France celebrated her national holiday yesterday, 14 July. On this day the mob stormed the Bastille, razed it and erected on the site what Robbie Burns described metaphorically as The Tree of Liberty.
Heard ye o’ the tree o’ France,
I watna what’s the name o’t;
Around the tree the patriots dance,
Weel Europe kens the fame o’t.
It stands where ance the Bastille stood,
A prison built by kings, man,
When Superstition’s hellish brood
Kept France in leading-strings, man.
Considering that on that day, 223 years ago, the Bastille kept just seven prisoners ‘in leading-strings, man’, which fell somewhat short of all of France, the poem was a bit of an overstatement. But then no one ever accused Auld Robbie of being a serious political analyst. The amazing thing is that the general sentiment reflected in the poem has become received thinking on the subject.
Do let’s get the facts right. That day, 14 July, 1789, inaugurated the worst politically inspired violence Europe had ever known. When the ideas of the Enlightenment were put into practice, Frenchmen, and their Scottish champion, thought they were handed liberty on a platter. But upon closer examination this piece of proverbial chinaware was instead found to contain a pile of severed heads.
First, the ruling class had to be democratically brought down a peg. Then the merchants had to be democratically dispossessed. Then the clergy had to have their property democratically confiscated. Then the army officers had to be democratically cashiered (violent hatred of the last two groups was one of Robespierre’s less endearing characteristics). Then the farmers had to have their crops democratically requisitioned.
And then they, along with many others whose sole crime was that Robespierre and his cronies didn’t like them very much, all met under the democratic guillotine. The latter went into high gear and ran up a score never before even approached by any authoritarian state not listing universal brotherhood among its desiderata.
The only people set free in the process were the rabble: free to murder, rape and plunder. Soon, however, the newly elected tool of the people’s power had to conscript the mob into the National Guard, so as to gain some control over it, while trying to counterbalance the old army that inclined towards scepticism about the advent of liberty, equality and fraternity. Almost overnight the country’s armed forces swelled from 100,000 or so to three times that number, and France fell under military control, which sooner or later was bound to produce a Napoleon.
In short, the country went mad. First she exterminated her upper classes, then set out to conquer the world, losing two million men in that deranged attempt, then brought the royalty and aristocracy back only to send them packing again a few years later. At that point the madness went from its acute to its chronic stage, but it has never been cured. Just count on the fingers of both of hands the types of government France has had in the last 223 years, including her five republics, assemblies, directories, dictatorships, empires and monarchies, and tell me that’s not mad.
All those fits of insanity were set off on the day France celebrates so effusively. Not all of France though. Last night, we and our French friends raised a glass to the Bourbons, a gesture that’s becoming increasingly common in this utterly confused republic. Also, one can’t help noticing that people with any claim to aristocratic titles flaunt their lineage much more energetically than do their counterparts in Her Majesty’s realm.
But our quiet toast to the last sane government of France was drowned in the blasts of fireworks exploding over this normally sleepy Burgundian village. ‘Rockets blasting in air,’ I thought, in reference to another event inspired by the Enlightenment. Obviously, most Frenchmen felt they had something to celebrate. Poor sods.