On two of my six visits to Paris, I have been within earshot of the sounds of insurrection. It is unsettling. The French love a barricade and the first line of their national anthem has that bogus word ‘glory’ – after the exhortation to take up arms. That’s fine before a footy match, or in Casablanca, but is that how you run a country? It helps to understand this French love affair with violence if you look at events in England before their revolution and events in France after theirs.
During the 1700’s the people of the American colonies and of France revolted against their government. In each case, the government had sought more revenue from taxation; the people wanted more representation in their government; when their governments denied their requests, the people revolted.
It is not just that the two revolutions have a lot in common – the French supported the American colonists against their old enemy England, and the cost of that support bankrupted the French nation. Since that bankruptcy started the series of events that we know as the French revolution, that revolution may be said to have arisen from the determination of the French to keep up with the English.
The English had been developing a system of government since the Romans quit. A system of government by the Crown in parliament had grown up with what the English called their common law. Over the centuries, the English had experienced and absorbed four revolts each of which might fairly be called a revolution. Between the first and second of these revolts, they had deposed two kings, and the deposition of one king – Richard II – was celebrated by the world’s greatest author in a play that put the fear of God into one of that nation’s strongest monarchs, Elizabeth I.
Armed barons induced King John to agree to a constitutional settlement. The document, known as Magna Carta, is the root of title of the English constitution. Since the king was assuming binding legal obligations, the settlement logically entailed, nearly six centuries before the French revolution against an absolute monarch, that the king was under and subject to the law. This is how English judges and lawyers saw it, and have seen it ever since. It is the foundation of what we call the rule of law.
This document laid the basis for civil liberties of the kind set out in the United States Bill of Rights. It also rendered the doctrine of the divine right of kings into a kind of fiction, or regnal Dreamtime. It was hard for a king to say that he was put there by God, and was only answerable to God, when in truth he held the Crown on terms laid down by his great and powerful subjects – who claimed to be acting on behalf of the whole nation – and where on a very bad day, the people would just depose a king if they thought that he was just not up to the job.
More than two centuries later, England obtained Home Rule from Rome. It later defended that liberty under arms. Unlike the son of the carpenter, the Holy Father had not renounced the kingdoms of this world. One pope had annulled Magna Carta, and no self-respecting nation could leave itself open to that kind of foreign intervention. The English proclaimed that ‘this realm is an empire’ – it had no peers. (Before Agincourt, Shakespeare has the French herald Mountjoy giving the message of the French king, ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial.’) In accordance with their custom, the English insisted that they were merely restating what had always been the case. The pope issued fatwas and licences to kill the English monarch, and England felt the binding cement of the defeat of a great foreign armada.
This independence of the English church was fundamental to the capacity of the English people to mould their system of civil and religious governance as they saw fit. What we call the Reformation was a great step up for the English parliament, since it was by its statutes that the constitutional settlement, including the succession of the Crown, was effected. It was even harder for a king to claim authority from God when the royal succession was prescribed not by the Bible but by an act of parliament. Putting to one side any spiritual differences, the constitutional effect of the revolution that we call the Reformation has been underestimated by historians. If you doubt that effect, just look at the subsequent histories of European nations that did not achieve religious Home Rule – like Greece, Italy, Spain – or France.
In the seventeenth century, the English revolted against two Stuart kings. The English nation owes a lot to that Stuart family from Scotland – they were a one-family Punch and Judy show, sent by God to provoke the English, and not bright enough to avoid quite terminal consequences.
The first revolt is sometimes called the Puritan Revolution. It was fomented against a crafty and devious royal ideologue, Charles I, by a bunch of religious fanatics in parliament – both Lords and Commons – aided by common lawyers and judges outside of parliament, all king-busters straight from hell. They procured the death of the king’s first minister by a parliamentary process that even Macaulay and Churchill conceded was revolutionary, but which might stand as a high point of ministerial responsibility. (One of their great constitutional protests had said ministers should have the confidence of parliament.) They forced through legislative protection of parliament against the king.
But Charles refused to go quietly and botched an attempted armed coup d’état. This led to a civil war which the king lost to one of only two men the English have erected statues to outside their parliament. When the king failed to negotiate responsibly, he paid the ultimate price for starting and losing a civil war. The parliament proclaimed the end of the monarchy. You do not get any more revolutionary than that – except that this was done by the law.
But the English were not ready for a republic. It was too rude a shock, and they were frankly appalled by the excesses of some Puritans – who even liked closing pubs. The monarch was restored with barely a ripple. One vital statistic of English history is that after they passed a general act of indemnity, only about a dozen people were executed for their role in a revolution that saw the execution – now called the murder – of a king.
But when the second restored Stuart king refused to toe the parliamentary line, the English people revolted again. This time they did it in style. They called in a Dutch prince married to an English princess as a kind of receiver, and handed the Crown to him and his wife on conditions laid down in the English Bill of Rights. James II fled, but this revolution, called the Glorious Revolution, effectively settled in 1689 the centuries old struggle between the crown and parliament. The crown cannot get revenue except by act of parliament. This is still the lynch-pin of parliamentary democracy in England and those states that follow its model. This revolution was bloodless in England, but it was their last.
But at least as important as these revolutionary land-mark changes – that are celebrated in England and in the U S and elsewhere – were changes that evolved in England over six centuries. English lawyers and litigants did not go the way of Europe in adopting Roman law. They developed on a case by case basis their own native body of law based on custom and precedent. This is the common law, which is still the ultimate source of authority for the English constitution, since it is the common law that says that parliament is sovereign. The English gradually disbanded the feudal system under which people owed obligations to their seniors in return for protection (a kind of Mafia system that grew up in the chaos after Rome fell apart). They developed their system of parliament from a small group advising the king and settling disputes to a broad representative body that was nowhere near being democratic, but which could and did claim to represent the nation in calling the king to account and making his advisers responsible to parliament. They took the idea of a jury from the French as an ad hoc advisory panel to the crown to an essential ingredient in the judicial process, and a representative body in determining cases just as the parliament was in framing laws. The jury was and is seen as a vital part of the constitutional settlement – in both the U K and the U S. The Lords and Commons worked together to win their ascendancy over the Crown, and they did so with real help from lawyers, judges and juries.
By the time the English came to deal with James II, one hundred years before the fall of the Bastille, they looked back on, rejoiced in, and embroidered upon hundreds and hundreds of years of legal and constitutional development and political growth and maturity.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 contained the following:
When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and any portion thereof, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.
This was a bad mistake by people who put logic above experience. Of course people can rebel or revolt. But never assert that fact of life in a constitutional document that might be said to found something suspiciously like a right. You might end up with a people who are beyond reform by legal means.
In the hundred years beginning in 1789, France experienced those events that we know as the French Revolution and then horrible revolutions in 1830, 1848, and 1870. Putting to one side, for the moment, the huge death toll of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars – possibly seven million lives – and the subsequent coups, insurrections, and purges, France was subjected to the following forms of government in that period: the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons (Louis XIV); a limited monarchy ( the Rights of Man, and the detention of the king); a republic (the abolition of royalty and the execution of the king); a directory (after the fall of Robespierre); a tribunate (after a coup); the empire of Napoleon; the Restoration of Bourbons; the return of Bonaparte and his empire; the further restoration of the Bourbons (Louis XVI); the more limited monarchy after the 1830 revolution; the Second Republic (Louis-Philippe); the Second Empire (Napoleon III); and the third republic (after 1870). Any nation so afflicted must be profoundly insecure. France made banana republics look positively serene.
The horror of two world wars did not obliterate the French appetite for insurrection. A revolution is a successful act of treason; an insurrection is a revolution that did not take off. The French demand and get more benefits from their government than almost any people on earth. Yet they periodically seek to blow up the whole lot.
The current insurrection takes us right back to the bad guys of Dostoevsky and Conrad – anarchists. Like their comrades across the water who want the benefits of Europe without the cost, they aspire to what was rightly called the prerogative of the harlot through the ages – power without responsibility.
2 thoughts on “Here and there – The French Problem”
Aren’t you being a bit harsh on the French. ? Isn’t it only the louts and dickheads who’ve hijacked an otherwise legitimate protest ? I doubt the original groundswell were motivated by a tradition of violent insurrection, but by indignation at the economics.( whether such indignation is legitimate is, admittedly, another matter). I wish Australians could muster such indignation, then we might not have suffering in Pacific gulags, our environment being raped, the corporates getting away with tax-free blue murder, etc etc etc
I agree, but they as a nation go the barricades in a way that we don’t – and will they ever put through the kind of reforms endured by England and Germany?