Someone call the firemen. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty)

July 14, 2023   5 mins

You have to wonder what Indian PM Narendra Modi, guest of honour at the Champs-Elysées military parade today, will be making of the political fever in France. The tremulous mood was captured well in his counterpart Elisabeth Borne’s recent interview in Le Parisien: the government will roll out “massive measures to protect the French” this Bastille Day she said. Hardly the right tone for a celebration — more suited to, say, Kyiv than Paris. Usually, Bastille Day celebrations mean picking which firemen’s ball to attend in the evening. But Madame Borne seems to believe they will all be needed to put out rioters’ fires instead. The rest of France, she acknowledged, has the same worry.

We already know that the “sale and carrying of all fireworks with their launch mortars” has now been forbidden until Saturday morning, though councils and cities will be allowed to have their official displays. All city-surface public transport (buses and tramways) came to a halt at 10pm yesterday (9pm in Lyon) and are not running today — a measure intended to protect the drivers and their buses. Around 130,000 police, gendarmes and auxiliaries are on patrol. “The order is to immediately arrest any troublemakers,” announced Home Secretary Gérald Darmanin, a man who has Elisabeth Borne’s job in his sights and doesn’t care who knows it. An additional “40,000 firemen will be deployed” he added, confirming that Bals des Pompiers will indeed be off the table, except in villages and very small towns. The whole day will have a Jacques Tati feel, with a side order of apocalypse.

How did France get there? It’s a well-known trope of professional French-watchers abroad to moan that “the French live in a paradise and say they live in hell”. Cue patronising theories on how we don’t know how good we have it. And it doesn’t help that the type of French people doomscrolling through such analyses in foreign broadsheets would, to mangle Orwell’s great quotation, feel more ashamed of standing to attention during La Marseillaise than stealing from the modern equivalent of a poor box. It’s easy to love the status quo when the status quo serves you, and to concur with sophisticated foreigners when they peddle the upscale touristy clichés you profit from.

The truth is that France, a country that built herself (not always unsuccessfully) on fits of revolutionary violence punctuated by stretches of authoritarianism, has rarely been satisfied with her lot. Talleyrand, the shrewd defrocked bishop who led France’s foreign policy from Bonaparte’s first victories to the Congress of Vienna, used to say Qui n’a pas connu les annĂ©es qui ont prĂ©cĂ©dĂ© la RĂ©volution ne sait pas ce que c’est que la douceur de vivre (“Anyone who hasn’t lived through the years leading up to the Revolution does not know what the sweetness of life is.”)

Note the elegiac past tense. The great movies of the Thirties harked back to the Belle Époque; those of the Fifties to the interwar years. It’s no coincidence that the intervening disaster of 1940-1944, when France was occupied by the Nazis, saw the Pétain collaborationist government inspired by the ideologues of the Révolution Nationale, the young and eager theoreticians of French fascism. Part of their own particular anger came from feeling they needed to brutally overthrow a national rudderless langueur that had cushioned the country from the worst but condemned it to a slow but inexorable decline. (It’s always been hard to make lines move in France, hence the strikes that spoil all of Europe’s holidays.)

Looking back, the country that taught the rest of the world, from Kossuth to Lenin or Pol Pot, how to révolutionner, rarely liked the end result of her recurrent, temporary frenzies. The denunciation letters sent to magistrates in the years before the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants show the same eager zeal that brought a steady stream of suspects to the tender mercies of Fouquier-Tinville during the Terror, or of the Milice and the Gestapo in 1940-44. (“I know X, who says he’s a good Catholic, really belongs to the RPR [Religion Prétendument Réformée]”, one neighbour writes, coveting the poor man’s possessions, in the time-tested style of snitches everywhere.) The popular, Protestant-turned-Catholic King who attempted to reconcile the French after the Wars of Religion, Henry IV, was only assassinated for his pains. His successors learned their lesson.

Duff Cooper, the wartime minister, compulsive diarist and one-time Ambassador to Paris, wrote in his elegant biography of Talleyrand that there was a historical reason for Britain and France’s divergent political systems. The British aristocracy had peacefully seized power in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in effect ushering in parliamentary monarchism, whereas the Fronde of French nobles, led by Louis XIV’s own cousins the Duchess of Montpensier and the Duc de Condé, failed miserably 30 years earlier. Crucially, it scared the 15-year-old Louis XIV so much that his policies for the next six decades were devoted to creating an absolutist, centralist model where the smallest decision rested on the King alone. And a great deal of that rigid Colbertian model remains, reworked by Napoleon and adopted by La République. Ask yourself, then, where the contemporary heritage of the Révolution truly lies?

The country’s current frustration is in great part due to the kinetic immobilism practised by Emmanuel Macron over the past six years. His whirl of activity — world travel, walkabouts and international initiatives — nevertheless produces no movement. Fond of invoking de Gaulle, Macron, who wears the costume fashioned in the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, is in fact the Général of May 1968, reduced to calling in men in uniform, (though Gérald Darmanin is no Jacques Massu). He has filled the National Assembly with pale clones of himself — though not yet the Senate, which currently wears the protective colouration of a senior chamber with a junior role, but would actually be well-equipped to restore proper democracy.

The logical conclusion is that France is due an actual revolution, not a fancy parade and a formal garden party in the park of the Élysée palace. The problem is that most of the French have forgotten how to go about it, and find themselves divested of all institutions of remembrance. French unions are weak — especially compared to the election-winning 1936 Popular Front. So are the political parties, their final signs of life extinguished by Macron’s centrist clarion, “en même temps de droite et de gauche”. And they don’t teach children their history in our schools — what’s not been cancelled is disdained by professors who believe chronology, personalities and linear history are irrelevant.

The French workplace was long the everyday replica of the absolute monarchy, and largely still is. France has no Dilberts, but instead a healthy industry of kitchen aprons and fridge magnets that decline 10 ways in which “Même quand il a tort, le boss a toujours raison [Even when he’s wrong, the boss is always right].” It’s a phrase one should never forget when dealing with the French. Therefore quiet-quitting is the order of the day, not rebellion. The last revolt of the banlieues was, despite activists’ efforts, non-political. It was driven by anomie, a lack of opportunities, and the consumerist instinct. As always, France’s self-destructive passions have lost a balance between the individual and the collective that was never very strong in the first place. No Bastille Day holiday, quiet or riotous, will change this for now.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a Paris-based journalist and political commentator.