The French Revolution
By Ian Davidson, Profile, £25
In the popular imagination, the French Revolution was a bloody episode that witnessed France’s dishevelled and impoverished rise up against a hated and spoilt aristocracy, whose heads they proceeded to chop off. It’s a narrative laid down by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and the stories of the Scarlet Pimpernell, and later cemented on stage in Les Misérables. It’s a perception that Ian Davidson seeks to challenge and dismantle.
As every schoolboy learnt, the Revolution’s origins lay in middle-class discontent. It had begun as a bourgeois protest against the inequity of the tax regime, from which the nobility had earned outrageous exemptions under the centralising reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV as a compensation for their loss of powers. Middle-class anger was also fuelled by the fact that they were effectively barred from taking posts in the army and the Church, the two traditional avenues of advancement in France. It was the muscle-flexing bourgeoisie, in the guise of the Third Estate, who forced the hand of the nobility and king. They initially sought mere reform, not revolution or regicide.
Alas, as Edmund Burke predicted, and as history has a nasty habit of reminding us, circumstance and human avarice inevitably caused matters to spiral out of control. Louis XVI was a spineless, vacillating king who had the capacity to alienate even sympathetic factions with his dithering and lack of scruples. The French state was already in financial dire straits, and the emergency measures adopted by revolutionaries only made things worse. France happened to be hit by food shortages, antagonising the sans-culottes, whom Maximilien Robespierre mistakenly hoped to both use and contain.
The fanatics and anti-clerical elements eventually took control. Hence, the enduring image we have today of the Revolution is that of aristocrats in tumbrils being taken to their appointment with Madame Guillotine.
Davidson is the former Paris correspondent of the Financial Times, so it’s no surprise that The French Revolution should be written with authority, clarity and journalistic immediacy. The Revolution as remembered today, with its Terror and mass beheadings, only took place between 1793 and 1794. And even then, the Revolutionaries spoke not for France as a whole; most of the rest of the country was appalled by the increasing fanaticism and anti-clericalism of the protagonists in Paris. The counter-revolution in the Vendée of 1793, writes Davidson, was not so much an overt pro-royalist or pro-Catholic affair, as a revolt against the centralism and militant secularism found in the capital.
The frustrated and educated French middle-class, who had set the Revolution in motion, were well-versed in the philosophy of their home-grown Enlightenment, so there was always the chance that a simple reformist urge was going to assume an ideological bent. And when a movement becomes an ideology, it will inexorably drift ever more to the extremes, as protagonists each seek to prove how more pure and righteous they are.
The worst types will always rise to the top in such scenarios – in this case, Robespierre and the awful Jean-Paul Marat. The first was a lawyer and the second a journalist. Indeed, so many of the Revolutionaries came from these two professions: the two types that are perhaps least-well suited to running a country, governed as they are by arrogance and resentment.
The problem with the French is that they are too logical and literal-minded. That is the source of their genius, but it’s also their downfall. Shortly before his death, Robespierre famously pronounced: “Virtue, without which Terror is fatal; Terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is thus an emanation of Virtue.” It took a special kind of embittered Frenchmen, in thrall to ideology and reason, to utter these chilling words.
The Revolution could never settle down into the messy Anglo-Saxon compromise between monarchy, church, state and democracy. The French had to take reform to its last, logical, legalistic, rational conclusion, in which the new religion of laïcité (secularity) would trump all. This has been the poisonous legacy of the Revolution, writes Davidson, which was “for a long time disastrous for the polity and the society of France”. The rival claims between Church and state were only officially resolved in the Concordat of 1905, which enshrined laïcité, but this was less a peace treaty and more of an armistice.
One could argue that the doctrine of laïcité continues to cast a disastrous shadow, as witnessed with the French state’s war on Islamic dress, which has backfired terribly, alienating an already volatile Islamic underclass. No wonder the Church in France doesn’t support the ban on burkinis: it has been besieged by the literal-minded, secularising militants of the French state for more than two centuries now. Why would it support what the late, somewhat enigmatic Fr Jean-Marie Charles-Roux called “the regicidal state”?