Sunday, 14 July 2013

14 July, a time of celebration. Maybe tinged with foreboding

There are falsehoods that communicate great truths.

It is almost certainly untrue that Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, when told that the people of Paris had no bread, replied ‘qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ (which we usually translate as ‘let them eat cake’, though brioche works much better as just the kind of thing a well-bred queen might choose to partake of with her friends over a coffee in the morning).

She probably didn’t say ‘let them eat cake’. 
But she was hardly a benchmark for empathy
However untrue, the story reflects an attitude of mind that pervaded the French society of which Marie-Antoinette was such a jewel. Noblewomen, who wouldn’t have shown an ankle to a man of their own class, found it easy to bath in front of their servants, female or male, because domestics were barely human and it didn’t matter if they saw the ladies naked. 

Of the three estates, clergy, nobles and ‘third estate’ (commoners), only the third paid tax. And with the government desperately in debt, the burden of tax grew unbearable until in the end the long-delayed explosion took place. The people of France took to the streets and rounded on its masters and tormentors.

That’s the event celebrated in France today, 14 July, when the Paris mob sacked the notorious Bastille prison and released the handful of prisoners it contained while butchering its governor. The butchery continued and intensified for several years, degenerating into a reign of terror in which many of its revolutionaries were themselves sent to the guillotine. Ultimately, a reaction set in, leading to the execution in their turn of the terror leaders Robespierre and St Just themselves.

The reactionary governments struggled to achieve stability in the face of military action from abroad. Inevitably, France strove fiercely to build itself the army it needed for its defence and, attack being the best form of defence, to take the war to her enemies. Out of this effort there emerged a military strong man, Napoleon, who eventually took power in his own name, and the revolution that had been launched against the despotic power of a king and nobility, produced an Empire led by a single autocrat dependent on a war machine and in constant pursuit of a new military adventure to fund the one before.

In the end, the revolution took Europe through twenty years of war with military deaths of around 2.5 to 3.5 million and civilian deaths, even more difficult to calculate, of 750,000 to 3 million. A long and bloody agony, and all because the old regime in France couldn’t find a way to adapt to modern circumstances and the need to look after its people.

Doesn’t bode well for Syria and Egypt today, does it? Regimes that won’t give up power, that won’t meet any of the aspirations of their peoples, that ultimately rely on the brute power of the military to hold on to what they have.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take 20 years and a conflagration embracing the whole of that sad and troubled region. Particularly as it’s the powder keg of the world.

But if you happen to catch a glimpse of the parade down the Champs Elysées, and of the fireworks displays all round France, just remember: the events being celebrated had their roots in the refusal of power to accommodate its people. And, over two centuries later, we’re still struggling to find a way to do that.

Happy Bastille Day.

Such fun.
Though it's probably best not to think too hard about what lies behind it

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