Back to the Bastille

It was no surprise, of course, whenFrance’snew Socialist president, Francois Hollande, celebrated his election over the weekend at the Place de la Bastille. Once the site of the nation’s most notorious prison, the square has long been the place that French leftists proclaim their victories. But while many commentators noted the symbolic importance of the Bastille, they overlook how this symbol has changed over time — a transformation that may hold a lesson for President-elect Hollande.

When a large crowd attacked and took the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the French Revolution was launched. That the prison held no political prisoners but instead a mere half-dozen petty criminals and lunatics, and that the crowd marked the event by chopping off and displaying the heads of two government officials, did little to mute the festive atmosphere.

On the contrary. Overnight, the Bastille became Paris’ most successful tourist attraction. The decapitated heads were still fresh on the ends of the revolutionaries’ pikes when Pierre-Francois Palloy, a wealthy businessman, with a work crew nearly as large as the crowd that stormed the Bastille, began leveling the medieval pile. Once razed, the prison’s iron, brick and wood detritus was transmuted into souvenirs, including inkwells, domino sets, snuff boxes and daggers.

Even after the prison was gone, tourists from France and abroad surged to the rubble-strewn field where the Bastille once stood. One year after its destruction, Palloy held a celebratory ball among the ruins at which Parisians quite literally danced on the grave of the old regime. Uncertain what to do with the vast space, the revolutionary government let it go to romantic seed. If the revolution was indeed a return to the natural order of things, what better proof than the shrubs, flowers and weeds that began to sprout amid the scattered stones at the site?


Yet governments abhor vacuums. Upon becoming emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte announced his desire to build a massive arch celebrating his military victories on the site of the old Bastille. The dubious neighbors, however, put him off, and so instead Napoleon had the Arc de Triomphe built at the other end of Paris. As for the Bastille, Napoleon conceived a fountain featuring a gigantic statue of an elephant — yes, an elephant — to celebrate his imperial conquests. The plaster model placed there was to be replaced by one in bronze. Waterloo cut short these grandiose plans, however, and the model — growing leprous and pitted, a haven for rats and derelicts — remained until 1846.

In 1832, the peeling pachyderm was joined by a second statue. Not one commemorating the revolution of 1789, mind you, but instead the revolution of 1830, which brought the fall of King Charles X and his replacement with King Louis-Philippe. In order to both celebrate the events of 1830 and make Parisians believe the revolution had come full cycle, Louis-Philippe constructed a towering bronze column. At its marble base were entombed the bodies of those who died on the barricades in 1830, at its top was the gilded Genie de la Liberte, or Spirit of Liberty: a winged figure pirouetting on a globe and flaunting the broken chains of servitude.

Some historians, noting that the sprite is now called the Spirit of the Bastille, believe the site’s meaning has faded with time. But in the wake of Sunday’s event, perhaps the meaning of liberty has instead simply changed over time. Ever since 1848 — and yet another revolution — France’s political left has held its great demonstrations at the column’s marble base. In 1936, the newly elected prime minister, Socialist Leon Blum, beamed (and held high a clenched fist) while a river of workers and students surged across the Place de la Bastille. And in 1981, the supporters of France’s first Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, converged at Bastille to celebrate his victory.

An avid student of history, Hollande surely grasped, as he addressed the massive crowd at Bastille, the remarkable parallels between his situation and those of his predecessors. In 1936 and 1981, the Socialist leaders rode to power in the midst of grave economic crises on the promise they would solve the problem with Keynesian policies: higher pay, shorter workweeks and increased social benefits. In both cases, they put into effect policies that went against the economic grain of neighboring countries; in both cases, within two years after they were introduced, the policies proved counterproductive and were countermanded.


Though he did not raise a clenched fist, Hollande did point his finger in the direction of Berlin and Brussels. Austerity, he declared, is no longer an option for France. Like his predecessors, Hollande promised to make France’s economy more productive and its citizens more prosperous — promises that will entail serious negotiations with Germany over monetary policy.

What’s at stake in these negotiations is the Spirit of Liberty. But that spirit no longer represents the sort of liberty she did in 1789 or 1848 — liberty from oppressive monarchies — or even, as in 1936 or 1981, liberty from French industrialists and bankers. Instead, the oppressors many in France blame today are foreign governments and transnational institutions that, in the eyes of French voters, have inflicted on them a set of economic policies that are not only ineffective but punitive.

Whether Hollande will succeed where his predecessors failed remains to be seen. In an age of globalization, it will be even more difficult to carry out a policy of socialism in one country than it was in 1936 or 1981. More difficult, however, is to ignore the fears and hopes of the people. Hollande knows that while plaster elephants come and go, the memory of liberty abides.

Robert Zaretsky teaches French history at the Honors College of the University of Houston and is coauthor of “France and its Empire Since 1870.”