Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Wednesday 29 March 2023

The Cradle of the Revolution

The title of this post comes from road signs around the Chateau de Vizille, in south-east France; while every area tries to find something to boast of on the brown promotional roadside panels (spare a thought for Selongey, which can’t manage anything more exciting than ‘Birthplace of the pressure cooker’), the numerous additional official signs for Vizille, with its Museum of the Revolution, suggest it is a source of local and national pride.

Recent events across the Channel have prompted a number of comments about the French tendency to adopt violent protest as a first measure rather than a last resort, suggesting that this is because of the impact on the national psyche of having had a revolution in the past. I’d go further; what happens every year on July 14th is not merely a commemoration of historical events but an occasion to take to the streets and rejoice, despite the fact that the Revolution, founded in ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, quickly degenerated into horrific brutality, mob violence and calculated mass murder. When you have been brought up to applaud a history like that, what’s a bit of stone-throwing or arson between class enemies?

Back when I was teaching French, our regular end-of-year project for year 8 was based on an information pack published in France for foreign children studying the language. A cheerfully colourful comic strip booklet told the story of the Revolution, from the anti-royalist riots in Grenoble which began it all and the storming of the Bastille to the months of the Terror - complete with graphic depictions of the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - followed by instructions for making tricolour rosettes and Liberty bonnets out of crepe paper. There was even a cassette and a songbook so that pupils could join in with ‘La Marseillaise’ and learn ‘Ça ira’, the anthem of the sans-culottes, with its lilting dance-tune and jolly refrain, ‘To the lampposts with the aristocrats/ ...we will hang them!’ (although mercifully it did, at least, omit the final lines; ‘And when we’ve hanged them all/ we’ll shove a spade up their arses’).

Since the young generally have an insatiable appetite for the gorier bits of history, it’s easy to see how French schoolchildren, provided with similar teaching materials as part of their national curriculum, could accept the violence of the Revolution as a matter of course; it’s those of us who discover the details as adults who are made queasy by descriptions of the unspeakable behaviour of the bloodthirsty mob and the callous attitude of the intellectuals who provided the driving force behind it. 

Those protesters destroying public property and attacking the police have been reared from an early age to admire and celebrate a movement which, in addition to regicide and the mass murder of thousands (including children) purely because of their antecedents, eventually turned on its own and killed dozens of eminent social reformers, scientists and writers, men and women alike, who shared the same ideals but dared to criticise the direction events had taken and the atrocities being perpetrated in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

If ever there was a culture in the so-called civilised world which turned out citizens primed and ready for mass protest and violence, surely this is it.

As an aside, the last Bastille Day celebration I attended in France coincided with the local Fire Brigade’s annual knees-up (which started at 4pm after the parade). By the time the town fireworks got going at 11.30pm, most of the firefighters had been drinking for over seven hours, which was unfortunate as a stray rocket set fire to the roof of the nearby chateau.

I shall long cherish the spectacle of the duty fire engine stuck firmly in the castle gateway while its (sober) driver speculated aloud about the ancestry and personal habits of the two inebriated colleagues who had tried to direct him through the narrow entrance.


  1. "speculated aloud about the ancestry and personal habits"

    You have a way with words :-)

  2. So did that driver - my French is of a more formal variety but the gist was abundantly clear (I hope, for the sake of the local goats, that the allegations were completely unfounded!).


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