spoken, dignified 59-year-old politician who also represents the Vendee as a deputy in the National Assembly, added, “our people are not royalist at all. The Monarchist Party receives very few votes here. The people rose up in the Vendee not for the king but for religion and liberty.”
The city of Cholet, in fact, voted for Mitterrand, a Socialist, in the 1981 presidential election. Yet, even as the mayor denied monarchist sentiments, the local museum displayed a special exhibition paying homage to Louis XVI, including a maudlin calligraphic portrait with the king’s features fashioned from the handwritten words of his final message to the French people.
Even the Vendee sometimes finds it difficult to make up its mind about the revolution.
During World War II, French Resistance fighters came into the main square of Cholet in the middle of the night and dynamited a monument to the martyrs of the Vendee uprising, decapitating several of the figures. Cholet was anti-revolution but not pro-fascist; approval of the monument by the Nazi German occupiers and the collaborationist Vichy government had sullied the monument even though it honored the heroes of Cholet.
“Soon after I was elected mayor in 1965,” said Ligot, “some people asked me if I could restore the monument. I was rather inexperienced, and it sounded like a reasonable request to me.
“But, when I brought it up at a council meeting, it caused an uproar. Some of my closest associates said, ‘But we were among those who blasted the monument.’ ”
In the end, a compromise was reached. The monument was restored but placed in a secluded park.
It is easy to understand why the French are confused by their revolution. It did away with the absolute power of the French monarchy, one of the most powerful and privileged in Europe, and proclaimed liberties that still serve as the foundation of French democracy. Yet its leaders were quick to turn from these principles in their struggle against enemies of the revolution.
Degenerated Into Tyranny
The revolution degenerated into fearful, bloody tyranny. Revolutionary tribunals around the country guillotined several thousand nobles and other dissenters; mobs seized political prisoners from jails and hacked them to death, and troops in the Vendee and elsewhere slaughtered counterrevolutionaries.
Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the revolution with his military coup in 1799. For almost a century afterward, French history was marked by a struggle between republicans who believed in the revolution and monarchists and other conservatives who abhorred it.
The revolution was glorified by republican intellectuals in the 19th Century. Jules Michelet, one of the most popular historians at the time, called the revolution the “living spirit of France . . . the triumph of right, the resurrection of justice, the tardy reaction of thought against brute force.”
He described the bloody tyranny that followed as no more than “violent, terrible efforts it (the revolution) was obliged to make in order not to perish in a struggle with the conspiring world.”
Republicans did not want the French to deny the accomplishments of the revolution because of its terror. Georges Clemenceau, the editor and politician who became premier of France during World War I, reflected the thinking of many republican intellectuals when he insisted that the French must accept “the revolution as a block.”
Republicans, who ran France after the reigns of Napoleon and the restored monarchy finally came to an end in 1870, felt powerful and vindicated enough by 1889 to celebrate the centennial of the revolution with a World’s Fair built around a wondrous and monstrous monument to French power and industry, the Eiffel Tower.
In the 20th Century, the Russian Revolution confused French attitudes toward the French Revolution even more. At first, leftist sympathizers cited the terror of the French Revolution as a historical precedent justifying the harsh anti-revolutionary measures of Lenin and Stalin. The Russian Revolution, in fact, was hailed by some as the final culmination of the French Revolution.
Right-wingers agreed. They insisted that the brutality of the totalitarian Soviet system proved that France would have ended up the same way if the French Revolution had not been stopped by Napoleon.
As more and more French intellectuals turned their backs on the Soviet Union in the last two decades, scholars felt free to study the French Revolution closely without any ideological need to justify it. Conservative newspapers such as Le Figaro then seized on the new analyses to discredit the French Revolution.
In a sense, these conservatives were doing what old republicans like Clemenceau always feared. Not only did they refuse to accept the revolution in its entirety, but they decided to reject it in its entirety.
“It is not the Terror or the massacres that revolt them,” socialist writer Max Gallo said with disdain. “It is democracy.”
French anti-revolutionaries are in a minority. Polls show that most French accept the inevitability and achievements of the French Revolution. But strong discordant notes are sure to be heard in the bicentennial commemoration less than two years from now.
“If, after 200 years,” Claude Manceron, a 64-year-old adviser to President Mitterrand and a historian who is writing a multi-volume history of the revolution, told a literary magazine, “we French cannot speak of Louis XVI and Robespierre, of the Vendee and the Terror, without insulting each other, we must lack maturity.”