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.

Invested with the authority to draft a new constitution, de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic. While he stabilized the tumultuous political landscape and promptly granted Algeria its independence, de Gaulle was an authoritarian ruler who considerably strengthened the powers of the presidency and curtailed the freedom of the press. In a November 1960 profile, “Charles de Gaulle: The Last Romantic,” Curtis Cate described de Gaulle’s vision of leadership as a personal relationship between one man and his people:

In a report on his behavior which has been preserved at the Ecole de Guerre de Paris, one of de Gaulle’s instructors noted: “Looks like a King in exile.” The author of this caustic comment could not have guessed that in less than a dozen years this haughty major would pick up the tattered mantle of French sovereignty and wrap himself in it as proudly and intransigently as any Bourbon proclaiming the divine right of kings. Nor could he foresee that once this mystic investiture had been accomplished, no power on earth could persuade him to relinquish it.

In May 1968, French students and millions of workers rose up against the stifling social norms of Gaullist rule in a series of massive strikes and demonstrations. In an Atlantic report published a few months later in November 1968, Don Cook described the mayhem:

Not since the days of the Paris Commune in 1871 had the country witnessed such an uprising of students and labor, dominating the streets and the factories. Some spontaneous emotional chemistry achieved overnight what no trade union movement could have done: a strike of more than 10 million workers, tying up almost every factory of any size throughout the whole country.

Cook reproached De Gaulle for being too preoccupied with safeguarding his personal authority and projecting an “image of artificial calm” to address the deep-rooted causes of popular discontent. The president was “concerned with the accoutrements of power rather than with its substance,” Cook wrote. As a result, he worried that the issues France grappled with would only worsen:

The problems which the crisis exposed and which the government now faces are problems which it should have been facing five years ago—the education explosion, need for decentralization of France’s Napoleonic administrative structure, concerted regional development, better population distribution, industrial expansion and productivity, the eternal farm problem, better distribution of the national budget, more refrigerators, and fewer nuclear bombs. The problems have been here all along, but Gaullism by its nature seems to reinforce conservatism and traditionalism.

De Gaulle abruptly resigned a few months after Cook’s article was published, but the governmental apparatus he had put in place survived. De Gaulle was gone, but Gaullism remained. By 1978, however, polls indicated that the country was heading towards the first political change-over of the Fifth Republic.

In “At Last, the Demise of Gaullism” (February 1978), Patricia H. Painton depicted the political landscape on the eve of suspenseful congressional elections. She explained that the deteriorating economic conditions—the 1979 oil crisis, rising unemployment, and an untamed inflation rate—had helped to boost the Socialist Party and its leader, François Mitterrand, into a winning position.

At the same time, Painton emphasized that much more was at stake than an electoral showdown between the Left and the Right:

Among the industrialized democracies, France is the only country in which a defeat of the ruling majority could produce not the accession to power of a loyal opposition but profound changes in French institutions and the balance of economic and social power.

The Right narrowly won the 1978 congressional elections, but this victory only delayed the inevitable. Mitterrand prevailed in the 1981 presidential election and immediately launched a series of major reforms: he abolished the death penalty, freed the media, increased the minimum wage and shortened the workweek. His victory seemed to signify that the French republic had matured at least—that years of heavy-handed governance would finally give way to full-blown democracy.

But before long, Mitterrand’s ambitions began to mirror the monarchical visions of his predecessors. The length of his presidency—fourteen years—gave him time to nurture a new political elite, build ostentatious monuments throughout Paris and be implicated in a number of major scandals. In “Paris Is Finished,” (August 1995), David Lawday vividly described how Mitterand had assembled a modern-day “court” and imposed his personal taste on the city of Paris:

That the change happened so fast—well within two decades—and on so vast a scale explains better than any reading of the constitution how incorrigibly imperial are the powers of a French leader. Without the tiring distraction of debate in Parliament, a good $6 billion of taxpayers’ money was spent at the President’s personal behest on the renewal of Paris: a splendid revamping of the Louvre, a monumental national library in the east, a celestial arch in the west, an opera house in Bastille and enough striking novelties in between to shake up every tourist’s yellowing fantasies of the city.

Going so far as to describe Mitterrand as a “latter-day pharaoh,” Lawday reached a bold conclusion. He argued that the French were less committed to democratic principles than commonly thought and that they were perfectly willing to accommodate their leaders’ monarchical visions in the name of the grandeur française:

A French President can impose almost anything on the French if he wraps it up as essential to the nation’s gloire. The French display more concern than most for liberty, and a little less than most for democracy. All the best for us tourists. If other rich nations conducted themselves less democratically, they might have capital cities to compare to Paris.

Yet this selection of Atlantic articles challenges Lawday’s assertion. In fact, over the past two centuries, the French people have continually rejected unpopular reforms and kept authoritarian governments in check. The rise and fall of the Paris Commune, the May 1968 protests, the Socialist victories of 1936 and 1981, and large-scale protests against Jacques Chirac’s government as recently as 2006—all of these point to the people’s determination to keep the spirit of 1789 alive.