Modern history

Chapter 1
The French Revolution, politics, and the modern nation

The French Revolution did more than topple a political regime that had continuously functioned for almost eight hundred years. In the process, it created a new political vocabulary and also set the terms in democratic political culture for what would be defined as “modern.” French political life and national consciousness ever since have operated in the long shadow cast by the Revolution. It produced a rupture in French political history that has made it a potent “origin,” a debated touchstone in relation to subsequent political change in France, and provided a heightened sense of historical consciousness because of the scale of the changes produced by the event. If such terms as the political uses of “right” and “left,” ideals of universal education, religious tolerance and democratic participation by a responsible citizenry, and state terror and military authoritarianism in the name of the people are part of the legacy of the French Revolution worldwide, it is not merely a reflection of broader structural change that happened in many places subsequently. Modern French history became a form of “world history” not simply because other places have modeled change inspired by the French Revolution (Mexico, Bolivia, Russia, and China, to name a few) but also because they have done so precisely because the Revolution’s vision was universal rather than simply national, aimed at global change and liberation in France.

In the late eighteenth century—an era of revolutionary upheaval—France was not alone. Between 1787 and 1789, revolts in the Dutch Republic, the Austrian Netherlands, and Poland also erupted in the name of liberty and equality. The United States, aided by French money and troops, had only recently declared its own independence from its mother country, England. But what made the French case so compelling was not simply that France was the most populous European state but also the wealthiest, a status on display day and night at the court in Versailles, alight with fireworks and glittering festivities hosted by the young queen, Austrian-born Marie Antoinette. The magnificent fountains at Versailles, complete with gilded statues of the king as Apollo, would soon stop flowing as the monarchy and its opulence came crashing to a halt.

The French Revolution, in word and symbol, added the fundamental concept of fraternity to notions of liberty and equality as it defined its Republic, and created a web of connections that helped solidify the modern nation and its role in a global context. To establish a legacy as powerful as that of the French Revolution, at least two things are necessary: a very significant message, and a flair for delivering it. In the period that the writer Chateaubriand called the quarter century that equaled many centuries, France had both. With a remarkable penchant for taking words seriously and with a dedication to symbolism rivaled by few and copied by many, the French Revolutionaries left an indelible mark. But like any story of political change, it erupted from a set of unfolding and unplanned events.

In the tempestuous summer of 1789, the relation between people and king in France changed. The overall economic health of the nation hovered in near crisis by virtue of a failure to reform the tax-collection system. French support for the American insurgents helped empty the state coffers, and a poor harvest in 1788 resulted in a food shortage in a kingdom used to relative abundance. The appeals for help from the king to the citizenry eventually transformed into complaints against him. Unable to solve the problem of the debt on his own, the king had earlier tried to reform the state by hand picking a group called the Assembly of Notables. They refused to help. Instead they demanded that the king call the consultative body known as the Estates General, which had not met for 175 years. Although that body represented the feudal social order of estates (the clergy: first estate; the nobility: second, and everyone else: third), it would, by the summer of 1789, morph into the body calling itself the National Assembly. By taking an oath on a tennis court when locked out of their regular meeting place, they swore they would not disband until they found the words to proclaim their authority by writing a constitution.

Other important official declarations soon followed, such as the abolition of the feudal regime in a night of deliriously enlightened self-abnegation when the deputies gave up their feudal privileges such as tax exemptions and seignorial dues. Serfdom was thus ended for those peasants still tied to the land, and equality of opportunity, talent, and merit, rather than birth, would henceforth determine one’s work and rank. This meritocracy would soon have a flamboyant example in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, who also thrived on creating institutions and symbols. But first they needed the words.

Toward the end of August 1789, the deputies composed the preamble to their constitution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Inspired by the American Declaration of Independence, the French document proclaimed, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” This statement had enormous ramifications for the social order beyond ending feudalism in thought and deed. If men were born free, how could France justify the system of slaveholding, which prevailed in the Caribbean’s wealthiest colony, Saint Domingue?

Many financially motivated Frenchmen attempted to rationalize this hypocrisy and continue slavery, but circumstances prevailed. A slave rebellion, the promise by revolutionary representatives to extend equal rights to free blacks (rather than end slavery), and the intervention by the British and the Spanish on behalf of white slave-owning planters against the Revolution, turned into chaos in the colony. The French Revolutionaries eventually offered black slaves freedom if they would join forces with the Revolution. Republican commissioners sent from Paris abolished slavery and then informed the government back in Paris, where the deputies in the Assembly subsequently officially voted to abolish slavery in 1794 (only to have it reestablished by Napoleon in 1802). Eventually Saint Domingue’s slave population, in a state of constant revolt from the beginning of the Revolution, established the first independent former slave colony in the Western Hemisphere, known since 1804 as the Republic of Haiti. Slavery would be finally and permanently abolished in France in 1848 upon the declaration of the Second Republic.

The question of applying the Declaration of the Rights of Man to half of the population, namely women, was also debated during the Revolution, but the results were far more mixed. On the one hand, women’s political activity exploded during the Revolution. They forced the course of the revolution to the Left when, in October 1789, they marched on Versailles and demanded the royal family return to Paris. Many outspoken supporters of women’s rights, both female (Olympe de Gouges) and male (Condorcet), met untimely deaths as “enemies of the Revolution.” Although women in France would wait a remarkably long time for the most fundamental of rights, including the vote (granted only in 1944), feminist connections to claims for human rights emerged at the start of the modern era in France.

The young noble and friend of General Lafayette, Mathieu, the Duke de Montmorency, who had fought in the American war, exclaimed about the Declaration, “Let us follow the example of the United States: they have set a great example in the new hemisphere; let us give one to the universe.” Consider the painting of the Declaration itself by Jean-Jacques Barbier in 1789. In the center, the eye and triangle refer to the Supreme Being, an Enlightenment version of God, overseeing the presentation of these new commandments, displayed as if on stone tablets and heralded by a winged spirit, her arm bearing a torch of enlightenment. On the other side, the allegorical image of France herself, incarnated as Liberty, breaks the chains of the slavery of the old regime. This image, echoing the language of the Declaration, offers up the document’s universalizing concepts as a gift for any and all to receive—so long as one actively desires to break free. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen also proclaimed freedom of the press and of religion, equality in taxation, and equality before the law.

The Revolution thus wrought fundamental changes to the long-standing French way of life. Whereas the American colonists had broken free from England, the challenge of the French Revolution was to reorder society from within. If the Revolution could succeed in France, its supporters also held firmly to the notion that it should, could, and would succeed everywhere. Thus, simplifying the meaning of the Revolution became part of its fundamental conceptualization, hence the importance in having a slogan: “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”

What became the most well-known revolutionary turn of phrase was not born all at once. In particular, the concept “fraternity” trailed behind the twin concepts of liberty and equality until the monarchy ended. And, yet, this was the most original element of the founding words associated with the Revolution. The meaning of “fraternity” took hold during the course of the Revolution. The social order would be newly constituted horizontally, among equal men, with brotherhood replacing the paternal bonds that had governed the feudal order between king and people. The revolutionaries believed that this bond of fraternity necessarily extended beyond France to the brotherhood of mankind. With the great fervor of their conviction, they would bring their message to still-shackled peoples of Old Regimes in the form of war waged in the name of their principles and against Old Regimes throughout Europe and into North Africa.


1. This 1789 painting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is replete with symbols of Enlightenment, such as the eye and broken chains, and reproduces the complete text, engraved on stone tablets.

Adherents to the Revolution also employed new kinds of linguistic address, replacing former hierarchical forms of speech, such as Monsieur and Madame, with “citizen” in the masculine and feminine forms. Parents now named children in honor of the heroes from the earlier era of democratic culture, the Roman Republic, such as Brutus, instead of Roman Catholic saints such as Paul and Jean. This change in names was no mere fashion but part of a much broader wholesale attack on the Catholic Church, Christianity, and the symbolic order on which the Old Regime rested.


How did the French revolutionaries manage to be successful in turning words into actions? With the foundational vocabulary to guide it, the Revolution was bolstered enormously by a rich program of symbols that helped give abstract words the concrete sentiments required for widespread adherence. The success of the French Revolution’s new Republic resided not only in having overthrown the king (who was eventually tried for high treason in 1792 and beheaded in 1793; the queen, Marie Antoinette, also known as “the Austrian bitch,” would follow later in the year) but also in having identified meaningful abstract concepts in such terms as liberty, equality, and fraternity. The Revolution penetrated every aspect of public and private life: it would embody and reflect these new social principles in order to create the very bonds between people that the Revolution proclaimed. The slogan itself, the revolutionary colors, and the allegorical figure of Liberty were emblazoned on everything from playing cards to chamber pots. Sartorial allegiance to the revolution included the tricolor cockade, a small badge of blue, white, and red ribbons worn on one’s clothing, designed in 1789 to combine the white color of the monarch with the red and blue of the city of Paris. In addition was an assortment of sashes, feathered tricolor-banded hats, and more natural hairstyles that rejected the fashion among the wealthy for wearing wigs, all of which were used as means to garner civilian loyalty. Dress so shaped identity that the Revolution’s most radical element became known by their code of dress. The working classes who embraced the Revolution became known as the “sans-culottes”—those who wore long pants instead of knee breeches.

Under Napoleon, symbols continued to multiply. The generals of the French Army wore more plumes, medals, and ornate gilded jackets than ever before; Napoleon introduced the golden eagles on flagstaffs whose protection in battle was as important as the regiment’s living members. As vital to each soldier as his musket was his tricolor cockade. The revolutionary government adopted the tricolor as the official national flag in 1794.

The citizen-army, the first built through a universal draft, was effectively transformed into functional troops because they were given something around which to rally. In the same way that for centuries the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchy had offered a rich culture of symbols and rites, the army rituals were part of the canny work of the revolutionaries who understood what might be thought of as the power of advertising to help build the modern nation. The attention to symbolic work produced the first modern form of state propaganda. The revolutionaries also learned from the monarchy’s prior investment in spectacle that for change to take hold among the people, it needed to be founded on words and abstract principles as well as visual representation. New rituals produced a new way of life.

The Old Regime’s power establishment, which included king and nobility, topped the list of the revolutionaries’ targets, who knew their legitimacy had been grounded in the traditional power of the Catholic Church. The revolution thus confronted that institution head on. They seized church lands; priests were forced to swear an allegiance to the Revolution so they would not be in the employ of a foreign power (the pope). Revolutionaries closed churches, beheaded the sculptures of kings that adorned cathedrals; melted church bells and church treasures. In 1791, the government transformed the newly built church to the patron saint of Paris, Saint Geneviève, into a pantheon where the great men of the Revolution and the nation would be collectively memorialized. Old symbols were discarded and new ones fabricated.

The attack on the Roman Catholic Church also ushered in attempts to create a civic religion inspired by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The revolutionaries organized a series of festivals, the first major “stadium” events since antiquity. There, among enormous crowds, French people enacted belonging to the new social order while lighting bonfires and burning crowns. They planted liberty trees and sang songs declaring adherence to the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. More explicitly, in November 1793, the goddess of Liberty, played by an actress, presided over a “Festival of Reason” within the walls of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The new government also usurped the Catholic Church’s control of the fundamental life cycle rituals: birth, marriage, and death—all of which would now be registered at the city hall rather than at the local church. Civil marriage remains obligatory in France up to this day. Newly conceived as a civil contract, marriage could also be undone. The Revolution thus instated the most radical divorce law on the Continent in 1792 because it could be decreed by mutual consent and was available to all social classes. But under the Napoleonic Code of 1804, rights regressed as it became impossible for women to initiate a divorce. When the monarchy returned, so did the prohibition on divorce (as of 1816). Civil divorce was not permanently reinstituted in France until 1884.

The Republic protected its citizens against priests and established direct relations between male citizens as equals and between individual male citizens and their state. The disestablishment of religion enfranchised religious minorities, notably Protestants and Jews. As Count Stanislas Marie Adélaide de Clermont-Tonnerre explained in 1789, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to the Jews as individuals.” The state would extend individual liberty but insisted on the renunciation of any competing group identity. This notion has evolved over time into the Republican concept of “laicité,” which can be thought of as state secularism. Although France officially separated church and state only in 1905, a battle had raged since the Revolution about what role, if any, the church could have in the ever-expanding horizon of government schools founded as part of the modern state. Since then, secularism has generally denoted keeping public life free of religion, which the state considers an entirely personal matter. It is impossible, however, given the remarkable anticlericalism of the Revolution and of the Republicanism it established, not to understand that there is a sense that the state is free from religion rather than there to preserve religious freedoms in France.

Fraternity, here again, functions as the key term. Religious differences among citizens who are guaranteed equality under the law and the freedom to worship could nevertheless be perceived as barriers to bonds among equals. This original interpretation of “fraternité” has been perpetuated by the modern French state’s official indifference to religious, ethnic, and racial difference. It is this same absolute privileging of universal and natural individual human rights that would later be used, first by the Army of the Republic and then by French forces during periods of imperial expansion, to impose the values of the Revolution on militarily defeated peoples in the name of equality. If fraternity is taken to its logical extreme it makes perfect sense that the emerging nation-state would also be imperial in its formation.

If the Revolution was made in words and images, and accordingly spread globally, it was spoken in French. One of the great beneficiaries of the Revolution was the French language itself. The already widespread influence of the French language on educated people across Europe and North America on the eve of the Revolution contributed to the strength of the Revolution itself. At the same time, the Revolution also helped standardize French among the French population. Since the first article of the initial Constitution of the Republic defined free public education as its principal social goal, education became fundamental to the revolutionary agenda. Early language surveys showed that among the 27 to 28 million people one could count as French, only 3 million fluently spoke Parisian French, which defined the standard, perhaps ironically, as the “king’s French.” Having dispensed with the clergy who had previously provided whatever little schooling was available, the Convention voted to establish a system of free and compulsory education for boys and girls—the first such system anywhere. The Convention worked to eradicate the linguistic corruptions of local languages. Because the Assembly had earlier rearranged France into eighty-three relatively uniform departments (or districts), such national projects became easier to imagine, if difficult to complete, since the state did not yet have an ample supply of educators to promulgate the new symbolic culture of 1789 and beyond.

Making the nation over time and in place

The revolutionaries sought to remake time by introducing a new calendar that began at the end of the monarchy and thus inaugurated a new era of historical sensibility. History and historical thinking emerged from the period of the Revolution; the idea of nostalgia, the interest in ruins and memoirs are testament to this new form of consciousness. For France, the Revolution also launched a great social project of education about the newly constituted nation, and the nineteenth century produced a rich and dedicated literature about French history as part of the foundation of Republican society. The textbook author Ernest Lavisse, born a generation after the first Revolution, reflected in his memoirs on the impact of the Revolutionary tradition: “We believed that the Republic would liberate not only France but all humanity, which awaited our signal.” To this end, he first wrote a general “universal history” that explained France’s important place in the world and then dedicated himself to following in the footsteps of the great historian of an earlier generation, Jules Michelet, by setting out to write the history of his own nation.

Lavisse is best known for his primary school textbook, written in 1884 and revised many times. In such basic texts one can understand the way history became the basis for the formation of national mythology. The book’s cover, addressed directly to the children who would read it, counseled: “You should love France because nature made her beautiful and history made her great.” In this comment we also see what amounts to a geographic obsession that may be a fundamental part of most nineteenth-century nationalist rhetoric, but whose specificity in France has helped shape its modern history. After all, France is not a natural geographic expression such as an island or peninsula. It has in the twentieth century finally come to be called the Hexagon, perhaps only as a defensive move against its dwindling empire.

The Revolution was so concerned with matters of the physical contours of the French state that it reorganized them internally, doing away with the divisions of the provinces that had been handed down mostly as feudal duchies and baronies integrated by the already centralizing powers of the monarchy. France had a good head start in this process because, starting in the 1740s, it was the first European country to make comprehensive national maps. Erasing the historical identities associated with the old system, the departments (eighty-three in 1789, now expanded to ninety-six with an additional four overseas departments) were named after significant natural and geographic features, mostly rivers (the Seine and the Garonne, for example) and mountains (Alps, Pyrenees). This may have worked to naturalize these new artificial state-created divisions, but it also embedded a department’s identity in the land.

Nineteenth-century French geographers produced a narrative that conceived of France as a crossroads of Europe. The geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache noted that France was a space “in which the lines delineating the larger continental mass come together and almost converge in such a way as to trace a sort of bridge between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.” Of course, it also attached to the Continent to the east and the south. For Vidal this bridge offered France an advantage, since he also believed that “no civilized country is the exclusive artisan of its own civilization.” The geographic situation of France has proven to be decisive over time, for example, in such instances as the two world wars. In World War I, the trenches ran down France on the western side of the Western Front; thus many of the French soldiers, who died in proportionately higher numbers than any of the other major combatants, died on their own soil. During World War II, France did not have England’s geographic advantage of being an island, however much Hitler attempted to transcend the limits of the land and sea with aerial bombardments. The obsessive planning that went into the defensive fortifications, known as the Maginot Line, which were built along the French borders with Germany during the period between the world wars, dug that idea of France right into the ground. As a result, the place of France also continues to play a role in international war commemorations. Approximately 4,400 non-French Allied troops and an estimated 5,000–9,000 German forces lost their lives in the D-Day battles of World War II and are laid to rest in cemeteries there. Victors and vanquished still meet on French ground when they seek to remember both world wars.

Physically, France offered a remarkably diverse set of natural conditions in a relatively compact space. Out of this diversity and the exchange between neighbors and regions—and the more contact a region had with other regions and even other nations, the more vital it was thought to be—a unity formed. France was, in Vidal’s words again: “a land seemingly made to absorb the greatest part of its own emigration.” The importance of geography also attests to one of the realities of France—it remained a primarily rural society until 1933 when, for the first time, the number of city-dwellers out-paced rural populations. In 1800, one-third of the population still lived in self-governing village-states of thirty-five inhabitants or fewer.

Despite these internal migrations and deruralization, agricultural production has remained an important part of French life. France is currently the European Union’s largest agricultural producer and the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter, behind the United States. Wherever the French population actually lives, the sentiments expressed by Vidal certainly took root in the collective mentality of the French in the nineteenth century. He wrote, “What the Frenchman sees in France . . . is the bounty of the earth and the pleasure of living on it.”

In the nineteenth century, writers and citizens “discovered” and defined France as an entity as geographic mythology took hold. By almost all measures, localism could be consonant with the broader centralization project of the state, and the very richness in its diversity became one of modern France’s great boasts: its more than 300 cheeses, 250 wines, natural wonders such as the Alps (first scaled in the nineteenth century), and remarkable traces of the ancient past such as the first-century bridge, the Pont du Gard, attested to the fact that modern France was also ancient Gaul (and its boundaries are more or less the same). The Tour de France bicycle race embodies and exploits the nation’s rich geographic diversity. Even before the establishment of the race, Le Tour de France par deux enfants, a popular school primer, first published in 1877, was used to teach French history and geography, and taught this lesson of unity in diversity. The tale recounts the adventures of two young boys from the eastern provinces of France that had recently been lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War. Julien and André journey across their country in order to instill in French children lessons (complete with more than two hundred illustrations) about how regional diversity is one of France’s great national strengths.

Despite the emphasis on geographic accounts of rural life, it was cities, and Paris in particular, that eventually made order out of the diversity and moved the nation forward. For Jules Michelet, Paris functioned to organize the local into the central. “The center knows itself and knows all the rest,” he offered, explaining that local particularisms could only be tolerated if they were eventually subordinated in favor of the nation’s center in Paris, traditional home of its monarchs and seat of its modern national government.

If writers celebrated local diversity, the French state’s powers of centralization over the course of the nineteenth century did perhaps turn peasants into Frenchmen, a well-worn epithet about state modernization in France. In particular, the Republican schools taught the national language, and such books as those by Vidal and Lavisse also conveyed urban dwellers’ values to the countryside. New roads and the railways especially enhanced communication and brought the French into greater contact with each other and with Paris (where, like Rome, all roads figuratively and literally led). The army forged a group out of the male population who fought in the name of the whole—a nationalist sentiment that could then be brought back to the villages when the soldiers returned from military duty.

The history complex

Despite the prominence of geography in constructing an image of the nation, it ultimately took a back seat to history as the central means of national mythologizing since the Revolution. History in modern France became overtly political (and still is) as the Revolution helped foster a new historical consciousness. Having participated in spectacular historical celebrations such as the Festival of the Federation a year after the fall of the Bastille in 1790, and having watched the guillotine busily at work in the Place de la Révolution, citizens knew that history happened by human action. Ernest Renan, one of the most articulate theorists of the nation in the nineteenth century, insisted in his “What is a Nation?” lecture of 1882 that neither race, nor language, nor religion, nor geography made a nation. Aside from the will to share a common destiny, he explained that a common past defined the nation. “A heroic past, great men, glory . . . this is the spiritual capital on which the idea of the nation rests.”

The French Revolution may have catapulted France into the future, but it also generated a preoccupation with writing about the French past. The period after the Revolution produced a stylistic vogue for not only Greek and Roman antiquity but also for the Middle Ages (including the mid-nineteenth century restorations of medieval cathedrals). In addition, historical fiction, such as Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and Ninety-Three, Honoré de Balzac’s Les Chouans, and Alexandre Dumas’s more popular novelsThe Three Musketeers and Queen Margot, flourished, enlivening the past for French readers.

But the history obsession also produced two of the perhaps most overproduced of national heroes: Napoleon and Joan of Arc. They inspired plays, novels, sculptures, paintings, songs, and mounds of kitsch in trinkets. Napoleon’s life, one could argue, is the stuff of which legend is made. His military career took flight after his successful tactics led him to defend the Revolutionary forces in the siege of Toulon in 1793; thereafter he was put in charge of the French army in Italy. His career continued to rise when he narrowly missed being executed as a Robespierrist in 1794. With the proverbial “whiff of grapeshot” in 1795, once again used to counter rebellion against the Revolution in Paris, the young son of a Corsican noble, emerged as the commander of the Army of the Interior. Within four years, Napoleon would rule France; he soon put Europe on a tumultuous path of continuous warfare for fifteen years, while ruling the largest empire in Europe since antiquity.

Napoleon began fabricating his own glory during his lifetime with the strong censorship of all theater, books, and art, a massive program of “Empire style” complete with images of the emperor, and his twin symbols, the imperial eagle and the bee (associated with Childeric, father of Clovis, and thus the oldest symbol of the French monarchy). The great Revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David served as his court painter, but Napoleon also enlisted others such as Antoine-Jean Gros and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to put a glittery patina on his rule. His death in exile on St. Helena after the defeat at Waterloo and its mysterious circumstances only helped fuel the attachment to the former emperor. In 1821, the year of his death, more than 108 books were published about him and his empire in France. During 1830–31, more than twenty-five plays about him opened in Parisian theaters.

Few careers have as spectacular a fifteen-year period as Napoleon’s between 1799 and 1814, and whether he is seen as son of the Revolution or its betrayer, one cannot dispute that the physically small man was historically grand. Thus the Napoleon industry after his death is in some measure a continuation of the legacy he began to perpetuate while he was alive. In 1833 his statue was restored to the top of the Vendôme column; in 1840 his body, which had been buried on the island of his exile in the South Atlantic, was returned to France. It took twenty years to prepare the tomb in which he rests at the Invalides, the military hospital turned pantheon. Hitler made sure to visit there when he made his tour of Paris not long after it fell to the Germans in 1940. When the emperor’s nephew Louis-Napoleon exploited the legend to make himself “emperor of the French” during the mid-nineteenth century, the government became the prime mover in the Napoleon industry that continues to this day. The complexity and contradictions in Napoleon and his legacy perhaps make him the perfect hero for the French—a people that have made a habit of accepting that nothing is entirely black or white when it comes to political life.

Joan of Arc would seem, at first sight, to be less modern than Napoleon, but her major nineteenth-century comeback is a true Napoleonic effect. She shares with the emperor the status of unlikely heroine. A peasant girl, she changed the course of history by driving the English out of France during the last stages of the Hundred Years War in 1429. She was eventually captured in battle, sold to the English, tried by the Inquisition, and burned at the stake for heresy. In the nineteenth century, Catholic forces of anti-Republicanism, seeking to remind the French how important a vision-inspired peasant had been to the kingdom, sought to have her canonized as a saint, which happened in 1920. Republicans knew she was a democrat and woman of the people who died a martyr, betrayed by the institutions of the Old Regime they hated: the monarchy and the Catholic Church. Known as the “sainte de la patrie,” she offered a vision of a patron saint of an invaded nation (not unlike Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris whose prayers were said to have spared the city from a visit by Attila the Hun, who went to Orléans instead). Michelet dedicated 130 pages to her in his fifth volume of the History of France (1844) in which this daughter of the poor incarnates the people of France and unites them as a nation: “She loved France so much! . . . And France, touched, began to love herself.”

If during the nineteenth century, Republicans and their opponents alike could embrace Joan, she has since become a cult figure of the political Right, especially championed by virulent nationalist anti-Semites and the Vichy regime, who associated her with a Frenchness that was rooted in the soil and who also saw themselves as betrayed by the British. But there is something in her story about the miracle that saved France in its darkest hour that still appeals to a nation simultaneously aware and cynical enough to see both the real social problems of the moment and act to change them while remaining idealistic enough to believe that destiny has preordained them to survive and play a role in world affairs. It is not really that far from Joan of Arc to General Charles de Gaulle, who led the French government twice during and after World War II.

The French political tradition since the revolution

French politics since the Revolution has steered a course between rupture and tradition, action and destiny. In the opening pages of Charles de Gaulle’s memoir, he explained that France had a special role to play: “providence has created her for complete successes or for exemplary misfortunes.” De Gaulle, general of the Free French forces during World War II and the most influential leader in France since Napoleon never to wear a crown, looked back at the revolutionary tradition with a great deal of skepticism and concern. For him, French history stretched back to the conversion of the Merovingian King Clovis (471–511) to Christianity and reached a sort of apex under Louis XIV. The Revolution had brought factionalism and disunity by virtue of the breaking of the social bonds of the feudal order. And, looking back at France after the defeat in 1940, it may be more than reasonable to have had less faith in the Republican tradition than in the heady days of the short-lived Popular Front in the mid-1930s, which had guaranteed workers their first paid vacations and empowered French unions as never before.

Political instability characterized much of French history from the Revolution to World War II with a sense that the battle for the Republic and what it meant was always being replayed. In the more than two hundred years since 1789, only the Third Republic (1870–1940) and now the Fifth (1958–) lasted well over a decade. The Revolution ushered in a period of political experimentation rather than political stability with its five Republics, two monarchies, two empires, and one proto-fascist “French State.”

Although the Republic created a new democratic political culture, it continued the long tradition of warfare that had helped consolidate the monarchy in the early-modern period. Through the political turmoil of the French state since 1789, all governments advocated for their vision in the language of the Revolution; even during Vichy, France’s most conservative incarnation, the geriatric Marshall Pétain called for a National Revolution. Not only were the French the first to proclaim the universal “rights of man,” which the United Nations made the standard of international justice in 1948; in 1848, in another upheaval that would produce the Second Republic (1848–51) after the period of monarchical restoration following Napoleon, France was the first country to institute universal male suffrage. While Napoleon may have been the zenith of French military power, French colonial expansion also continued throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, subjugating other people in the name of their eventual promised liberty.

Conflict in France since the Revolution has also included more than its fair share of internal strife in the form of what the French call “guerres franco-françaises,” or civil wars. Perhaps few episodes in the history of such internal conflict are as dramatic as the Paris Commune of 1870–71, which pitted the government of National Defense, which replaced the defeated Emperor Napoleon III, against the Parisian-elected government that pronounced itself “The Commune.” This radical and short-lived government, which Marx thought would provide the model for the dictatorship of the proletariat, returned to the Revolutionary calendar, declared a separation between church and state, gave pensions to unmarried companions of men who had died in the Franco-Prussian war, and declared a moratorium on back rent owed, along with other radical social changes enacted in its two months in power. In a confrontation that produced the bloodiest week in French history, the government, headquartered at Versailles, executed between 25,000 and 30,000 Parisians while Communards burned important centers of government authority: the police headquarters, city hall, and the Tuileries Palace, which had managed to survive the prior insurrections in the streets of Paris. The Commune also produced some of the earliest highly politicized uses of photographs, among them Eugène Appert’s work depicting the “bloody week.” These works sutured real and staged moments to bolster the view of the savagery of the crimes of the Commune. For example, in one photo, distributed in the small “carte de visite” format, the photographer reenacted an execution and cut in photos of the Commune’s seemingly innocent victims, many of them priests. Whether used as propaganda to bolster the government’s suppression of the Communards after the fact or as evidence of the early acceptance of composite photography as a form of photojournalism, the Commune also updated and modernized the visual program of the revolutionary tradition.


2. The victims, bystanders, and firing squad are each pasted in to this photomontage of the “Assassination of the Hostages in the Prison of La Roquette” in Eugène Appert’s series “The Crimes of the Commune.”

What happened in France did not stay in France. As Metternich is supposed to have said not long after the Congress of Vienna, “When France sneezes, Europe catches cold.” Responses to change in France included the many British denunciations of the first Revolution, the European-wide movement known as Romanticism, which at once reflected the nationalism of the Revolutionary era but also lionized the individual. In 1848, especially, the founding of the Second French Republic in the wake of the collapse of the July Monarchy (1830–48) offered inspiration to other liberal revolutions in the Austrian Empire, Germany, and Italy. Perhaps most influentially, Karl Marx endowed France with great importance, as he studied those revolutions with care while living in France. Later radicals steeped in Marxism, from Lenin to Mao to Ho Chi Minh, made it their business to study the course of French political life in the century after the Revolution because they understood it as a model for the future of world politics. As Lenin wrote, “The road to Paris lies through Peking.”

When the Republic stabilized by 1877, external relations figured strongly in the course of French Republican politics. Colonial expansion and military conquest continued up until World War II as part of the Republican agenda. Despite strong leftist pacifism, the entire political spectrum in France came together as the Republic entered World War I in 1914 after Germany declared war on France’s Russian ally. For many participants and historians ever since, that war opened a new culture of barbarism and technologically wrought destruction. Four long years of war ended in a pyrrhic victory for France marked by population devastation and an unwieldy peace with Germany. This eventually led to the most humiliating moment in modern French history: the defeat of June 1940 and the subsequent occupation by Germany during the course of the war. French collaboration became the policy of the Vichy government that replaced “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” with another tripartite slogan: “Work, Family and Fatherland.” Despite its embrace of revolutionary rhetoric, Vichy abandoned the “rights of man” especially for Jews. The problem of the Republic’s values beyond French borders, and the application of those values to the immigrants within them, have since produced some of the deepest contradictions and complications in modern French history.

Leading the nation

Charles de Gaulle had a “certain idea of France,” as he wrote in his 1954 war memoirs. That idea was that “France could not be France without grandeur.” In his personal style and through his actions, he sought to follow one fundamental aspect of Napoleonic rule: he believed that the leader embodied the nation. He preferred to speak directly to the citizenry, often using the new medium of television in an especially canny manner.

Both during and after the war, de Gaulle made leadership one of his vital issues. On the one hand, he sought to restore France’s autonomy as a nation but understood its future as part of something fundamentally European and supported those postwar developments that resulted in the European Union. He also oversaw the dismantling of the French Empire, especially withdrawing from Algeria in a bloody conflict (1954–62) in which he had to protect his own life from the French army officers who struggled to keep Algeria French. Having come to power at the Liberation, de Gaulle left the government with the adoption of the constitution of the Fourth Republic (1946–58), which he considered insufficiently strong since it favored the legislature over the president. When problems in Algeria led to a near collapse of that Republic, the government returned to de Gaulle, who interrupted the writing of his memoirs to lead again. His terms included six months of emergency control and the opportunity to write a new constitution. In that constitution, the presidency became much more powerful than before, although it was not until 1962 that the constitution was amended to have the people directly elect the president.

The strong presidency included a seven-year term (reduced to five years in 2000 in order to avoid what became known as “cohabitation”—a system in which the president and the prime minister, who represents the Assembly, are from different parties). In the years since de Gaulle, the Socialist François Mitterrand served two terms and thus governed the longest among Fifth Republic presidents. Despite many economic nationalization efforts that ended in failure, he left a classically “imperial” trace of his presidency by rebuilding Paris in the tradition of the two Napoleons through his “Grands Travaux” project, which bestowed upon Paris a new opera house, a new national library, a renovated Louvre, and even a new triumphal arch at the business park at city’s western edge known as La Défense.

The twenty-first century has produced Nicolas Sarkozy, a president who is as flamboyant as any has been so far. The son of a Hungarian immigrant and a mother of Franco-Catholic-Sephardic Jewish heritage, Sarkozy was elected as a conservative and yet remains attached to such revolutionary concepts as “the people” and “change.” Upon his election, he declared the French people the winner as they had “not given up the battle” nor had they chosen to remain trapped in “immobility and conservatism.” Perhaps respected more outside France than in his own country, Sarkozy has been controversial. He called young rioters in the suburbs “scum” (racaille); he established the French Council for Muslim Cults in order to do what France did with the Jews in the nineteenth century: pointedly call for assimilation in order to assure that they become French first and foremost. He appointed the first woman of non-European descent, Rachida Dati, to a position in his cabinet.

Perhaps most unusual and even troubling to some in France is that he is not a product of an elite military or intellectual education. Since the Fifth Republic, French leaders on both the Right and the Left have sat in the same classrooms at the grandes écoles, especially the Ecole Nationale de l’Administration. This rule by a homogenously educated elite has been replaced in Sarkozy’s government by lawyers and business people much more in keeping with what can perhaps be identified as an Americanization of French public life. He believes the French people themselves are far closer to embracing American-style food, shopping, and work habits than the elite political class that surely has more to lose with change. Sarkozy even jogs.

What Sarkozy also represents is the arrival of a leader who is not building politics on the shoulders of the giants of modern French political history. It may be less of a deliberate plan than a tactic resulting from ignorance and perhaps even a healthy lack of appreciation for the French past. The struggle over the meaning of France continues, but as the Republic is now firmly entrenched and also embedded within the greater European Union, the political organization of the state has taken a back seat to concerns over nationality in the postcolonial, multiethnic society that France has become. Of the once-useful myths of history and geography that helped establish France as modern, the French Revolution as a singular event consisting of rapid and radical actions, bolstered by rich and meaningful symbolism, continues to energize France not simply because it keeps change embedded into the fabric of French political life but also because it defines a mission in which France acts in the name of the good of humanity. That vision keeps the Revolution both foundational and incomplete. This is the sort of past that will always have a future.

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