A Victorian Englishman went to his local library looking for a copy of the French Constitution; “I’m sorry sir,” the librarian replied, “but we don’t carry periodical literature.” A creaky joke, but the British had reason to laugh. In the century after the 1789 revolution, France adopted a dozen new constitutions: in 1790, 1792, 1793 (never put into effect), 1795, 1799, 1804, 1814, 1815 (also never put into effect), 1830, 1848, 1852, and 1875.
And it wasn’t as if the French behaved themselves in between overthrowing regimes. The monarchy of King Louis Philippe lasted 18 years, from 1830 to 1848, but it was punctuated by two important Paris insurrections — one in 1832 and another in 1834 — and eight assassination attempts on the monarch. Napoleon III ruled for 19 years, and survived six assaults, one of which killed eight and wounded 150. Before the Third Republic could establish itself after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, it ferociously crushed a dissident “Commune” government organized by Paris radicals. Altogether, 60,000 or more Frenchmen perished in internecine fighting between 1814 and 1871.
The English-speaking countries have never known anything like this sort of turmoil. The last break in the continuity of British government came in 1688. And while American history has certainly been stained with violence, the United States too has seldom gone in for radical legal or constitutional upheavals: Only in 1865, and then only in part of the country, have Americans ever suffered anything like the total collapse in state authority that the French have lived through once or twice in every generation.
The French seem in recent years to have grown embarrassed by their bloody history. So long as Marxism remained a live intellectual tradition, the revolutions and counterrevolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries could still be infused with world-historical meaning. These were bourgeois revolts that gave way to premature proletarian uprisings, and were then followed by temporarily successful but ultimately futile attempts to reimpose a bourgeois order. As Marxism lost its grip on the French mind, French historians shifted their attention from the disorder in the city streets and to study instead the changeless rhythms of life in the pre-modern countryside.
But if the French revolutions of the 19th century have less to say to the French of today than they once did, perhaps they have more to say to those of us in the English-speaking world. It may be that the question that has long interested English-speaking historians of France — Why have our societies been so stable when theirs has not? — should now begin to give way to a new, less flattering question: What does the instability in France’s past tell us about the instability that may lie in our future?
Robert Tombs, a professor of history at Cambridge University, puts the problem of instability at the very top of his list of concerns in his new account of 19th-century France. In 1789, the French had discovered that it was possible for a society to capsize itself, shatter its old institutions, and invent entirely new institutions, removing its old elites and creating new ones. Tombs observes that “the sudden violent remaking of society was a new concept of politics. It upset old certainties, reversed relationships of power and intruded into every aspect of life.” The French were not able to recover their balance for decades afterward. The French mistrusted one another; so fantastically mistrusted one another that they were capable of believing even the most lurid horror stories about their internecine enemies. “Conspiracy theories,” Tombs writes, “perpetuated ‘the language of civil war’ in politics. They portrayed not a society pluralistically divided by legitimate beliefs and interests, but a ‘binary divide’ between a united, patriotic and wholly legitimate ‘us,’ and a diverse unholy alliance of traitors and criminals ‘them.’ The struggle was dramatized into a historic battle for the soul of France and the future of the world.”
The sharpest line dividing the French from one another was the society’s furious disagreement over the role of religion. As the century progressed, the conflict intensified. By the 1880s, “instead of at least paying lip service to Catholic ethical and spiritual values as the foundation of morality in society, representatives of the republican State condemned them for undermining the ethical standards of a modern democratic nation. . . . All their educational aims — the promotion of scientific rationalism, of national unity, of progressive political attitudes, of a new rational morality, of individual self-reliance — they saw as blocked or undermined by Catholic education, which, they believed, made children superstitious, submissive, hypocritical and unpatriotic.”
The religious schism in French society divided the country geographically as well as by faith. “What has principally determined the beliefs and political loyalties of French people since the Revolution has been the part of the country where they lived,” Tombs says, with radicalism strongest in the center and south of the country, with Catholicism strongest in the west and southwest, and with militant nationalism strongest in the east and north.
This all sounds abundantly familiar. America too is increasingly divided along religious lines. As in late 19th-century France, the animosity comes to a head most vividly in the classroom, with the state ever more determined to use its schools to form a citizen free from what educators see as the prejudices of the past, and with religious communities truculently determined to resist. The different factions in American life likewise seem increasingly prone to paranoid fantasies: invisible U.N. helicopters, CIA drug-smuggling into inner-city neighborhoods, and October surprises. And these dividing lines can also be traced geographically, with the conservative and individualistic southern and western United States confronting the more statist and permissive northeast and Pacific regions of the country.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to describe today’s United States as an unstable society. Nor is it sensible to pounce on every parallel between one historical situation and another as proof that history must repeat itself. But here are some questions about contemporary America that a reading of 19th-century French history does raise.
A traditional, agricultural society does not demand very much from its citizens. It doesn’t even demand that its citizens be citizens. Eighteenth-century France got along very well without a common language, without much in the way of a tax system, and with a mercenary army that recruited as avidly in Switzerland as at home. But modern states need more from their people. They ask for citizen armies, for popular participation in politics, for shows of patriotism, for money, and for submission to thousands of minute regulations. The ability of modern states to get the things they ask for is the crucial measure of their health. And in order to attain that measure of health, to win the wholehearted support of their citizens, modern states have to arrive at some strong degree of social and cultural consensus. This is something that 19th-century France was only occasionally able to do, and it is something that late 20th-century America also seems to find increasingly difficult.
In the name of consensus, 19th-century France was driven toward repression. In 1905, at the height of the country’s anticlericalism, Tombs says, teachers conferences “were held on a Friday with a compulsory meat dinner” in order to “unmask schoolteachers who were secret Catholics.” (French republicanism was in many ways the functional equivalent of American feminism. Like feminism, it made control of education its highest priority; like feminism, it saw religion as its main enemy; and like feminism, it was capable of the greatest ruthlessness in the pettiest circumstances.)
Tombs suggests that the two French governments that most successfully united the country were also the two most illiberal: the First and Second Empires of the Bonaparte family. The great Napoleon and his nephew Napoleon III managed to reach accommodations with the Catholic church while still representing themselves as inheritors of the revolution. They satisfied nationalists by winning military victories (or, in the case of the nephew, by trying to) while appeasing royalists with aristocratic pomp and ceremony. They won over the working class with expensive public-works projects and gratified the middle classes by creating a meritocratic civil service. But this Napoleonic synthesis could not last, because it resorted so frequently to war and because its legitimacy was too tenuous to survive a single defeat. The very incoherence that made the Empires work for a time ultimately doomed them: “How can you expect the Empire to run smoothly?” Napoleon III asked. “The Empress is a legitimist, Morny [his interior minister] is an Orleanist, my cousin Napoleon is a Republican, I am a socialist; only Persigny [his most faithful minister] is a Bonapartist, and he is mad.”
The warning that French history should flash to Americans is not to fear dictatorial coups or urban street fighting. Both of those were timebound events, responses that the French could resort to because in the era before universal suffrage, any few hundred agitators could convince themselves that they represented the will of the people, and because in the era before rifles and small-unit tactics, an urban mob equipped with muskets and hidden behind a barricade could hold off regular troops for days. The warning that French history flashes is that a polity riven by fundamental disagreements over religion, culture, and morality will suffer great difficulty in governing itself effectively.
The history of the public policy of 19th-century France is the story of one colossal error after another: the invasion of Russia in 1812, protectionist trade policies, the alliance with Prussia in 1866 that made German unification possible, Napoleon’s insane attempt to create a satellite state in Mexico, near-war with Britain in 1898, the cover-up of aristocratic treachery that enflamed the Dreyfus Affair, and the infamous Plan 17 that sent French troops in bright-red trousers charging at German machine guns in the woods of Lorraine in the opening weeks of the First World War. At the bottom of nearly every one of these fiascoes, you encounter the same explanation: A weak state was unable to act intelligently even when intelligent options were available. Why? Because its leaders were obliged to decide every issue with an eye to holding together a fractured country.
The United States likewise cannot begin to get a grip on the problem of fatherless families because its leaders know that while half the society is horrified by family breakup, another half sees it as the necessary price of sexual liberty. Why can’t the United States act now to curb Social Security promises that cannot be honored? Because Americans don’t trust one another enough to give back any claim they have been given on the public treasury for the sake of the public good. Why is the U.S. response to foreign crises so tentative and nervous? Because the country’s leaders know that there is virtually no foreign policy objective that a president can name for which American voters are prepared to tolerate the loss of any substantial number of American soldiers. The creeping enervation and incapacitation of the state is every bit as deadly a symptom of the trickling away of legitimacy as marches in the streets — or, for that matter, demonstrations on campuses.
Like 20th-century America, 19th-century France was a country perplexed by ethnic and linguistic diversity. Over the previous 800 years, the kingdom of France had expanded southward, westward, and eastward from Paris, but it had never truly absorbed its conquered territories. The French Revolution got rid of what remained of the old internal political boundaries: After 1789, for the first time, all of the French paid the same taxes, regardless of where they lived. But the Revolution did not efface the differences between peoples. Tombs repeats the estimate of the historian Eugen Weber that in the mid-19th century only 20 of the 83 departments of France were wholly French-speaking. In the 1870s, French was a foreign language for half the population of France. The rest spoke Flemish, Provencal, German, Breton, Basque, Catalan, and 88 dialects of standard French, among many other tongues. They looked almost as dissimilar as they sounded; and 19th-century Frenchmen believed that there were also profound differences in character among the people of the various regions of France.
The French political Left was determined to absorb and eliminate all these local particularities in order to forge a republic “one and indivisible”: One reason that French republicans so disliked the church was its willingness to operate schools in the local speech. At first, this seems a response completely at odds with that of the American multiculturalist Left. But in both France and America, Left and Right have understood that there is an intimate connection between the governance of the state and the diversity of its population. The difference between the two situations is very largely tactical: In France it was the elimination of diversity that the Left saw as essential to its political dominance, while in America it is via the deconstruction of the country’s common linguistic and political culture that those on the left see their route to hegemony. In both 19th-century France and late 20th-century America, the failure to work out a settlement acceptable to all perforated a fault line through the very heart of the country — a fault line that in France at last snapped in 1940.
America in 1997 is rich, quiet, and secure. It seems unimaginable at this tranquil moment that any of that could ever change. But the only thing we positively do learn from history is that things do change, and not infrequently for the worse. What that “worse” might look like is something the comfortable Americans of today can learn a little about from the unhappy French of a century ago.