September 17, 2021

The people are revolting. And by people, I mean the French. While Britain’s government has limply backed down over vaccine passports, Paris has decreed that vaccines are, in effect, mandatory. Toulouse has erupted in response — but, then, French anti-vaccine passport protests have been ongoing for weeks, while the gilet jaunes, after a brief interlude, have been back demonstrating for a year now.

The French love of protesting at the drop of the hat is perhaps their defining character trait, but it reflects a deeper culture of political violence that goes deep into their history, and not just the revolution.

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Theirs is a culture in which use of force is much more acceptable, and where authority has both menace and glamour. Last time I made the crossing back from France to England, the first UK Border Force man I saw was sat in one of those knackered old swing office chairs, with the word “Colin” written on A4 on the back; the whole veneer served to ensure that authority in England was something to not take too seriously.

It was a different matter two weeks earlier, crossing from Italy into France, where one is greeted along that slightly sensitive border by a parade of young French soldiers carrying machine guns and dressed in dazzling outfits, like a Jean Paul Gaultier advert. It’s designed to show that they mean business, and that authority should be admired and feared.

While our police spent much of their summer either on their knees in front of Black Lives Matters protesters, or running away from them, the gendarmes have a somewhat different attitude to demonstrations: since the gilet jaunes protest began at least 24 people have lost an eye as a result, while five have lost a hand; 315 have suffered head injuries, and two have died.

France’s frequent eruption of violence is baffling to its neighbours. They have short working hours, generous welfare and a first-class health care system (far better than Britain’s). The French live very long lives on a comfortable pension, and their disposable income is rising.. The French inhabit a country that to many of its neighbours feels like paradise, and so the Dutch expression“leven als God in Frankrijk” (live like God in France), but then historically that partly explains the readier resort to violence — you had to have a certain belligerence to occupy Europe’s most desirable real estate.

Next time you’re lucky enough to visit the country, take a glance outside when you’re driving through the Loire Valley and look at what you see – chateaux, lots of them. There are over 1,000 in that region alone, because chateaux tended to be built to replace older castles and strongholds, and western France was littered with them.

The geography of Britain ensured that a monarch based by the Thames was able to grow wealthy enough to rule over the entirety of England. The kingdom of Wessex united all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 927 and there was never any danger of the north being powerful enough to secede. Wales was slowly conquered and while Scotland was a different matter, it was never an existential threat to England.

The sheer size of France – four times that of England – made it much harder for Paris to establish dominance over the country’s natural boundaries, which are shaped by the Pyrenees and the Alps on two sides of the hexagon, the sea by two others, and by a vulnerable and ambiguous region to its east and north. The kings of the Franks ruled with the help of 12 regional lords, and until the revolution “France” was effectively the region around Paris.

The variance of France made it a country hard to unite, with huge divides in language and culture, likened by one essayist to “a horse whose four legs move in a different time”. Graham Robb in his brilliant The Discovery of France identified 55 different languages and dialects, and noted that in 1789 just 11% of the population spoke the national language. In Gascony and Provence people from the north were still called Franchiman or a Franciot (“French”).

France’s militarism is a legacy of Paris’s inability to create a monopoly of violence in a land which has been intensely fought over down the centuries. Medieval castles were a form of arms race between highly-independent duchies and counties, and the same was true of cavalry warfare, which largely developed in western France. The Normans, in particular, bred ever stronger and more aggressive horses, spending huge amounts of effort on mastering this form of warfare. The Battle of Hastings was won with a faked retreat, a tactic that requires a great deal of training and coordination; the Anglo-Saxons, in contrast, did not fight on horseback, which is why you probably knows lots of Williams and Roberts but not many Leofwines or Wulfnoths.

Cavalry was the foundation of medieval Europe, which is why French became for centuries the language of the ruling classes from Scotland to Jerusalem. It is why pretty much every single English word to do with war – apart, perhaps, from “war” itself – comes from French rather than Germanic roots.

It’s strange that those raised in the English-speaking world are taught a cliché of French army tanks that go backwards and joke about  “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, when, historically, France is by far the most war-like country in Europe.

In his Decisive Battles of the World, Victorian historian Edward Creasy wrote: “If we were to endeavour…. to ascertain which European nation has contributed the most to the progress of European civilization, we should find Italy, Germany, England, and Spain, each claiming the first degree, but each also naming France as clearly next in merit. It is impossible to deny her paramount importance in history.” At the start of the First World War, the country had four times as many soldiers in uniform as Britain, and almost as many as Prussian-controlled Germany, which had 50% more people.

Even in the build-up to the Second World War, France was more aggressive than Britain towards Hitler, and many divisions fought bitterly against the Germans in 1940, with even the Dunkirk evacuation carried out with French support and the loss of 18,000 Frenchmen. But the country was fatally divided politically, psychologically scarred by the huge losses of the First World War, when 1.4 million French soldiers were killed, and facing an almost psychotically determined enemy.

In living memory, France has been engaged in two hugely costly wars, losing 20,000 men in Vietnam and another 25,000 in Algeria. These casualties dwarf the numbers of British troops lost either in the Northern Ireland Troubles (763) or colonial insurrections like Malaya or Cyprus, which had fewer British casualties still. Relative to their population, they were also much more devastating than Vietnam was to America.

The violence in Algeria spilled over into metropolitan France, which is one reason why President de Gaulle is believed to hold the record for number of assassination attempts, somewhere in the region of 25 or 26, and his survival is all the more impressive considering his giant stature. Britain’s own Queen Victoria survived eight, although some of these were quite feeble (someone firing tobacco out of a gun, for instance). When the OAS try to kill you, they really try.

While the last massacre of English civilians took place in 1819, Parisian authorities killed at least 40 and maybe as many as 200 people in 1961, there protesting the war in Algeria. Because of the way that the American narrative has completely captured the British imagination, this story is much less well known than relatively peaceful campaign for civil rights in the US. A similar event in California or New York would be the subject of countless films, songs and plays.

During the Sixties, France even seemed close to a coup, and still today its military contains various elements who seem quite keen on overthrowing the government, something inconceivable in Britain. A coup would actually be quite popular with the French public, according to polls, although it’s hard to know if this is just performative Frenchness at work. But, then, this is a country which still holds military parades, and still takes military honour and valour seriously.

Everything in French history is much more violent than ours. There was nothing like the Albigensian crusade in England, a regional conflict that killed maybe a million people, although the Harrying of the North came close (done, of course, by you-know-who). The Jacquerie, France’s equivalent of the Peasant’s Revolt, was far more violent than the English uprising, both in total deaths and the sadism and cruelty involved. During the Reformation Mary Tudor was regarded as a monster for killing 300 Protestants, while her sister Elizabeth put to death 200 Catholics priests and their sympathisers. The French Wars of Religion killed an estimated 3 million. As well as the Terror, the French Revolution also led to what was arguably the first modern genocide, in the Vendée.

Religious violence has now made an unwelcome return, and in recent years it has been quite normal to see French soldiers patrolling the streets, often protecting cathedrals that previously suffered destruction at the hands of the revolutionaries. Britain and France share a similar sized Islamic terrorism problem, but the scale of the violence there is much more spectacular and terrifying, largely because there are so many more firearms available – 12.7 million vs 3 million – plus the ease of transporting guns over the border. Britain has such a disarmed population that it is something of a running joke online, with London police divisions tweeting out their latest confiscations of Swiss army knives and particularly vicious-looking spoons. It makes us safer, but there’s also something quite demoralising about it.

While there is something about the French readiness to protest and riot that is shocking to the Anglo-Saxon soul, it also quite admirable. Deep down, there is a great deal of respect for this belligerence, part of that wider Gallic battle with Americanisation, the modern world, and often reality.

We, though, are too timid and passionless to spend every Saturday blocking the centre of town, or driving a lorry load of slurry into the nearest government building; and if we protested like the French, we couldn’t do so with the same panache. Even the gilet jaunes movement managed a certain stylistic triumph while wearing high-viz vests, which in Britain are the very symbol of health and safety-driven inertia and defeatism. For us, the constant protests would get tiresome, the strikes would be a pain in the backside. And we’d look as cool as someone called Colin holding a clipboard.