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A FRENCH MANIFESTATION



A friend of mine was recounting tales of his recent skiing holiday in the French Alps. His transfer from airport to resort was held up by an embouteillage (traffic jam, not confiture de la circulation as we used to say in French oral lessons at school). “Pourquoi?” asked my friend of the coach driver. “Manifestation,” was his single-word reply. Manifestation? Manifestation of what? Who or what is manifesting itself? Their tour guide leant across and translated. “Demonstration,” she said, “You know, strikes, marches, riots. There’s a lot of that going on in France at the moment.”

 

Indeed there is, and not all of it peaceful and orderly. My reaction has always been a mixture of amusement and grudging admiration for French farmers who take to the streets in their tractors, causing havoc on the roads whenever their government attempts to enact a law that they do not like, a protest in which they are invariably victorious. Mind you, amusement soon turned to frustrated vexation when we were once caught up in one of these tractor go-slows, but whencalm reflection had reasserted itself, I remembered a line from Hilary Mantel’s sprawling novel on the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, “Liberty Equality, Fraternity or Death”. Yes, the Revolution was a bloody affair. Here is what Louis Saint-Just, a major figure in the bloodletting, had to say, “The ship of the revolution can only arrive safely at its destination on a sea that is red with torrents of blood.” Eventually, even he was forced to make his acquaintance with Madame Guillotine.

 

I have never quite understood why the French hold their revolution in such mystical reverence. When Europe, led by England, reacted with horror at the execution of the French king, Louis XVI (called simply Louis Capet by his scornful gaolers), the revolutionaries retorted that in the manner of cutting off a king’s head, England had led the way. Yes, England had their civil war 150 years previously, but it was not the same. The conflict between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists was a bitter and bloody struggle, leaving an estimated 100,000 dead on the battlefield and another 100,000 as casualties of starvation and disease. But it was essentially a war between armies. Bands of revolutionaries did not roam the streets and butcher people for no reason or haul them off to kangaroo courts which sent them to the guillotine. During the French Revolution, it is estimated that 250,000 were killed. It is popularly thought that they were all guillotined. In fact, only 10,000 died under the blade, often on the flimsiest of evidence, what was euphemistically called ‘crimes against liberty’. In the English Civil War, by stark comparison, only one man, Charles I, lost his head.

 

Thus, I wonder at the French and their rose-tinted perspective on their revolution. It resulted in a bloodbath and was eventually replaced by another despotic ruler, Napoleon, and we all know how that turned out. Consider the bloodthirsty words of their national anthem:

“Grab your weapons, citizens!

Form your battalions!

Let us march! Let us march!

May impure blood

Water our fields!”

God Save the King is, by contrast, rather tame.

 

Let me now return to the current social unrest laying waste to the streets of France. Smug Britons will smirk and make reference to Gallic excitability and high-handedness. Good Lord, they are rioting because their government wants to (well, needs to, if you look at their finances) raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 but over here, the retirement age is 65 and will soon be raised to 67. And we don’t take to the streets and burn down municipal buildings in protest. Why are the French always rioting?

 

I believe it is a natural consequence of revolution and the overthrow of the ancient regime, rather than a fiery national temperament. The understood pact between its people and its rulers is the belief that the state will always look after them. That is premise upon which the republic was forged in the flames of violent upheaval and the sweeping away of the hated royalty and the aristocratic elite. ‘The people have spoken, and change must come’ went the revolutionary cry. Thus, every man and woman has an equal stake in the country and its affairs. If the country’s rulers seem to be betraying this trust (by raising the retirement age), then citizens (everybody had the nomenclature of ‘Citoyen’) have the right to protest. If the rulers won’t come to their senses, then….off with their heads! “Insurrection is the holiest of duties!” declared Lafayette, a notable revolutionary.

 

England does it subtly differently. Of course, there are riots and demonstrations in this country from time to time, and blood is sometimes spilt. But the consequence of the Civil War was a constant struggle over centuries – largely peaceful – between the Monarchy and Parliament, which finally resulted in our form of government in which the king, though head of state, wields little power, a constitutional monarchy rather than an absolute monarchy. A long, drawn-out compromise, in other words. Very British.

 

We tend not to take to the streets at the drop of a hat. If we don’t like what our rulers are doing, we take the piss. Today, Private Eye leads the way in political and social satire. It carries the torch that has a noble tradition. Just bear in mind those scurrilous political caricatures and cartoons of James Gillray in the 18th century. Besides, it rains a lot in this country, always likely to dampen revolutionary fervour.

 

There is a theory, to which I do not wholly subscribe (more’s the pity!), that Britain was not swept up in the revolutionary wave that surged through Europe in 1848 in the wake of France’s upheaval because none of them played cricket. The argument goes that because the squire played in the same village team as his labourers, the lord played in the same team as his servants, the aristocrat played in the same team as his farmhands (the team was probably his and much money was gambled on victory against his fellow landowner’s team – who said that gambling never affected English cricket?), those who shared a dressing room would never slit each other’s throats. A nice, but probably fanciful, thought. In any event, Britain turned its back on blood-soaked political change.

 

Admittedly, universal suffrage in France, declared during the Revolution, was rescinded later, and it took another revolution in 1848 to secure the vote for all men (but not women). Britain took a more dilatory course. All men over 21 (but not women) were granted the vote in 1918. Various stages had led the country to this point, often bitterly contested and acrimoniously disputed but at least these battles took place in the House of Commons, not on the streets of London, with a scaffold erected in Parliament Square where MPs who had been found guilty of crimes against liberty would be summarily executed.

 

On the other hand, putting aside – if that were possible – the wholesale slaughter of the French Revolution, you could say that France beat us to an enlightened policy of universal suffrage by 60 years. In other words, street protest and violent manifestation works! Nobody protests like the French; it is deeply embedded in their culture. So, when the people take to the streets to express their unhappiness with President Macron and his reforms, they are only exercising an inalienable right for which their forebears had shed blood.

 

Aux armes, citoyens!

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