Vive la révolution!
Formally called Fête Nationale in France, Bastille Day celebrations are marked in Culan by a parade of our friends the pompiers (firemen) in their shiny helmets and carrying their flags along Grande Rue, which I observe from my office window.
I must admit the Gallic celebration of freedom from oppression, when a angry and hungry mob stormed the Bastille castle on July 14, 1789 and liberated its inmates leading to the French Revolution had escaped me.
In the morning I had driven 20kms to Saint-Amand-Montrond to take Sadie’s bicycle for repair, only to find the main square swarming with gendarmes, the streets blocked off, and the shops closed (even the boulangerie) in preparation for its parade.
William Wordsworth, described in the Paris Review as a ‘total deadbeat expat who knocked up his French mistress,’ was in Paris at the time and wrote in The Prelude:
…it was a reservoir of guilt
And ignorance, filled up from age to age,
That could no longer hold its loathsome charge,
But burst and spread in deluge through the land.
The only deluge spreading through the country in 2021 is the one from above as we have had three days of persistent rain since Sunday in what could well be the worst summer on record according to locals and seasoned expats.
Thomas Paine’s book Rights of Man, is a powerful and eloquent defence of the French Revolution, praising the downfall of the French ruling classes the establishment of a democracy and the acceptance of the ‘universal right of citizenship’.
Paine’s book questioned the traditional values of Britain and his message was clear: people didn’t have to accept the way things were. He urged people to rise up and rebel against what he believed were generations of oppression. This kind of thinking was totally new for many people across the UK and, perhaps for the first time, they questioned their place in society.
Although the UK didn’t get rid of its monarchy for good, according to the National Archive, the 1790s was a very important decade in the development of radical working-class politics, and that its effects can be seen in the growth during the 19th century of trade unionism and the emergence of the Chartist movement.
Radicalism and Paine’s promotion of democratic ideas also led to the various campaigns for electoral reform, which played an important part in the development of the labour movement.
The revolutionary government of France declared war on monarchical Britain on 1 February 1793, and both countries still distrust each other as borne out by the recent Brexit contretemps and COVID-19 restrictions at border crossings.
Before the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy I saw a reader survey on L’équipe.fr. that claimed 70% French support for Italy against Les Rosbif.
France is essentially a socialist and Latin country, passionate about its identity and its hard fought liberty, which is why it is quick to take to the streets en-masse at any perceived threat to its social, economic or workers’ rights.
It is an endearing quality I admire.
In England at the the time of the Revolution wealthy landowners were reluctant to give up their precious property and wealth, and were worried by the idea of the lower classes being given rights of their own, reasoning that the current Johnson government will no doubt agree with.
According to historians, many ‘ordinary’ people in Britain, the 99%, also thought new revolutionary ideas from France were a threat to the nation and instead, they supported conservatism and became loyalists.
It was not unusual for effigies of Thomas Paine to be burnt in towns and villages, while the ruling class looked down from above and laughed at their subjects’ stupidity.
C’est la vie.