Controversy and kitsch : The French Revolution of spring 2012


A recent trip to Paris convinced me more than ever that the Revolution is far from “Over” (with all due respect to François Furet). Consider the demonstration held in my neighborhood (Bastille) on March 18, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s “Front de Gauche.” The flyers were quite amazing for an American reader. It seems like the incendiary rhetoric and political discourse was lifted right out of a rather scholarly history book. Not only was the slogan an obvious linkage to ’89 (“Reprenons la Bastille!”), but the demands of organizers also built on French history in a rather erudite way. The flyer reads: “Pour une assemblée constituante! Dans l’histoire de la République Française, chaque fois qu’il a fallu rédiger une nouvelle Constitution, c’est une assemblée élue par le peuple qui en a été chargée. C’était le cas en 1789, en 1792, en 1848, en 1870-75, en 1946. La seule exception est la Constitution actuelle. Elle a été rédigée en 1958 par seulement quelques ‘experts.’ Dès le départ, la 5e République a voulu limiter la souveraineté populaire. Il est grand temps de tourner la page ! »
This call to arms mixes populist indignation with constitutional argumentation in ways that strike me as quintessentially French. You may disagree with their views, and indeed Laurence Parisot did so on I-télé and Europe 1 on April 1, calling the discourse “vulgar” and “old-fashioned.” (It may be relevant to note that Mme Parisot, president of the employers’ union MEDEF, is one of the wealthiest citizens of the Republic today.)
Unlike some of our American pundits, Mélenchon’s group at least has a pretty decent grasp of historical memory and constitutional procedure. In contrast, one might consider the latest word from our own defender of the Constitution, former VP candidate Sarah Palin, who wrote on March 29, “Despite President Obama’s claim in San Francisco that working-class Americans “bitterly cling” to guns or religion out of frustration, the truth is we cling to God not because we’re “bitter” but because there’s nothing better. And as for “clinging” to our Second Amendment rights and, in fact, to all of our constitutionally protected liberties…well, you betcha’, we do cling to them proudly.” Palin’s populism, calling for an armed militia in guise of an informed citizenry, would be ludicrous if it were not so dangerous.
Lest readers find this posting overly Francophile or elitist, I hasten to add a couple more reflections on how the Revolution lives on in France today. Both capitalize on the populist ferment of 2012, but with results that may make any student of ’89 cringe.
Consider Brumaire & cie’s play, « Révolutionnairement vôtre » now playing at the Theo Theatre, which claims to be a comedy about three aristocrats—a “mysterious nun,” a bumbling counter-revolutionary (chouan), and a British spy–trying to escape from the guillotine in 1794. Although the synopsis and four audience reviews guarantee “lots of laughs and relaxation,” and “proven historical references,” the handbill’s goofy pictures suggest a spectacle that trivializes Thermidor in ways that I cannot help but suspect are cringe-inducing. (But if you’re in Paris and have a chance to see it, please do write your own review here. “A Revolution in Fiction” will be happy to retract these wary words, if they are proven wrong.)

Or consider the musical comedy, “1789: Les Amants de la Bastille,” which is slated to open in September 2012. You may have already heard its catchy lead song, “Ça ira mon amour,” sung by Rod Janois. Is he photogenic? You betcha. Will this play have any redeeming political or historical value? On verra…
The most exciting development in this spring of discontent is the conference held at the Musée de la Révolution française (Vizille and Grenoble) on « La Révolution française et cultures populaires dans le monde aujourd’hui : mythologies contemporaines » (March 21-23), which reunited scholars from Japan, the Middle East, the USA, and France to share discoveries of this kind. Although I have no eye-witness accounts of Vizille to report, the videoconference session held on Friday 3/23 from San Antonio, TX was FANTASTIC! The two presenters from the USA (who spoke on the Marat of Vik Muniz and Waste Land [myself]; and the counter-revolutionary vampires of American TV [Dan Smith]), enjoyed a bracing and extremely lively dialogue with the very engaged international audience in Grenoble. We look forward to the volume in the works by Martial Poirson. More news on that to come!

2 Responses to Controversy and kitsch : The French Revolution of spring 2012

  1. Plessis says:

    “Revolutionnairement vôtre” is now playing at The “Funambule Montmartre” in Paris. I’ve seen a poster in a metro station last week.

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