The French spirit and the revolution

France is a country with its own historical trajectory, and the revolution will necessarily be the fruit of this specific trajectory. This is why it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the French national trajectory, the evolution of society and of modes of production, all of which provide a framework in which contradictions are expressed and the future is seen as the fruit of the past.

France was born in the 16th century, when the unification achieved by the monarchy, principally with François I, made it possible to establish a framework of sufficient scope for the French language, a territory benefiting from relative homogeneity in terms of unification, an economy that was at least significantly common, and a culture that was active enough to establish a psychic formation. However, nascent France was facing the wars of religion that were to traumatize it, and its continued existence depended on the existence of a centralized state apparatus put in place by the ‘Politicians’. Their watchword was ‘scepticism’ in order to maintain a certain rationalism.

Their philosopher was Montaigne, who was at the forefront of supporting Henri IV. Henri IV changed religion six times in his life, the last time to become King of France. Even in the 17th century, when rationalism as such triumphed with the classical spirit, thinkers and writers were busy taking a sceptical look at human nature and morals, in the hope of correcting them (Molière, Racine, La Fontaine, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, etc.).

Subsequently, the Enlightenment came to be seen above all as a generalized scepticism of the dominant ideology, absolute monarchy and Catholicism; the approach remained mainly at the level of a critical eye, of biting criticism, of which Voltaire is the greatest exponent. Although there was indeed a French materialism (Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius, La Mettrie), of which the Encyclopédie is the sum, it never achieved a synthesis and never became a general system of thought. For this reason, once the French Revolution was over, it quickly withered away.

In France, then, Protestantism failed in the 16th century, 17th-century classicism never composed a theoretical monument, and the Enlightenment vision of the 18th century never established itself as a complete system either. The same is true of the 19th century. None of the movements that left their deepest mark on it established a doctrine: neither Freemasonry, nor the royalism of the Action Française, nor Republican radicalism, nor the labour movement (whether socialist or trade unionist).

Scepticism remains the underlying substance of the French spirit, and if we look closely, we can see that its counterpart is legitimism. Since the French mind claims to be rationalist, it considers that as long as things are, there will be a way of extending them in one way or another. For there to be a new craze, a new legitimacy must first have been established.

For this reason, the Enlightenment was not a mass movement in France; it was a movement to gain legitimacy for new ideas, opening the door to a transformation of French scepticism, from scepticism about the new to scepticism about the old. Similarly, the Front Populaire and the Résistance were not mass movements: it was only after they had been established, and because of a ‘blocked’ historical situation, that the masses, recognizing their legitimacy, rushed to follow them.

This question of legitimacy explains the complete defeat of May-1968, whose sudden eruption failed to take hold in French society, except through François Mitterrand and the long work of legitimacy carried out since 1945 by the ‘second left’; it also helps us to understand the complete triumph of General de Gaulle’s coup d’état in 1958, carried by the legitimacy of his action in response to the defeat of 1940.

While the question of new legitimacy always plays a fundamental role in the establishment of a new regime, it is important to understand how it works in relation to the sceptical, rationalist French mindset. This is a stumbling block that cannot be avoided and that must be faced as the great test for achieving revolution in France.

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