There was no such thing as the French Revolution. Rather, this is a term that we apply to a series of events that saw the French monarchy overthrown, the aristocracy abolished, and the Catholic Church nationalised. Over a period of about six years, three bloody popular insurrections formed a kind of spine of this revolution. They were crowned with a period of cruel and arbitrary terror. The policy of the Terror was to terrify enemies of the state into submission or death. Its principal instrument of the terrorists was a public decapitation after a mockery of a trial. There followed some years of reaction before the general unease and fear of anarchy gave way to the inevitable strong ruler. Unfortunately, at least for Europe, that man was a Corsican of military genius whose wars of aggression would cost Europe many millions of lives before his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, about a quarter of a century after the start of ‘the Revolution.’
Most histories of the French Revolution stop with the end of the Terror or with the rise of Napoleon, but if the issue is when, after the initial explosion of 1789, did France achieve a settled constitution, the answer is about a hundred years. People forget the frightful bloody convulsions and violent insurrections that France had to endure the century after the fall of the Bastille.
Those who welcomed what was called the Arab Spring also forgot this in their naive enthusiasm for what looked to be breakthroughs for liberty and equality. They forgot that the English had gone through their revolutions in the seventeenth century and then patiently worked their way toward democracy and the Welfare State in the twentieth century. They forgot that the frightful violence of the civil war in the American Revolution obscures our view of the one original sin of the Declaration of Independence – that all men are equal. That sin would only be in part expiated by a further civil war eighty years later, and the United States is still coming to grips with the enduring inequality and race hate left by slavery. They forgot that the Russian Revolution happened in 1917, and that after about eighty years of murderous misery under Communism, the Russians are still trying to find their way out of a moral and political black hole under a former Secret Police agent who feels fondly about the worst butcher that the world has ever known.
The French national day is 14 July. It was that day in 1789 that saw the bloody insurrection that we see as the beginning of ‘the Revolution.’ That was the day that the Bastille fell after a siege. During that siege, the mob got hold of a beautiful young woman falsely thought to be the daughter of the Governor. They wanted to burn her in his sight. She lay ‘swooned’ on a paillasse until rescued by ‘a Patriot.’ Her father was not so lucky. He died crying out ‘O friends kill me fast.’ His head was hacked off and it was one of a number paraded through streets on a pike. Some were lynched. ‘A la Lanterne’ rallied the vengeful for months, and years. The mob got a taste for blood on the first day and it could become a mad dog again at any time later.
In 1793, people swapped models of the guillotine for replicas of the cross to wear on their apparel. The ghoulish delight of the crowds at the killings was brilliantly caught by Dickens in the knitting of Madame Defarges. People said that ‘looking through the window’ and ‘sneezing into the sack’ was the perfect cure for headaches, but it was very dangerous to show grief for a victim. The crowds liked to sing while the killings went on. The ca ira chorused with aristocrats going to the lamp-post; the Carmagnole recited that the Queen had wanted to slit the throat of all Paris, but her blow had missed – its chorus concluded asking people to dance and listen to the sound of cannon. The mass killings in civil war actions in the Vendee and at Lyons would now attract convictions for war crimes, as when priests were tied on barges that were then sunk, or prisoners were mowed down by shrapnel fired from cannons to the gratification of partial observers.
There was another revolution in 1830 after the restored monarchy had thought that it had had some success over the water. Shortly afterwards there was a popular uprising and that effete fop, King Charles X, was thrown out. (He had been born in 1757, and was the brother of the king executed in 1792.) But 1830 would stand for something. The insurrectionaries used barricades. It was a way of conducting guerrilla warfare in a city of narrow streets. The locals could shower government troops with missiles, and then fall back and re-form. The ‘Three Glorious Days’ were a throw-back to the glory days – the great journées of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine in 1795. The barricade was becoming a distinctive Parisian mode of political action.
1848 saw the barricades go up again and another king get sent off, but what became known as ‘the Days of June’ saw a form of class war of hideous brutality. The blood-letting upon 20,000 or so was bestial. Thousands were killed in the fighting or shot out of hand. Thousands were sent to Algeria. An artist saw ‘defenders shot down, hurled out of windows, the ground strewn with corpses, the earth red with blood.’ Flaubert said that the National Guard ‘were avenging themselves for the journals, the clubs, the doctrines, for everything that had provoked them beyond measure for the last three months; and despite their victory, equality (as if for the punishment of its defenders and mockery of its enemies) was triumphantly revealed – an equality of brute beasts on the same level of blood-stained depravity; for the fanaticism of vested interests was on a level with the madness of the needy, the aristocracy exhibited the fury of the basest mob, and the cotton night-cap was no less hideous than the bonnet rouge. The public mind became disordered as after a great natural catastrophe, and men of intelligence were idiots for the rest of their lives.’
In 1870, Napoleon III, another useless ruler, picked a fight with Germany and lost, and the French suffered a blow to their pride that would reverberate through the next century. The Germans occupied parts of France and bombarded Paris. An armistice was negotiated to allow the French to call an election. The peace party negotiated a humiliating peace in which the French had to give up Alsace and Lorraine. This was a wound that the French still show. There was another insurrection in Paris. The insurgents elected a ‘Commune’ in honour of the glory days of the Jacobins. Victor Hugo described its leader as ‘a sort of baleful apparition in whom seemed to be incarnated all the hatred born of every misery.’ That is a picture of today’s terrorist. They were massacred. About 20,000 communards were killed. In any civilised state, most of them would be said to have been murdered.
It was worse than sickening. Emile Zola – no reactionary – said: ‘The slaughter was atrocious. Our soldiers…meted out implacable justice in the streets. Any man caught with a weapon in his hand was shot. So corpses lay scattered everywhere, thrown into corners, decomposing with astonishing rapidity, which was doubtless due to the drunken state of these men when they were hit. For six days Paris has been nothing but a huge cemetery.’ You can gauge the inhumanity of the Commune from the fact that the Bolsheviks called themselves ‘Communists’ in its honour.
The upheavals of 1830, 1848, and 1870 subsequent to what we call the revolution are very different. They are like after-shocks to an earthquake, and, after Marx sticks his nose in, they become the tremors leading to the Russian revolution. They are hardly national. They are played out in Paris. There are shocks after the after-shocks. The peasants – the majority of the people – are not on side. To the contrary, they stand four-square with government forces to rid the nation of ‘Reds’ in the last two revolutions. There is precious little moral high ground to be seen anywhere. Rather, we see a squalid scrabble for the prizes that had been made possible by the first great national uprising. In short, to use a word that French historians love as much as the word ‘masses’, the nineteenth century is incurably bourgeois, or middle class, and it is somehow irremediably tacky for just that reason. And all that tackiness was sadly on display in the Dreyfus affair.
During the era of these revolutions, insurrections, and outbreaks of barbarism, all of which showed a complete breakdown or failure of civilisation, France decided to extend the benefits of French civilization and government to those less civilised or less well governed. King Charles X invaded Algeria in 1830 and France then effectively annexed it. The results have been a disaster for Algeria, France, and the world, and they are described in the book The French Intifada by Andrew Hussey.
Mr Hussey is the Dean of the University of London Institute in Paris, and has written extensively on France. He describes the civil war or Intifada between Muslims and the rest of France as seen on TV in the riots of 2005 in what are called the banlieues. France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, including more than five million from North Africa, the Middle East, and the ‘Black Atlantic.’ Their main quarter in Paris starts around the Gare du Nord, as even tourists feel. Mr Hussey describes a desolate world devoid of hope or dignity, but full of hate for France, the West and the Jews. He looks at the current intifada after looking at France in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The story is familiar but the results are disquieting – even for those on the other side of the world.
The idea was to civilise Algeria. One problem was that there was no such thing. The nation is some kind of European invention – we are used to that problem now, and ISIL is making plain its consequences. Another problem was that the French were not invited, and they have been hated since. But the French thought, or at least some did, that superior races have the right if not the duty to civilize inferior races. Ernest Renan said that ‘Islam is the complete negation of Europe – Islam is contempt for science, the suppression of civil society; it is the shocking simplicity of the Semitic mind.’ That last outburst would be at best unfortunate now, but something very like it underlay the invasion and occupation – and the conversion of a mosque at the heart of Algiers into a cathedral, with the cross in place of the crescent. Then the French allowed the locals the right to be governed by Islamic law – unless they wanted to be granted French nationality – while seeing this land as part of France, and transporting felons and encouraging migration.
From time to time there would be shocking acts of slaughter – ‘genocide’ is not out of place to describe the process by which France forged a ‘nation’ which, in the words of Mr Hussey was ‘defined and united in its antagonism towards France and in its collective hatred of Jews and contempt for Muslims.’ It is a familiar dichotomy – hatred of Jews and contempt for Muslims.
Shortly after VE day, de Gaulle said that an insurrection was ‘snuffed out’. The French said that 6000 Muslims were slaughtered – Radio Cairo put the figure at 45, 000. Mr Hussey says that the extreme violence, and almost competitive cruelty, ‘could not simply be explained by politics alone.’ The liberation army, the FLN, sought independence by ‘unlimited revolution’ – terrorism. Where did they get their inspiration from? Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam: ‘For every nine of us killed, we will kill one – in the end you will leave.’ You see, at least for this purpose they put less a value on human life; a ratio of 9:1 was acceptable provided that they triumphed in the end. And they and history knew that they would. In the meantime they would kill in the most impressively grisly manner in order to stamp the terror of their mission on their enemy and the world. In other words, this conflict resembled that in Gaza now.
As the English found in America, as the French found in Spain, and as the Americans found in Vietnam, guerilla warfare against an invader or occupier brings out the worst on both sides – atrocities and slaughters. Goya caught a lot of it. In one or other of the North African theatres, a schoolteacher was raped outside the class and then beheaded in front of it – throat-slitting was the preferred mode of killing; a town was sacked and its inhabitants butchered – the marauders then got children to help carry away the booty and then butchered them. The French used electricity in torture that the Americans used in Iraq – especially on genitals; they dropped people out of helicopters – before an audience – a technique that Americans used in Vietnam.
It is idle to ask who is the more barbaric. Mr Hussey describes the rape and murder as psychotic, as would most people reading this – compared to the Tricoteuses, the ladies knitting while they counted off the heads that filled the basket with blood and gore beneath the guillotine? Or to the French people in Algiers who referred to Crevettes a la Bigeard – the bloated and wrecked bodies of FLN prisoners dropped by General Bigeard from a helicopter above the harbour with their feet in concrete in front of the ‘glacial horror’ of the locals, Muslim or European?
The horror and pain was such that the French had to leave, betraying their supporters. When independence came, some the French Algerians engaged in delusion.
In the first instance, the hope was that Algeria would become a beacon of freedom in the post-colonial world, especially in Africa. For this reason, several thousand French Algerians with left-wing beliefs opted to stay on, with the dream of building a new Socialist republic, free of the baggage of European history and ideology. The optimism radiated across the Mediterranean and over the next few years other Europeans….flocked to the new Socialist paradise.
These were the pieds noirs. They were suicidally deluded in their belief in a beacon of freedom. They would not be alone. The civil war was worse than what had gone before. ‘The FLN government had ossified into a decadent and pampered elite which let its own people starve; the liberators of the Algerians had become their jailers.’ This appears to be inevitable in Africa – but, it did take the French a century to get over their revolution.
The new terrorism was more frightful. And it now reached France. Some terrorists wanted to hijack a plane and drive it into the Eiffel Tower. Then Palestinians brought their cause and grievances to the area, and the hatred of the Jews was given a new focus – Israel.
It was different with the colony in Morocco, but the result was the same. When the French fled, they left unworkable structures, because the protectorate had been a French overlay. They never annexed Tunisia, but are seen to be responsible for it, and they are hated there, too. The French had supported the dictator, and one minister contemplated helping him, but the Tunisians soon despaired of getting anything from their revolution. Spain is involved because it has had sites in North Africa and some of the madder Islamists dream of returning it to Islam.
The following passage shows how all our nightmares are coming together.
It was the French and Moroccan secret services who revealed that the terrorist cell, operating out of Fez, was made up of North African immigrants to France. The Moroccan authorities then insisted on treating the affair as a criminal case, while the French police pursued the line that a significant number of would-be terrorists had been trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan. To follow this lead meant an investigation into the mosques of La Corneuve and Saint-Denis where the ideology of jihad had been promulgated in response to the Gulf War, Palestine-Israel and Algeria. It was the French intifada in its purest form.
Mr Hussey concludes by looking at Muslims in French jail. That population is thought to be about 70% Muslim. Now here is the bad news. They get worse inside. If you kill them, it is even worse. You make them martyrs.
We cannot see anything remotely resembling a solution. Generations of hate – centuries of hate – have been generated and inherited in the Muslim world by aggressive or arrogant or merely stupid incursions into their realm by the West. The most consequential was the creation of Israel which is helping to fuel anti-Semitism in the West.
What troubled me most while reading this book was the reflection on the hatred being generated in and out of Gaza, the hatred of the Jews and the contempt for the Muslims or Arabs, and the role played by the Gulf Wars in producing ISIL, the latest Muslim revolt brought to you by courtesy of the West, in ‘nations’ that only existed in the minds of duplicitous Europeans.
You can expect to hear a lot about barbarism and genocide as if this were something new, but if the West does have to go in again to deal with an Arab or Muslim revolt might we at least have the courtesy to acknowledge that we made it possible if not necessary? And that we can give no warranty that we will not make it worse?
As for Gaza, if the security of Israel ultimately depends on the goodwill of those who made it – the West – how long might this go on if Israel keeps up its policy of settlements and denying a state to the Palestinians? Might that reservoir of goodwill be drained in, say, a generation? If so, the showdown might literally be nuclear, in which case I trust that I will by then be enjoying a rest like no rest that I have ever known before.