Flashbacks July 2008

After the Bastille

Atlantic articles from the 19th and 20th centuries reflect France's ongoing struggle with authority.

On July 14th, France commemorates its first step towards overthrowing its last monarchy. Yet the glorious days of the 1789 Revolution did not suffice to establish a lasting republic. A review of The Atlantic’s archives reveals that the siege of the Bastille was only the first in a series of clashes between the French people’s revolutionary spirit and their leaders’ monarchical ambitions.

By the time The Atlantic’s first issue was printed in 1857, France had gone through two republics, a directory, a consulate, three kings and an emperor, and it was settling in a period of relative stability under its second emperor. Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851 put an end to the short-lived Second Republic, thwarting hopes that the 1848 revolution—in which the French deposed their last king, Louis Philippe—would usher in a stable democracy.

In 1870, France’s humiliating defeat to Prussia led to the collapse of Napoleon’s rule and the establishment of the Third Republic. But this new regime got off to a rocky start. In March 1871, citizen militias joined forces with soldiers to form the short-lived Paris Commune, an anarchist government that was defeated in bloody massacres after only two months.

In “French Democracy” (May 1872), Herbert Tuttle reviewed 19th century French history, marked with “harrowing events which stain with blood the records of a noble people.” He explained that the despotism fought by the sans-culottes in 1789 remained undefeated eighty years after the fall of the Bastille:

We need not recall how the Bourbon princes trampled under foot till 1789 the growing spirit of democracy among their subjects; or how under Louis Philippe the bourgeoisie quietly absorbed all the powers and all the honors of the state; or how the Bonapartes flattered the people with plebiscites which bore false witness. The essential fact is that not one of those dynasties has made a sincere and intelligent effort to deal with democracy as something which can be fostered and utilized, but cannot be exterminated. Each has sought by its own method do destroy the indestructible.

Faulting the country’s rulers for consistently squashing the “profound democratic spirit of the country,” Tuttle feared that the Third Republic would be as short-lived as its predecessors:

The bourgeoisie, the great middle class, the scholars and writers of the Academy have stood by with folded arms, sneering at the patient awkwardness of the republican workmen, and waiting for the day when the slender edifice should tumble to the ground. They hate the republic cordially and openly. Their hopes all centre in a government of ‘gentlemen,’ and they have no patient with the vulgar theory.

Despite Tuttle’s fears, the Third Republic survived until the Second World War. But it was often on shaky ground. In 1894, the Dreyfus Affair erupted, tearing France apart for twelve years and threatening the stability of a regime already plagued by social unrest and corruption scandals. What France needed was a political leader to channel the people’s democratic spirit. It found one in 1936 when Leon Blum became the country’s first Socialist Prime Minister following the electoral victory of the Popular Front, a coalition of leftist parties. In The Atlantic’s October 1937 issue, Raoul de Roussy de Sales writes a dithyrambic portrait of this “discreet messiah”:

He made up his mind that the Bastille of injustice had to be destroyed, and that this could only be done through direct contact with other men and by a revolution which would be at once moral and social. …

There is indeed something in Blum’s personality which is—I will not say un-French—but unusual in a political leader; and that is a capacity for intellectual sincerity blended with a quasi-feminine sensitiveness, an idealism the doors of which are always left open to enable him to seek an escape from the harsh contradictions of reality and soar above then, a general attitude of optimism and faith in the future of humanity.

It was no coincidence that de Sales compared Blum’s struggle to the storming of the Bastille: as he explained, the Dreyfus Affair had stirred the Left to complete the unfinished work of 1789. Although Blum’s Socialist Party advocated a reformist method rather than a violent revolution, many saw it as a continuation of the Bastille Day narrative:

The Dreyfus Affair was understood by them as a sequence of the French Revolution, in the sense that once more established privileges—and of the most sacred kind—had to be attacked in the name of justice. And for the same reason it can be regarded now as a preface to the bloodless victory of the Popular Front in 1936. The three episodes repeat the same pattern: the periodical storming of the Bastille, which although it was materially razed in 1789, still stands as the symbol of an eternal conflict between the struggle for more power, in the name of more equality, and the defense of acquired power, in the name of prudence and the sacredness of tradition.

Even as de Sales celebrated the Popular Front’s progressive reforms, comparing them to the American New Deal, dark clouds were gathering across the German frontier. Within months of the launch of the Second World War, Adolf Hitler’s armies defeated France and the Third Republic collapsed. The Popular Front’s dreams of justice evaporated as France sank into the nightmare of collaborationist Vichy rule.

After the war, France attempted to return to political normalcy. But just as the Third Republic had been doomed by its failure to prepare for the Nazi threat, the Fourth Republic was fatally weakened by the Algerian War. Irreconcilable differences over Algeria’s demands for independence destabilized successive governments. In the spring of 1958, the political situation became chaotic and the French army pressured Parliament to give the power to General Charles de Gaulle.

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