Friday, July 11, 2008

Le 14 juillet

A young reader of the blog, Daniel Nichanian, has written to call my attention to an article he wrote tracing the place of Bastille Day in the national memory for the Web site of The Atlantic.

Many of us older heads will of course remember the mother of all Bastille Days, the extravagant celebration of the bicentennial of the Revolution in 1989. For this François Mitterrand pulled out all the stops, enlisting historian Jean-Noël Jeanneney to toss out the bread and pitchman Jean-Paul Goude to lay on the circuses. The irony, of course, was that 1989 marked the triumph of revolutionary revisionism in the world of French historiography. It was François Furet who, along with Mona Ozouf as co-editor and dozens of contributors, deconstructed the event in the monumental Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française (which was published that year and which I translated into English). "La Révolution est terminée," as Furet famously wrote (in yet another work on the ideological afterlife of the revolutionary phenomenon). In the streets of Paris, somber revisionism met exuberant kitsch, though the revelers at les bals populaires surely had no inkling that the ground was shifting beneath their feet as they danced la carmagnole.

Jeanneney nevertheless managed to salvage something of the revolutionary spirit by organizing the commemoration of Abbé Grégoire as French abolitionist, thereby building a bridge between the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen and the modern "human rights" movement (not quite the same thing as les droits de l'homme: see Samuel Moyn's recent work on this crucial distinction). Since 1989 was also the year in which the Iron Curtain came down, in some measure owing to the human rights movement and its embodiment in the Helsinki Accords, Jeanneney's move turned out to be an inspired one. To overstate the case somewhat: it saved the Revolution for the 21st century.