The End of French Exceptionalism

In this year of 1989, France has been celebrating the bicentennial of its revolution at a time when the myth attached to that event is in the process of dying out among the public at large. The French have spent the past two centuries building a dream of their revolution, either to damn it or to exalt it.

During the nineteenth century the dominant attitude was one of condemnation; in this century the event has become definitively sanctified. So much so that the dominant ideology up to this point in the twentieth century has seen the revolution as a kind of "legend of saints." One Marxist school of historical thought, which holds the revolution to be unfinished, has seen the event as a kind of happy precursor of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. From this point of view, the terror was a cruel but essential stage in the human race's long march of progress. For the past century this perspective colored not only the opinions of the French left, but also that of most teaching in state schools. It is this myth that has given French politics its singularly lyrical quality, making Paris for so long the center of theatrical ideological debate.

At the present time that particularly French passion which leads intellectuals and politicians to want to build society according to theoretical constructs is coming to an end. It was born from a revolutionary mythology and it is dying at a time when that mythology is fading away. The current phrase in France is that "the revolution is over," which means that modern historians have blown to pieces its legendary dimension, and that above all, the long ideological furrow plowed by the country's history through two centuries is coming to an end. Thus, the bicentennial marks the end of a historical cycle.

The French people are proud to have given the world the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But they are no longer one bit proud to have invented the guillotine in 1793, and along with it a theory of political violence that would claim Lenin as one of its later disciples. The French are proud to have been among the first countries to have laid down the sovereignty of the people as a basic principle of their republican constitution. But at the same time the French are conscious that six of the 12 European Community countries remain monarchies, and that the citizens of those lands are no less free than they.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis