Friday, March 24, 2006

A national custom

I disavow the common Anglophone attitude -- at least in North America -- of baiting the French, as though they were some uniquely risible nation. Start looking for risible nations and you'll have a long list and rankings on it will be hard-fought-for.

However, I don't consider it ridiculing the French to point out that when they -- or at least enough of them -- get upset with their government, demonstrators and rioters pour out in the street. As the Early Modern Europe course approaches the Fall of the Bastille (above, and see a contemporary account here) it's worth knowing that urban riots and peasant uprisings -- both features of France in 1789 and the years that followed -- were pretty common parts of early modern society. There's an interesting description of a French bread riot in 1725 here, for instance. Note that the women of the town were usually the ones who led bread riots, which will be relevant to those of us in class when we reach "the October Days."

Burke, some of you will remember, thought that the October Days, because of the unprovoked killing of certain royal retainers at Versailles and the insult to the Queen, was the realization of a totally evil human impulse. Whether or not he was right about that, the spectre of widespread disorder was frightening to respectable people like Burke, and not necessarily a remote threat. (The British upper class energetically hung and "transported" many thousands of its poor and unruly lower class.)

One of the issues surrounding the French Revolution is that it was a riot -- and a peasant revolt t00 -- that got out of hand. Perhaps other people in France thought, "just another Parisian riot." Once they got the idea that this riot wasn't going to stop, it's easy to imagine that some of them were even more frightened and angry than they were initially, and that others who had welcomed the downfall a corrupt and disfunctional royal government got profoundly uneasy.

I'm not going to make the shallow claim that the current French urban riots are just like those of 1789, 1648, or 1356, but it is interesting that these things happen in France more often than in other rich countries.

For those interested in more, here's what appears to be an Anarchist account of May 1968. Last fall's riots are discussed by the Christian Science Monitor here, and the current ones are discussed in several articles listed in the Guardian here.

UPDATE: The Guardian has alerted me to an Unrest in France blog.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aren't people "hanged" in past tense?

3:41 PM  

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