As I sat through the ceremony of reception today at the Préfecture of Rouen of myself and about fifty other new French citizens, I listened to the recorded propaganda message with the ears of a philosopher. The essential theme was the French motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – and Laïcité, the last meaning freedom for all religions or none, and the absolute autonomy of the State in relation to any religious body – including Islam. My wife and I wondered how much of this message would be understood by most of the people originating in the former French colonies in Africa and the Sahara.
These notions come from the Revolution of 1789. My own take is much more mitigated than that of French monarchists and traditionalists. Something had to crack even if Louis XVI was trying to reform the institutions for the sake of the poor. When Marie-Antoinette suggested that those who had no bread could eat cake (brioche), she was not being sarcastic or out of touch. There was cake available at the local bakery.
Very frequently in history, a good idea is taken over by evil men. A prime example is Christianity itself, to the extent that Christ’s actual teachings and the spirit in which he meant them are almost unknown today. As Oscar Wilde said as he languished in prison:
There is something so unique about Christ. Of course just as there are false dawns before the dawn itself, and winter days so full of sudden sunlight that they will cheat the wise crocus into squandering its gold before its time, and make some foolish bird call to its mate to build on barren boughs, so there were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since. I make one exception, St. Francis of Assisi. But then God had given him at his birth the soul of a poet, as he himself when quite young had in mystical marriage taken poverty as his bride: and with the soul of a poet and the body of a beggar he found the way to perfection not difficult. He understood Christ, and so he became like him. We do not require the Liber Conformitatum to teach us that the life of St. Francis was the true IMITATIO CHRISTI, a poem compared to which the book of that name is merely prose.
The spirit of a great idea is all too quickly lost and replaced by its antithesis by the use of the same words. As it was with the coming of Christ, so it was with the notion of human rights and the blueprint of modern democracy. In the beginning of the revolutionary era, Wordsworth wrote:
Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress—to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
(As at some moment might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of paradise itself )
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
What temper at the prospect did not wake
To happiness unthought of? The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
The playfellows of fancy, who had made
All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
Their ministers,—who in lordly wise had stirred
Among the grandest objects of the sense,
And dealt with whatsoever they found there
As if they had within some lurking right
To wield it;—they, too, who, of gentle mood,
Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more wild,
And in the region of their peaceful selves;—
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!
Novalis was another contemporary, though he lived far away in Saxony. He sympathised with the ideals of the Revolution and its trio of words which could mean the noblest of ideals or a way to bring about the Terror of Robespierre. No, in today’s recorded propaganda message, there was no mention of the tumbrils from the Conciergerie to the guillotine, the dogs lapping up the blood, the rotting corpses and severed heads awaiting burial at the Picpus cemetery. There was not a word about the tyranny of the Jacobins. The totalitarianism of the Jacobins was over in 1794, but leaving a legacy of bitterness that continues to our days. Eventually, Napoleon entered into a concordat with the Church in 1801, opening the way to a regeneration of the Church, but also of the bourgeoisie. Bonaparte enshrined the principles of the Revolution into French constitutional law. The nineteenth century in France was dreadfully unstable with the symbolic years of 1830 and 1848. Europe was on fire, as were the unifying Italian and German states. The continuous state of instability only really came to an end in 1945 and with the building up of the United Nations and the European Union.
Do we reject the revolutionary ideas as rotten to the core, or give them a more human meaning? I have known many in traditionalist Catholic circles who wanted to restore the monarchy in France. Who? The Duke of Anjou who lives in Spain or the Count of Paris, allegedly tainted by associations with Freemasonry. Monarchism in France is a little bit more serious than the alternative popes I have been writing about, but I see no future in it. Leo XIII and Pius XI encouraged French Catholics to accept the French Republic and contribute to its ideals in a Christian way. This was my reflection as I was called to receive my letter from President Macron with some beautifully presented texts.
How did Novalis cope with the new ideas coming from France in his time? The ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité were too high for the men implementing them. As Wordsworth had found, the result was death, bondage, inequality and enmity – quite the opposite. Novalis saw the principle of the Enlightenment at the basis of the Revolution, but an idea of human reason that fails to take historical reality into account. This very day, I ask myself what the young Muslim from Tunisia or Algeria sitting a couple of seats away from me would understand by these words. The man hosting the ceremony exhorted us to integrate into French culture and be fluent in the language. I have always done my best through respect to my hosts, but differences in culture are difficult to overcome. My own cultural difference is minimal, far less than the Algerian or the Tunisian worker. These noble ideals can only come through education and Bildung.
The challenge needs to be taken up by each of us in our villages, homes, jobs and circles of friends. I believe that these ideals can be sublimated into something great, and this was my mind as I accepted the gift of citizenship from the French Republic. Its political problems are no less serious than in England. Ultra right-wing nationalism is springing up all over the world, and it can happen here too. Macron may not win the next presidential election. The traditional moderate left and right wing parties have no more credibility, any more than the extreme left of Mélenchon, a sort of “French Corbyn”. I don’t know what life would be like under Mme Le Pen. A new crisis is mounting and its future result is quite unpredictable.
I lived in France for many years without bothering about nationality, because the European Union upholds freedom of movement, including the right to live and work in another European country. When the Brexit issue came up, English people living in European countries had to take things more seriously. In my turn, I applied for a residence permit and citizenship by marriage to a French woman. The long bureaucratic process is complete and I only await my Carte Nationale d’Identité and passport. I will vote in the various elections and take my tiny part.
I said to our host at the ceremony: “Merci. J’ai beaucoup appris de votre beau pays“. Indeed, it is a beautiful and extremely diverse country, both in terms of nature and human culture. Let us start with this enchanted beauty and build on it to bring about God’s Kingdom and a land of hope, freedom and pursuit of happiness.