Congratulations if you are already aware that the storming of the Bastille in July, 1789, was not the beginning of the French Republic. (Turns out that launch wasn’t until 1792, and it didn’t last long.) The storming of the nearly empty prison, by a crowd of less than a thousand, had mainly symbolic weight in the context of preceding violent uprisings in Paris and beyond. To contemporaries the Bastille riot seemed to mark a high point, a letting off steam if you will, after which everyone could take a deep breath and get back to life as usual. The rather liberal (!) King Louis XVI and members of the Estates got back to the business of negotiating major reforms in the National Assembly: Louis returned to work at the Hotel de Ville amidst cries of “vive le roi!” France was well on the road to becoming a parliamentary democracy with a titular monarch, like Britain.
We do all know history didn’t turn out that way. Violence resurged, the King made the mistake of fleeing to the Austrian border, thus losing all public sympathy, and that’s when things really started to fall apart. The army was in chaos and factionalized; the National Assembly ditto, the Reign of Terror gave rise to counter-insurgencies; clergy and civilians were slaughtered in what had become a multi-factional civil war. The national bloodbath culminated in 1792 with the September massacres and execution of the royal family. It ended with the Convention that year under the principle of universal suffrage (for men only of course) which voted abolition of the monarchy.
I only recently heard about Bastille Day being fake news. Today I happened to learn about another example of a threat assumed to have passed by, only to return with a vengeance: the Spanish flu. Originally imported into Europe in January 2018 by US troops in WWI (current research says it probably started in Sing Sing, in any case, nothing to do with Spain, that’s the fake news part) the flu ravaged first the soldiers of all belligerent nations, then moved on to civilians. However, it seemed to be on the way to burning itself out by late summer – only to swiftly resurge in a more virulent form that led to pneumonia and other fatal complications, spread to all continents, and in the end wiped out as much as five percent of world’s population.
The pattern is one of assuming a threat is over, or on its way out, only to see it re-surface in a much less containable form. One hopes this won’t be case in connection with the French Government’s imposition of a new gas tax, and the ensuing demonstrations and rioting by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests.) To make a complex story extremely short: up to now the En Marche government has legislated reforms which, while long since generally recognized as necessary if France is to escape economic sclerosis, were not pursued by previous governments whether left or right-wing for fear of entrenched interests mobbing the streets. In 2 ½ years Macron has powered through some important and unpopular changes, including reforms of high schools and universities, and, recently, the ‘third rail’ of cutting back the unfair and costly privileges of employees of the National Railroad. The new rules stand, there was no backing down. He survived. But with his approval ratings fallen to around an abysmal 27%, Macron presumably counts on the next half of his presidency being long enough to let the national ire subside and the benefits of reform shine though. Will it happen? Or will the rational anger (increased tax burden on already fairly poor segments of society, although the government is working on compensatory payments, need for the automobile) joined with irrational anger (perception of Macron as out of touch, the French tendency to detest whomever is in power, love of the automobile) along with the calculated game of criminal extremists and plain criminals, lead to even more massive rejection of the existing order that in turn will lead to… .
The European elections, six months away, are vital to the survival of the EU. Macron is so closely identified with the EU cause that the vote is widely seen as a referendum on him. His two-hour speech to Parliament yesterday detailing the precarious state of the planet, the new energy policy, and how to distribute its burden, which I found thoughtful and honest, apparently barely budged public sentiment – or, did anyone actually listen?
The phenomenon of the gilet jaunes raises new questions every day, questions not (yet) touched on here. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the differences between the volatile situation in France and, say, the Five Star movement in Italy, Orban in Hungary, Brexit, and of course the core support for D. Trump – are as interesting as the similarities.
One thing is certain. Powerful political figures and forces have not forgiven the upstart Macron his surprise victory. And if the price of bringing him down includes crippling France and putting Europe at risk? Alors, so be it.
More to come.