Sophie Wahnich is a historian, research director at the CNRS, and a specialist on the French Revolution, to which she has devoted many books, the latest being ‘La Révolution française n'est pas un mythe’, which has just been published by Klincksieck. In this book, she continues the line of argument already at work in her previous book, ‘L’Intelligence politique de la Révolution française’ (Textuel, 2012), where she maintains that what should be sought in the past are not ‘models’ but rather ‘lights’, with a view to transmitting ‘a spirit and tools rather than models’.
For Médiapart, she compares the current mobilizations, where the Marseillaise is constantly sung and the reference to 1789 is acknowledged, with the revolutionary period.
How does a historian of the French Revolution view what is happening in France?
The scenography that is unfolding is perhaps more like the ‘seditions’ described by Machiavelli in his Discourses than the riots of the Revolution, whose political project, even if immanent, was rather more specific. This does not mean there is no revolutionary potential in what is happening, especially since the reasons for the seditions of Machiavelli’s time were to be found in a kind of class struggle between the popolo minuto and the popolo grosso, and were triggered by the excesses of the popolo grosso, the great ones.
‘Most often,’ Machiavelli tells us, ‘troubles are caused by the possessors, because the fear of losing generates in them the same desire as in those who wish to acquire. Indeed, men do not believe they possess safely if they do not increase what they have. Moreover, as they already possess a lot, they can cause troubles more violently and more powerfully.’ By always wanting to dominate more and accumulate more, and thus impoverish and exasperate the little people who simply want to live with dignity.
Again, according to Machiavelli, ‘the people desire to be neither commanded nor oppressed by the great, whereas the great desire to command and oppress the people’. If, for him, all men are ‘nasty’, they are not equally so. The great or the nobility are by nature far worse than the others, since their desire is for their particular good, while the desire of the people is for a universal ‘good’ – the freedom of all, identified with their security.
This asymmetry of desires cannot in fact be reduced to an ordinary antagonism, a simple conflict of interests. What is at stake each time is the possibility of inventing a conception of freedom as non-domination. And that indeed does have revolutionary potential.
But the structural features of the current period are not the same as those of the Revolution. Between the late seventeenth century and 1789 the notion of freedom was gradually developed: a critique of authoritarianism, an acculturation to the Enlightenment that was found also in the working classes, with the ideas conveyed in popular almanacs and encyclopaedias, as well as in the literate circles that attended academies and salons.
The current moment seems more ambivalent. Of course, people are educated, and places of popular education have multiplied, but they are not all equipped in the same way, the buzz on social networks and reality TV does not prepare people to resist the air of a poisonous time, but it does encourage them to express themselves.
The feeling we have of a great political heterogeneity of the movement probably comes from this. There is no unified discursive ideological formation, everyone has their own grammar. In the absence of this, struggles are carried out in the particular event, and the cultural counter-hegemony of the extreme right is far from having won the game. It’s good news to be dealing with people who are ‘fed up but not fascist’ [fachés mais pas fachos]. Even if we see an effort by the far right, in Germany or the Netherlands, to bring the gilets jaunes over to their side.
That said, the sociological structure of current mobilizations is very interesting because it corresponds to that of the sans-culottes, with a strong female presence. Today, as then, we are dealing with ‘made men’, to use the expression of the historian Michel Vovelle: fathers of families, with a job, who do not want the following generations to live worse than they do. It was in this expectation, that they had started families and wanted a good life, that the sans-culottes made revolution.
Hébert’s newspaper Le Père Duchesne, for example, asked: ‘Brave sans-culottes, why did you make the Revolution? Wasn’t it to be fucking happier?’ He felt that it had been ‘too long that the poor bastard sans-culottes had suffered and stuck out their tongues. It was to be happier that they made the Revolution.’ That is comparable today, and in this respect, what is happening now is very different from the riots of 2005, which called for an end to invisibility, for respect and inclusion for the inhabitants of ghettoized banlieues.
The other point of comparison, which is commonplace but needs to be repeated, is the inequality of the tax base. The engravings of the revolutionary era show popular ﬁgures crushed by nobles and clerics. Today it would be the same with bankers or shareholders, and the governments that protect them. The feeling of common humanity demands equality in terms of taxes.
People today are sufficiently aware from their experience of deteriorating living standards that the ecological bill is unevenly distributed. They do not reject the ecological transition, but the fact that it weighs on citizens unequally.
The third possible point of comparison would be that the state has gone too far, and lost a lot of credibility. This is the particular conﬁguration we have now, which is that Macron made promises to the right and the left, so some people believed he would act like the head of a family, and are even more angry when he looks like a tyrant.
Today we hear the words ‘riot’, even ‘insurrection’, but still rarely the word ‘revolution’... Does a revolution always start with riots?
No. The French Revolution did not start with a riot, but as a subversion, if we consider that it began with the Estates General. On 14 July, the people were on the streets defending what had taken place from May to July.
But there can be a rapid learning process in pre-revolutionary periods. Even if most of the people who are demonstrating today did not take part in the struggles against the labour law, even if this is the first time that many of them are demonstrating, they have examples to follow and do not arrive on the streets completely naïve.
Are you surprised by the role that the Marseillaise has played in the mobilizations of the last few weeks?
I think it’s because of football. It allows us to be together, to sing in unison, to experience the joy of a choir. It’s a way of producing crowd effects, in the traditional sense of the word. It connects everyone and makes everyone feel stronger. If there were no football, only school, people would not know the Marseillaise and would not use it in this way.
But it’s a dialectical use. It so happens that in France, unlike other countries, the national anthem is also a revolutionary song. Moreover, it seems to me that we should not hear the words of this eighteenth-century song with today’s context. The famous ‘impure blood’, at that time, referred to the question of the sacred, and of liberty that was sacred. The impure blood was thus that of those who rejected freedom. Perhaps today, some people say ‘impure blood’ because they are fascists, but that was not the original meaning.
It is true that the current mobilization has only a national vision. It is therefore not at all interested in what has happened recently in Great Britain, with the Extinction/Rebellion movement [https://rebellion.earth/]. However, even if the far right is present in the demonstrations, there is a heterogeneity that actually seems to me contrary to what the far-right movements want.
Since last Saturday, there has been a focus on the ‘violence’ of the demonstrations, but it seems to shock people less than in other situations where the level of violence seemed less severe. How do you explain this?
The prevailing feeling is that the violence generated in the mobilizations is a returning violence. There is something revolutionary about this, this way of returning the violence suffered. For violence to appear acceptable to many people, even legitimate, there must previously have been a great deal of restraint.
What is happening is similar to the taking of the Tuileries, which was not at the beginning of the French Revolution, but came after calm attempts to make claims in support of justice, after this did not work. This creates a form of violence that is rather wild, because people feel it was inevitable. People have been saying for twenty years that the situation was bound to ‘explode’, so when it did explode, this doesn’t seem completely illogical or illegitimate.
During the Revolution, Citizen Nicoleau, of the Croix-Rouge section, defended the idea of a people who were the ‘true sovereign and supreme legislator’, whom no authority could deprive of the right to express their views, deliberate, vote and consequently make known by petitions the result of their deliberations, the objects and motives of their wishes. He hoped ‘that the French would not find themselves in the unfortunate need to follow the example of the Romans, and to use against their representatives not the humble and modest right of petition, which the attempt has been made to take away from them, but the imposing and terrible right of resistance to oppression, in accordance with Article 2 of the Declaration of Rights’.
Abbé Grégoire also said: ‘If you take away the right of the poor citizen to petition, you detach him from the public sphere, you even make him an enemy. Unable to complain through legal channels, he will engage in tumultuous movements and put his despair in the place of reason...’ That is where we are now.
In France, there is only the right to vote, but no possibility of address to the government except by demonstrations. Macron does not like intermediate bodies, but without intermediate bodies turmoil soon arrives.
How do you understand that references to May 68, or even to the Paris Commune, which were often made in mobilizations against the labour law, are far less present than those to the French Revolution?
The Commune remains a key reference for the workers’ movement, and an intellectual reference. It is of interest to some groups but not to citizens as a whole. And then it is not so joyful, as the Commune remains a defeat, whereas the French Revolution was, at least partially, a real victory. Even if it was not total, the Restoration did not allow a return to the Old Regime pure and simple, and it is more pleasant to refer to a victory than to a defeat.
In addition, the gilets jaunes are not part of the workers’ movement, even if they may be workers. Many have never demonstrated before, which was also the case in the mobilizations against Ben Ali in Tunisia.
And, unlike in 1968, the issue is not libertarian, it is familial. In 1968, it was a question of inventing a life based on other norms. Here, it is more a form of class struggle, in the relationship to the state than in the factories, which makes May 68 a less appropriate reference than the Revolution.
Everyone is wondering where we can go from here. Do you have any clarifications as a historian?
The historian can say what is new in the movement, make a ‘diagnosis of the present’, as Michel Foucault said, but their job is not to imagine. No one can know where this is going, not even those involved in the movement. Even if it is interesting to see that people acknowledge what they do, acknowledge political and tragic actions, even acknowledge impurity, which is contrary to the general state of things today.
The two responses being currently discussed, a state of emergency or the dissolution of the Assembly, are each in its way coherent. The first would signify increased authoritarianism. The other would mean a recognition that the political crisis is real and that new representatives are needed. Such an option would then take on a truly revolutionary dimension.
But for those wanting to defend the neoliberal order, more policing of this now contested order will be needed, although it seems complicated, because what we are experiencing are also the effects of the gradual destruction of the state apparatus, the fact that there are fewer police officers available, and that it would probably be impossible to hold both Paris and the provinces.
Especially since we can see that many police officers are fed up, and share some of the anger that is being expressed. If the state apparatus with its monopoly of violence is at risk of shifting over to the side of the insurgents, that is truly a revolution. We are not there yet, but things can move very fast.
This movement is set dead against places and symbols of power, whether in its desire to reach the Elysée or to attack emblems of globalized capitalism in the fashionable districts of an emblematic metropolis. Does this indicate the revolutionary nature of the struggle?
I’m not sure about that. We can imagine that this is how the far left expresses its anti-capitalism. But if we take a step back, at the beginning the mobilization took place on the roundabouts. Today it is approaching places of power, because the government has not responded to its anger.
From this point of view, the fire at the prefecture of Le Puy-en-Velay seems to me more symptomatic. It was attacked in the way that at the time of the Revolution people might burn châteaux without necessarily wanting to kill their chatelaines. Here, it seems to me that what is under attack, more than money, are the symbols of a republican power that makes bad laws.
Interview by Joseph Confavreux, Médiapart, 4 December 2018Translated by David Fernbach