La Révolution Française Posted on April 26th, 2012 by

In elementary school, I did a project on the French Revolution.  I made one of those tri-fold display posters, covering it with construction paper, names, dates.  The poster explained that the French Revolution was when France won its independence.  The problem was that no matter how much research I did, I couldn’t figure out from whom the French won their independence. . .

At the time, no one had explained to me that a revolution didn’t have to happen exactly the way the American Revolution did.  But, as that was my only reference, that is what I expected the French revolution to mean.  It wouldn’t be until years later that I realized the French Revolution was not a liberation from another country, but from the internal rule of a monarchy which had lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years.

This is a helpful nuance to understand when making tri-fold construction paper posters about the French Revolution.  The revolution is also central to understanding French political life.  I believe the French people have a much better sense of how to hold their government accountable than we do.  Whether it’s barricades, signs, or simply masses, French politics have always had a place in the street.

In the United States, we are afraid of our government.  We don’t want to give it too much power, because it might oppress us.  In France, they charge the government with a lot more power, and then if it steps out of line, they oppress the government, wielding protests and strikes in a fashion yet undiscovered in the States.

If there is a problem with the strikes and protests in France, it is that they happen too frequently.  This is the opinion of many more French people than I had imagined.  It’s frustrating for them, because at a certain point, life has to go on, people need to go to work, and the economy has to keep moving.  While I don’t believe these niceties are as important as addressing social problems, sometimes people aren’t striking for grave social problems.  Many times, the strikes are because they want even more than the reasonable wages and benefits they are already getting.  “Just because you have the right to strike doesn’t mean you have to use it,” one French student explained to me.

Yet, though it is easy to cross the line and use strikes and protests to demand unnecessary entitlements (I’m speaking about France of course—I can only dream of the day American protests take us that far), I believe it is such a beautiful mechanism of democracy to actually make use of.  I wish we saw this kind of revolutionary reflex more often in the United States—not only in the street, but in the law.  The French revolutionary impulse is not limited to holding signs up in streets; they also drastically and frequently change their constitution when they see need.  In fact, it has been said that in France, changing the constitution is a game.  The current regime is the 5th Republic since the monarchy, and it is only around 50 years old.

In elementary school, I thought the French Revolution was when France won its independence from…someone.  Then, I realized is was the period of turmoil during which the French people overthrew the monarchy.  But I don’t think that describes it either.  The French Revolution is not a period in history.  It is a spirit in the hearts of the people of France.  It  drives to make change, it inspires new constitutions, and it conjures the romantic dream of building a better society in search of the common good.

Of course, there are Americans with these sentiments too.  But we pursue them in a calmer fashion.  We stick to our constitution.  And we don’t make too much noise.  But that’s because our revolution is over.



  1. Andrei Hahn says:

    Granted, I don’t know a whole lot about French culture, but I would agree with the idea that revolution is part of the French collective conscious. Back in March I witnessed, at least, the effects of the General Strike here in Spain, which was against new legislation and labor reform. That doesn’t happen in the US, at least, not anymore, but there was a time when unions and the like had much more political and social power than they do now. Quasi-rhetorical question: What were the reasons for the demise of unions in the US? Non-rhetorical question: Eric, what are your thoughts on how this relates to the emergence of the Occupy Movement in the last year or so?

  2. Eric Halvorson says:

    I guess I’m not sure in what way this would connect to the occupy movement. I do think that the occupiers are those people who share the same idea that it is the duty of the people to hold the government accountable, and that the government should in fact fear that ability and drive of the people. Unfortunately, not enough people have so far really created a big enough stir to cause any “revolutionary” level changes. I’m not entirely sure if that answers your question though.

  3. Andrei Hahn says:

    I guess I struggle to see how it is not connected. Could you elaborate more on that?