This tile considers the impact, both immediate and long-term, of the French Revolution both at home and abroad
Unhealed scar tissue
François Furet thought that it took until 1880 for the Revolution to truly end. Whenever it ended, it’s certainly now the case that the fundamental ideals of the revolution – liberty, equality and fraternity – are considered sacred in French society and politics.
Yet some of the divisions, regional or ideological, are still visible today, sometimes fossilized in electoral maps and geographical divisions: the persistence of Christian-Democrat parties remains in the counter-revolutionary West. ), Occasionally the legacy of the French revolution is more directly questioned, such as at the ‘battle’ around the bicentennial celebrations of 1989.
There is no major political movement today that rejects the Revolution as a whole. Yet everyone tends to cherry pick what they like.
The Communist Party up till the 1980s, and its Melenchonist brethrens of today are known to evoke the 1793 period, misty-eyed, as a precursor of later popular revolutions (they carefully avoid the term ‘Terror,’ though). They even have their own historical school (the ‘revue des Études Robespierristes’ is still going strong, though past its prime).
Conservative or Gaullist parties like to hark back to the patriotic aspects of the revolutionary heritage, such as in the military successes and the establishment of a robust civil service.
‘Jacobins’ from the left or the right worship at the altar of a centralized, ever-levelling republic led from Paris.
Conversely, classical liberals, through a line that runs from Tocqueville to Raymond Aron, get to admire the early days of 1789 and 1790 and to forever, long for what may have been, if only…
It is debatable whether France was better off after the Revolution and Napoleonic periods than before. Its impact abroad has been more widely proclaimed, however. The revolution inspired reforms in countries throughout Europe that may otherwise have been waiting much longer for them.
The Whig era that followed the Glorious Revolution in Great Britain, the Dutch revolution, and of course the early days of the United States of America exercised a powerful intellectual influence throughout the world. But the French Revolution, for all its faults, was the ultimate symbol of a new, republican politics. For better and for worse, it accelerated history in a string of events that still resonate in our world.