Photo by Norbu Gyachung

Failed state

How history makes rioters of the French

Artillery Row

There’s a creeping admiration of France in Anglo circles. Disenchanted with Brexit’s slow dividends and suspicious that home-grown elites are as dysfunctional as their continental cousins, they peer over la Manche and are blinded by the sunny uplands of Napoleonism, Macronism and Zemmourism. These all peddle shiny, toy-soldier visions of France that seem indistinguishable from Charles de Gaulle’s “certaine idée”, itself little more than the notion Gaul had nationalised gloire (glory). An improbable statement now and even more so when the country was still busy hiding song-sheets that announced “Marechal [Petain], nous voila!”

This would be fine if France were what it pretended. Instead it forms a Potemkin village writ large. While most nations deploy simplified plots to create binding mythologies, France se fout de la gueule du monde (takes the piss). In the land of Marianne, the Revolution (1789–99) is the tail that wags the dog. If the nation is admitted a prior existence it’s reduced to a prefatory role (“Clovis, Charlemagne, Louis IX”) and placed under the rubric of “la France eternelle” to the judicious excess of Robespierre. If the country is permitted a present tense, it is as an addendum to this ideological rupture cum rapture.

The problem is that France’s brittle caricature of power exists because its state formation was incredibly patchy and idiosyncratic compared to its northerly neighbour. In short, the English sat in the centre of a North Sea community of Britons, Bretons, Danes, Dutch, Irish and Scandinavians who traded, fought and fornicated their way through one another. When the Anglo-Saxons were done dedicating most of Britannia to Woden, they reduced roughly twenty kingdoms to seven (the Heptarchy) and then four. A nice prelude to the constant Viking Wars that triggered unification under Aethelstan.

The English identity took on a homogeneous character

During the reign of William the Conqueror, folk suffered the Harrying of the North. Afterwards came the Anarchy, the first Barons’ War, the second Barons’ War, Despenser War, the Wars of the Roses and finally the Civil War. In other words, only a single century between the last Anglo-Saxon ruler and Charles II avoided a formal civil war, and that’s because the Tudors fomented a religious thunderstorm in the Henrician reformation.

While it’s easy to cast this record in a bad light, mocking the English as homicidal maniacs, one of the positives was that their identity forged in violence, curmudgeonly neighbours, coitus and common law took on a homogeneous character. This balanced a strong respect for legitimate authority with a large dose of cynicism towards its temporal arm. Perhaps because it got what Marxists might call “structural” violence out of its system early on.

France’s provinces were never subjugated in the same way. Instead, Germanic conquerors iced Roman dioceses that themselves decorated Celtic tribal areas. A glance at 9th century France reveals Gascony (Gascons), Aquitaine (Romano-Visigoths), Provence and Septimanie (Romans), Bretagne (Bretons), Bourgogne (Burgundians) and Lothringen (a feudal entity) as primary rather than secondary identities. These large units were glossed with duces (dukes) who often headed entire peoples or at least regions that had reflexively developed political identities.

The Franks achieved this tenuous “union” in the 6th century, their biggest triumphs being against the Visigoths in 507 (Vouillé) and the Burgundians just over two decades later (Autun). Then with remarkable ease the Merovingians faded into the Carolingians, who in turn gave way to the Robertians, who morphed into the Capetians, who effectively became the “House of France”. Over the centuries that followed, its first major civil war took the form of a crusade labelled Albigensian that pitched the north against the south-west, and had only reluctant participation from Philip II who preferred to send his son (prince Louis) on the pope’s errands.

It was this lack of consistent violent subjugation by the royal house that meant French lords could forge alliances (such as the League of the Public Weal) that had the potential to confront the king. The “Mad” war (1485–88) was a direct consequence of this, and in recognition of the problem led to the vassalage of Brittany. Still, it’s an isolated episode. No wonder Alexander Dumas (d. 1870) had to reach back to the Wars of Religion (1562–1628) to find a period of internal tumult to set his musketeers amok.

This relative lack of violence within the nation forms a mixed inheritance. In truth, any sense of a common patrie was forged in Parisian directives of the French Revolution, the mass mobilisation of the Napoleonic period and the railways of Napoleon III. During this short century (1789–1873) central government was transformed into an interventionist creature, an arbiter of ideology and science, rather than a mere administrative instrument.

It masked the politically infantile state of the French

This late unification (a chronology that makes France more similar to Germany, whose joint-ancestor the Holy Roman Empire was only dissolved in 1804, than England with which it is typically paired) tends be obscured by a powerful PR operation that began with Francis I. Focusing on the promotion of French norms in the international sphere, it masked the politically infantile state of the French. “Infantile” being a cruel but necessary term to describe a people whose dialogue with the state is so absent that it can only be conducted in the gestural violence of riots.

Sound reasoning may lurk behind the brutality. In a clichéd tradition that harks back to the panegyrics of humanists, the monarchy — mediated through the Académie is framed as the fons et origo of everything culturally grand, artistic and powerful about the country. And the state replaced the crown as the avuncular patron in 1789. In essence, the state is formulated as nothing less than the champion and liberator of France, and so the people are reduced to praising or rebelling, rarely critiquing, reforming or correcting.

This rhetoric still dominates the discourse. Indeed, the state is made to stand not only as the keystone of post-Christian arc (a baton which the US now tries to wrangle) but also a cipher for “the modern world”. Yet History didn’t stop in 1789, nobody can be saved from it and the state is a no more credible actor in art (pedantic and impersonal bureaucrats struggle to cultivate the ingenium of “culture” in committees) than soteriology when globalisation (along Sino-American poles) is the true hegemon. And so ­­— as France is badly sewn together as a country and views violence as the only language the state appears to understand inchoate riots have struck the country almost every year since the sixties.

Perhaps thuggery as the sole metric goes some way to explaining why the country has only ever had male heads of state; why the sole female PM, Edith Cresson, was daubed “La Pompadour”; and why Nicolas Sarkozy felt able on TV to claim Ségolène Royal needed to “calm down” and “stop being hysterical” in 2007. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that the shapeless anger that hangs like a miasma above political dialogue, is the product of a country that’s forgotten its national singularity, its unique history, its patchy unification.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover