Every French citizen knows this story by heart. On July 14, 1789, King Louis XVI, exhausted after a day spent hunting, was awakened in the middle of the night by the Duke of La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, one of the great names of the French nobility, who was also acquainted with progressive ideas. The duke told the king about what had just happened in Paris, summarizing the storming of the Bastille. When the king reacted to the news as if it were another banal rebellion, the duke corrected him, saying, “No, your majesty, this is a revolution!”
The Gilets Jaunes movement is not the same as the French Revolution, and it has different stakes. France is no longer a kingdom beset by food shortages and sluggish industry (which nevertheless allocated its resources to help win the American Revolutionary War by sending its army and navy across the Atlantic). French agricultural products now feed half of Europe, and French companies produce the biggest and fastest commercial airplanes in the world; they launch the biggest cruise ships, and install the fastest trains. France has won the political struggles of Louis XVI’s era. For the past two centuries, our country has had a parliamentary system inspired by the British model, a framework that serves as the basis of all democracies except for the United States. The French Declaration of Rights, ratified the day after the storming of the Bastille, was taken up almost word for word in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So then why are these yellow-vested French protesters melodramatically bringing up 1789? Why are they talking about the Duke of La Rochefoucauld?
It is almost impossible for a French person to explain to an outsider the imprint history has left on the mentality of the oldest country in the world. Spanning fifteen hundred years, our history shapes our thinking much more than the memorial commemorations programmed by the government that try to substitute this past with their political vacuity. This is why the French compare Emmanuel Macron to Louis XVI. The resemblance is so obvious to them that it cannot be avoided. Caricatures abound, and with them insults and threats. For certain Gilets Jaunes, “Macron, step down” has turned into “Emmanuel to the guillotine!” This will never happen, of course, but no other president of the French Republic has ever been hated so much. As one deputy put it, a rage has taken hold of the French, and whatever their social class or political opinions, they’re mad.
How did we get here? It’s true that no one in France ever believed in the allegedly positive characteristics of the immature, uncultivated president. But the ballots talked. Macron was barely, just barely elected, but elected all the same by the representative majority—which is not the case with the minority who voted Trump into office. Yet there is more than universal suffrage, there are also natural rights. Among the four most important rights guaranteed by the Declaration of 1789, besides liberty, property, and security, resistance to tyranny is also mentioned. It’s a more sophisticated concept than that of the right to insurgency, one that was invented by British jurists. Even though Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence tried hard to show that the British Parliament was a den of dictators, he would refer back to the right to insurgency all the same. The French, on the other hand, do not have to prove anything in order to take to the streets if they feel they are governed unfairly; once they believe themselves to be subjugated, they revolt. It’s a constitutional right. Emmanuel Todd said, “Only France could do this. France is the only country in the world that could do something like this!” The Italians have a phrase: Furia francese. French fury.
But besides the forced comparison to 1789, who are these Gilets Jaunes? Who are these people supported by 85 percent of their compatriots, despite the concomitant violence of their movement—or maybe even because of it, given that it has brought back revolutionary fantasies? At the beginning, analysts were cautious; the Gilets Jaunes were almost exclusively salaried employees from the private and public sectors, independent artisans, and small business owners, both men and women—but without a constituency of French people from immigrant, Middle Eastern, Asian, or African families. At a time when both the Left and the Right are actively pursuing the vote of these minority groups, this lack of representation partially explains politicians’ delayed engagement with the situation. Except that in this case, the Gilets Jaunes accurately represented the demographic reality in France. These minority groups are important, and the borders have opened, but the white middle class remains in the overwhelming majority here, making up about 80 percent of electors. Politicians anticipated the transformation of this country into a multiethnic and multicultural society, and with it the demographic and electoral redistribution, maybe a little too fast. So what started as a fiscal (as opposed to identitarian) demand became innately political. It also became fundamentally conservative in the sense that, at the end of decades of forced assimilation into a globalized world that never suited the French, the Gilets Jaunes have clearly expressed their will to protect the values on which their nation was built.
If we are exceptional and unique as country—“an important and useful thing,” as Charles de Gaulle once said—it is because French identity has taken on multiple forms. If there have been five or six different iterations of the French nation since the invasion of Caesar’s Roman legions, none of them completely identical but also not altogether different, there are therefore unwavering French principles, principles that are now in danger.
It is not necessary to list them here. I will just remind—or perhaps teach—my American friends that the French define themselves, and have always defined themselves, even under the ancien régime [Old Regime], as citizens (or subjects of the king), and not by their social, cultural, religious or ethnic identities. In faithful keeping with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea that the simultaneously political and social man loses his essence, the French are impervious to all post-colonial, gender or racial theories, most of which have arrived from America. Their Enlightenment philosophers raised the issue of natural differences in order to ensure that they would not translate into legal inequalities. This is the exact opposite of your Declaration of 1776, which postulates the existence of intrinsic rights, but is now used to uphold a completely laughable egalitarianism. Moreover, the French cannot give up the other basis of their culture—that of laïcité [or secularism], which outsiders do not understand. The French would not know how to accept the reasonable compromises the Canadian prime minister believes to be so important, this communitarianism in a regime of exceptions for so-called religious freedom that has been proposed as an alternative to the principles of 1789. Religion in France, on the other hand, is just an opinion like any other, nothing more, nothing less. It is freely disputed, rebutted, and caricatured, and does not have the right to special treatment. For over a century the French state has even actively opposed the Roman Catholic Church.
The France that believes in political voluntarism, in solidarity, in the sovereignty and free will of its citizens, has from the outset been recalcitrant to economic liberalism. Americans also do not understand us in this respect. The French are capitalists, and have for centuries traversed the globe with their banks and commercial enterprises. But they do not believe in capitalism’s ideological foundations. They were among the first to experience its problems. In 1775, at the beginning of Louis XVI’s reign, his minister, Turgot, did away with the price regulations of wheat, which served as the staple of most French subjects’ diets. In keeping with his status as a capitalist ideologue, Turgot liquidated the government’s reserve wheat stocks in order to guarantee the functioning of the market’s invisible hand. Of course the price of wheat rose immediately, then the price of bread; the riots that followed were violently suppressed by the liberal government. Since this event—which corresponds with the American Revolutionary War—the French have been cured of these grand discourses on the benefits of the market. If they accept the market, it is because it has worked remarkably efficiently for the past two centuries. But since 2008 it has been broken.
What remains striking is the similarity between Turgot’s Flour War of 1775 and the Gilets Jaunes crisis in 2018. Both consist of the same obtuse ideology of our governments, the same certitude with which our elites think themselves to be proponents of a revealed and unequivocal truth, archangels of a make-believe “natural law”; they maintain their clear conscience with a repressive compassion that undermines the so-called freeloaders and their daily concerns, such as putting food on the table for their children. In 2018, these disenfranchised individuals understand nothing of the “wonders” of globalization, in the same way that in 1775 they did not understand the “miracles” of a laissez-faire, free-market economy. And they still want the power to freely cast their ballots and have their say in their country’s governance, no matter if this goes against what the economists advised back in 1775. (In his lengthy chapter on riots in The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville called such financial theorists “the Cult.”)
At the end of the day, these two seemingly different uprisings are the same.
“Is this a revolution?” Emmanuel Macron asks the man with the briefcase of nuclear codes. “Not yet, Mister President, this is just a revolt.” But the whole world is looking on. André Malraux [the French Minister of Culture from 1958 to 1969] once said that “since Britain is great enough for itself, France will be great enough for everyone else.” These questions the Gilets Jaunes raise—aren’t they legitimate everywhere, even in the United States? Who, save for the little barons of Wall Street, believes in the progressive virtues of capitalism? Who wouldn’t want to participate with these damned French in pillaging banks today just as they burned their lords’ castles down in 1789, while elsewhere those who believe themselves to be in power start to worry about the possibility of contagion?
Charles de Gaulle frequently evoked the thousand-year-old pact France maintained with freedom in the world. In 1940, those who joined him in the Resistance in London called themselves the “Français Libres.” In English, the “Free French.”