The Law System led to the Revolution, and condemning its failure leads to … redemption? Antoine Rault’s gamble

Le Systeme poster Theatre Antoine Parisjohn_law_guizot

Tonight I attended Antoine Rault’s play, Le Système: an account of the first credit bubble and crash in French history (an event initiated by the Scottish economist John Law, and which transpired during the Regency in 1719-21). It brings to mind two items of interest: 1) the economic causes of the French Revolution, and 2) the political gamble of the writers’s own bio in the program notes.

To make a long story very, very short: it appears that Rault, like Niall Ferguson in The Ascent of Money, agrees that “John Law was not only responsible for the first true boom and bust in asset prices, he also may be said to have caused, indirectly, the French Revolution” (Ferguson 126).  This comes out in allusions to the workers, farmers, and artisans who made money during Law’s System, and who are held up to ridicule by the rich noble villains who foiled the System in order to return things to the (unfair, privilege-bound) status quo at the end.  But where Ferguson blames Law for “comprehensively blowing the best chance that the ancien régime monarchy had to reform its finances,” Rault blames the political chicanery of Law’s rivals at the Regency court. He casts particular opprobrium on a cleric and a financier, and ends the drama with Law—played with fine, tight-lipped integrity by Loránt Deutsch—down on his knees in despair, wailing, “I am honest, I am honest!” (“Je suis honnête, je suis honnête!”).

Which leads to the author’s clever sleight of hand in the program notes, where he connects his own experience in politics to his reinvention as an honest writer. As Rault writes:  “I put what I know about politics, and what I learned in the years I spent stalking the corridors of power, into this play” (“J’ai mis dans cette pièce ce que je sais de la politique et ce que j’ai appris en fréquentant durant quelques années les anti-chambres du pouvoir”). His on-line bio suggests that this bitterness may have something to do with the work he once did as a “communications expert” for political heavy-weights Jérôme Monod and Christian Jacob.

What a clever way to wreak revenge on your former bosses.  And what a fabulous gamble on art as redemption!

p.s.  Isn’t it funny that the French pronounce John Law as John “Loss”?!

In hommage to La Commune de Paris: March 18


This day, March 18, marks the 144th anniversary of the beginning of the end for the Paris Communards.  In honor of their vision of a just and equal workers’ society, we publish the beautiful song, “Le Temps des Cerises,” by Jean-Baptiste Clément.  According to legend, it is dedicated to a heroic ambulancière or paramedic who refused to leave the side of the fighters and who was never seen again when the smoke lifted from the streets of Paris in March–May 1871.

Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises,
Et gai rossignol, et merle moqueur
Seront tous en fête !
Les belles auront la folie en tête
Et les amoureux du soleil au cœur !
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
Sifflera bien mieux le merle moqueur !

Mais il est bien court, le temps des cerises
Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d’oreilles…
Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles,
Tombant sous la feuille en gouttes de sang…
Mais il est bien court, le temps des cerises,
Pendants de corail qu’on cueille en rêvant !

Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises,
Si vous avez peur des chagrins d’amour,
Evitez les belles !
Moi qui ne crains pas les peines cruelles
Je ne vivrai pas sans souffrir un jour…
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Vous aurez aussi des chagrins d’amour !

J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises,

C’est de ce temps-là que je garde au cœur
Une plaie ouverte !

Et dame Fortune, en m’étant offerte
Ne saurait jamais calmer ma douleur…

J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
Et le souvenir que je garde au cœur !

Jean-Baptiste Clément (1866)

Essays sought on Ibero-American Echoes of the French Revolution


Essay proposals are invited for a volume in the MLA’s Options for Teaching series entitled Teaching Representations of the French Revolution, to be edited by Julia Douthwaite (University of Notre Dame), Catriona Seth (Université de Lorraine), and Antoinette Sol  (University of Texas Arlington) The goal of this collection of essays is to make the field more accessible to non-specialists and to teachers in different settings, from the Humanities class at a community college to the research seminar in a graduate program. The collection of essays will complement traditional sources and include the arts, ephemera, realia, archival material and once popular but now forgotten texts in the classroom.  Accordingly, we intend to highlight through a number of settings how the revolutionary heritage lives on in our own vulnerable times. As a glance at any newspaper will reveal, we still live in a world of propaganda, advertisement, political violence, terrorism, revolution, and reaction. The essays in this proposed volume will speak to ways current students will be helped in understanding these things as well as learning about more narrowly focused topics.

We seek essays from Ibero-American fields on Global Reverberations: The Impact of Emigration and Radicalism.

We are particularly interested in pedagogically-oriented essays on ways to integrate the French Revolution into diverse courses, along with ways to present difficult material, how to engage students, and how to help students acquire the necessary contexts to understand the volume’s topic.  In addition, essays dealing with teaching with translations, finding source materials (written, visual, or musical), and suggestions for ways to use these in the classroom are welcome.

If you are interested in contributing an essay (3,000-3,500 words) to one of these sections, please submit an abstract of approximately 500 words in which you describe your approach or topic and explain its potential benefit for students and instructors alike. The focus of proposed essays should be pedagogical.

Note that if you plan to quote from student writing in your essay, you must obtain written permission from your students to do so. Proposed essays should not be previously published.

Abstracts and CVs should be sent to the volume editors by 1 June 2015. Please send e-mail submissions to Professor Julia Douthwaite (, Professor Catriona Seth (, and Professor Antoinette Sol ( with the subject line “Approaches to Teaching the Fr Rev.” Surface-mail submissions can be sent to Professor Douthwaite at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.

On secular values six weeks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre


Not sure what to think about secular values in France?  How about admiration?  Instead of suggesting that France should be more like other countries where religion has been allowed to creep into the public sphere (or is welcomed with open arms into the public sphere as in the USA), I suggest we celebrate the freedom allowed by la laïcité, especially in schools.

I’ve been following with interest the reporting on France by the New York Times since the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  It has been very careful.  An article on 1/19/15 entitled “An Inclusive French Republic” concluded that “France’s minister of education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who is French-Moroccan, is to announce new measures on Monday to better explain French ‘republican values’ in the schools.  For the lessons to work, the Hollande government must find ways to make those values a reality for the many French youths who feel marginalized from French society.” The profile of Vallaud-Belkacem in the 2/21/15 “Saturday Profile” of the New York Times stresses her outsider status, as one of seven children of a poor immigrant family where traditional gender roles were the norm, to her rise through the ranks of the Socialist Party and her current status as Minister of Education.  It gives ample coverage of the attacks she has been subjected to in the conservative media and among other Muslims.  What is missing is support for her plans.

Instead of scrutinizing Vallaud-Balkacem for potential weaknesses, we should support her efforts to continue the French republican heritage into the 21st century.  She is a transitional figure, building on the strength of her silent mother—and legions of other Muslim women—who seek a better life for themselves and their children through public education. The article notes that despite the rigid patriarchy of their home, “her mother nevertheless pushed the seven children to study and encouraged the girls to be financially independent.”  In the photo, we see that Vallaud-Belkacem wears no headscarf, and in the few remarks that quote her directly, she states a powerful and admirable goal, of making “a lifetime commitment against social injustices, against inequalities.”  The ultimate solution to the French identity, now as in 1905, lies in education.  Carefully avoiding criticism of the way she herself was raised, she nevertheless notes, “Endless political debates have stigmatized Muslim families.  School needs to teach people that everyone is part of one community and that we are all free and equal.”

Vallaud-Belkacem is a beacon of hope.  In honor of her strong spirit, we should continue the media attention in support of republican values.  We should cheer on her efforts to combat the creeping tentacles of private interests (religious or otherwise) from encroaching into the sphere of public education.  As citizens of the premier democracy of the world, we Americans should acclaim the power of public education to change people’s lives for the better.

A French commentary on la laïcité and Alexander Stille, by Laurent Loty

Dear Julia,

Merci d’avoir posté l’article d’Alexander Stille*, qui permet d’expliquer les différences entre la laïcité en France et la laïcité aux États-Unis.

L’article est passionnant. Mais après avoir bien expliqué les différences (par exemple, en France, entre critique d’une religion et incitation à la haine contre les personnes), il prend toutefois des positions inspirées par le système américain, qui ne correspond pas à l’histoire et à la sociologie françaises.

Une phrase est franchement erronée : “The French state was, in fact, forcing those students to pay homage to a publication that had, in their view, mocked their religion”. Non : la minute de silence dans les établissements scolaires était une manifestation de deuil envers les morts, tués comme journalistes, comme policiers, ou comme Juifs. À propos des journalistes, ce n’était pas un éloge de Charlie hebdo mais une défense de la liberté d’expression telle qu’elle est permise par la loi. On peut comprendre que des élèves aient pu croire qu’il s’agissait d’une défense de la critique de l’Islam, mais ce que des millions de personnes ont défendu en manifestant et ce que le gouvernement a défendu, c’est seulement la liberté d’expression.

Enfin, les millions de personnes d’origine musulmane en France sont relativement mal intégrées parce qu’elles sont les populations immigrées les plus récentes et les plus pauvres, en une période de fort chômage, et leur proportion en France est sans comparaison avec les Etats-Unis.

L’intégration en France ne peut se faire sur le modèle américain. A chacun son histoire, même s’il est toujours important de chercher des principes universels. En France, cela passera par la réduction du chômage, et par l’acceptation par la religion musulmane des règles de la laïcité française déjà acceptées par le passé par les autres religions.

J’ai peur de mal traduire en anglais sur des questions si graves. J’espère pouvoir être lu par une partie des habitués de ce Blog que je salue.

Laurent Loty (Paris)

*Alexander Stille, “Why French Law Treats Dieudonné and Charlie Hebdo Differently,” The New Yorker (January 15, 2015).

More American responses to French problems and French response to Fox “No Go Zones”

Screen-Shot-2015-01-20-at-10.58.17-AM French comedians dress up as Fox newsSince we’re on the topic of French-American misunderstanding, I thought I’d send along another interesting article on the topic of freedom of speech and the concept of laïcité, by Alexander Stille, from The New Yorker, here.

And if you have not yet heard about the Fox News fiasco about the so-called “No Go zones,” you must watch this satire by Le Petit Journal!

Secular Values to the Rescue

In the wake of the horrible tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we have been waiting with baited breath to see which way the French government was going to try to deal with religious extremism.  Would they opt for a free-floating multiculturalism and slide ever closer to the American model where religious leaders hold a dangerous sway over politics?  Or would they reassert the specificity of what it means to be French, and protect their citizens with a newly invigorated republicanism?  As a French teacher in the USA, I frequently encounter students who, in the arrogance of their ignorance, feel entitled to express indignation about the laws banning head scarves and other public signs of religious belief in the public sphere in France, and decry the “inflexibility” of the French.  “They should be more like us,” students say.  Each time I hear this, I wince, because it means that we have not done our job well enough.  Those who believe the French lack “flexibility” have never learned what the French Republic really stands for.  They ignore how long and hard people had to work and struggle and fight, from 1789 to 1905, until France achieved a definitive break between the Catholic Church (or any church) and the State.  They are oblivious to what it means to live in a State where the public sphere is a protected place, where believers and non-believers are equally free from coercion.  So it is with joy that I read the article in the New York Times today entitled, “Paris Announces Plan to Promote Secular Values,” which I invite you to read here.

For those who may not understand why secular values are so crucial to the French, you need to keep studying.  As with many facets of French culture, the origins lie in the past, in this case, the struggles of the French Revolution.

Vive la laïcité!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,847 other followers