Politics & Policy

The French Are Revolting

An accurate summary of Bastille Day — and every day.

Editor’s Note (‘cause ya see, I’m the editor, and this is my note): I had totally forgotten that I promised my annual Bastille Day French Bashing column until I got home late last night. So, on the off chance that I have not delivered the goods on such short notice, I promise another one before this time next year.

Today is Bastille Day, which commemorates the capture of an almost entirely empty prison, the cold-blooded murder of six unarmed soldiers, and the execution of one French governor already captured by the mob. Of course there is symbolic importance to the sacking of the Bastille. The French (really the Parisian) poor rose up in a spirit of democratic rage, to overthrow the ancien regime and demand the ability to misgovern the country themselves.

Now as a conservative — a modern, Burkean, no-elbows-on-the-table conservative — I must despise the French Revolution, and therefore Bastille Day is a dark day for me. Let me explain why. Years ago, I had a contract to write a book about the 100 most influential conservatives of all time. I came up with the list but never finished the book (though it’s still listed in Amazon.com, which is not a confidence-booster for their stockholders). Eventually I was forced to return the advance betraying 6,000 years of Jewish tradition (oh come on lighten up; please no e-mails about that joke, okay?).

Anyway, since opinionated people are like the current administration — we have to hear from them whether we like it or not — people would constantly ask me things like “Where does Pliny the Elder rank on your list?” To which I said, “Show me a guy who can explain why Pliny the Elder was one of the 100 most influential conservatives and I’ll show you a guy who didn’t get a lot of dates in high school.”

Anyway, I bring this up because Jefferson-voluptuaries always asked me where Jefferson was on my list. I always answered “hmmm nowhere.” To which even grown men with Ph.D.’s would respond, “Mommmmmm, he’s not putting Jefferson on the list, no fair!”

The answer to why Jefferson was off the list is you can’t be a conservative and like the French Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson thought the French were really on to something. (OK, all of you anti-state, paleo-con libertoids; before you even get started, please don’t tell me I haven’t read some pamphlet posted at the Winn Dixie or that I haven’t heard some modern-day Johnny Tremaine with an AK-47 and an overdue tax bill. You can be a very fine American and love T.J., okay?).

Jefferson’s love for the French Revolution, his “polar star,” was only intensified when he heard about various atrocities, including the September Massacres. In 1793, he wrote to his former secretary and the current American minister to the Hague:

My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it now is.

In other words, killing everybody would be worth it if there were a couple dozen people left who agreed with the Jacobins. This ends-justifies-the-means stuff just doesn’t wash with conservatism. And neither does the whole gist of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was a disgusting affair of tyrannical ego, greed and power-lust, made all the worse because it took a good idea and corrupted it, like making a BMW into a low-rider. Hey, speaking of ruining German innovations, Paul Johnson once observed that “the French have always been outstandingly gifted [at] taking a German idea and making it fashionable with superb timing.” Then again, they were probably just following orders.

The single most disgusting aspect of the French Revolution was its attitude toward tradition. In effect, the Revolutionaries looked at the old house of custom, monarchy, and the Church, and said “Well, I don’t like the drapes and this carpeting is pretty bad. That dinette set should go over there. And you know, that chaise longue looks like something out of Greg Brady’s swank attic bachelor pad so…let’s just burn the whole place down, murder the staff, execute the architects and imprison anybody who ever said anything nice about the place — and their families too, just in case.”

It wasn’t just the murder and destruction that was so awful, it was their attitude toward human nature. The Revolutionaries weren’t really democrats. Average folk were reluctant to change their lives to fit the boutique-intellectual theories of a few sissified scribblers. The man in the street still wanted to worship God, use the traditional calendar, or surrender to Germans — on his own terms. Alas, the radicals asserted that the people suffered from false consciousness (though that’s a term coined by that German schmo Karl Marx whom, apropos of Johnson, the French still consider the intellectual equivalent of Jerry Lewis). So, they re-opened the churches, only this time they called them “Temples of Reason” where the average Joe — or in this case the average Jacques — could worship the atheist deity “Lady Reason” or one of her appointed Saints, like maybe Voltaire or perhaps an algorithm of some kind, or maybe later Ayn Rand (oh, boy; now I’m gonna get it).

Now, since that great triumph of human liberty, the French have changed Republics more times than the average Parisian changes his underwear in a week. Now you might think this is an unfair potshot. Well, here are the results of various studies culled from news accounts, including Le Figaro. I am not making these up:

  • 40% of French men, and 25% of women, do not change their underwear daily.
  • Fully 50% of the men, and 30% of women, do not use deodorant.
  • Average British citizen uses 3 pounds of soap annually. The German uses 2.9 pounds, and the average Frenchman uses 1.3 pounds. This means the average Frenchman uses four or five bars of soap a year. Since this is an average, that means some French use more soap than that, but some use a lot less.
  • Of those surveyed 67% of French respondents said they brush their teeth twice a day. Le Figaro did the math. If that were true, sales of toothpaste should be more than 240 million tubes a year, and not the current (1998) 198.5 million.
  • Le Figaro cited experts who concluded that “more than one French person in two does not respect elementary rules of body hygiene.”  

Okay, so anyway, where was I? Oh, right. The French keep changing their Republics, but not their underwear. Remember that for your tests; Republics: many, underwear changings: few. The writer James Cameron wrote in 1954 that “The simple thing is to consider the French as an erratic and brilliant people, who have all the gifts except of running their country.” Maybe this is why they keep handing the keys to the Germans?

My biggest education in the French was a documentary I wrote and produced called “Notre Dame: Witness To History” (I can only think of 17 reasons it was passed-over for an Emmy). I learned some tricks about how to memorize all the stuff the Cathedral of Notre Dame witnessed. Let me tell you my secret. The political history of modern France can be mastered by simply memorizing on which dates a bunch of guys (who nurse the same Pernod all day at the local café pretending to read French-speaking German philosophers while trying to hit on American tourist-girls from Brown University) decided to barricade a street, shoot the Bishop at Notre Dame, and then stand around waiting to be killed by the Gendarmes (which, loosely translated, means “First to confiscate California wine, last to fight the Germans”).

Today the French explain to us with increasing regularity that America is evil. They decry globalization, which some call mondialisation (because while no one would dream of buying a French stereo or pacemaker, we still think froggy words are more impressive). Some of the most popular books in France have titles like “Who Is Killing France? The American Strategy,” “American Totalitarianism” and the best-seller “No Thanks, Uncle Sam,” written by a member of the French Parliament, who concludes, “It is appropriate to be downright anti-American.”

Look, globalization is just another word for “Hey, Frenchie, maybe if you put down the fromage and made a movie that didn’t involve an old Marxist professor hitting on his student — and her husband! — people might watch your movies once in a while.”

Anyway, this pretty much concludes our discussion of Bastille Day as I have no sweeping conclusions about France, which as Billy Wilder once noted, “is the only country where the money falls apart and you can’t tear the toilet paper.” I can only say, in the immortal words of Al Bundy from Married with Children, “It is good to hate the French.”

Okay, this morning I was on C-Span’s Morning Journal. It was fun and I do think C-Span is the shining jewel of American media. But I gotta say some of the people who called in to talk were, well, nutbags. I won’t go on at length, but much of the morning was dominated by accusations that C-Span leans too far to the Right. Brian Lamb was pretty exasperated with the accusation — and rightly so. But my favorite moment came when this woman — who was unusually nasty to me — said that C-Span broadcast the reenactments of the Lincoln-Douglas debates during impeachment because they knew it would help boost Republican turnout. Now I couldn’t technically hear the crack blowtorch blazing away in the background, but I must assume she was as high as a moon bat. I love the image of the DNC chair screaming “Holy Hot Seat, Batman! C-Span’s pulling out the big guns for the Republicans! They’re gonna run the Lincoln-Douglas debates! We’re doomed!”

Anyway, the invitation to appear came at the last minute and I didn’t have the opportunity to inform readers that I would be on TV as you guys always demand. Still, they might rebroadcast it if you ask nicely.

But I know how many of you would like to place the body with my self-inflicted fat jokes. I hope this will suffice: A guy named Walter (last name and e-mail withheld) sent me this note:

Saw you on C-Span this morning. I always pictured you as fat, hairy and homely. But you’re not so fat. Have a great weekend.

And by the way, yes, I will be reviewing X-Men for NRO Weekend, but you’ll have to go there to see it.


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