It was robespierre who said, ‘If the basis of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless.’ This is not at all what a bunch of Social Democrats running France in the age of the Fifth Republic want to be quoting this year and next. The official programme has a lot of virtue and positively no terror, at least on the evidence of their calendar of upcoming events.footnote1

Among such events: March 21, symbolic planting of the Liberty Tree, ‘renewing’, as the bicentennial prospectus says, ‘the tradition of symbolic ceremonies of the revolution’. Back in the early 1790s earnest Jacobins, who nourished their Liberty Trees and held solemn neoclassical ceremonies in support of the Supreme Being, had to protect these trees against devout Christians. The believers liked to urinate on them and, if given half a chance, pull them up. Many trees had little fences round them. The de-Christianization campaign was pushed along by such men as Joseph Fouché, a former teacher from the south of France and one of the few principals of the revolution to die in bed. He ended up as Napoleon’s chief of police. During the revolution, Fouché ordered the words ‘Death is nothing but eternal sleep’ to be put by the gates of every cemetery in France.

In Strasbourg’s Feast of Reason, on 30 Brumaire, Year II of the revolution (November 30, 1793), citizens led by girls dressed in white carried a bust of Marat into the cathedral (renamed the Temple of Reason), over whose doors were placed the tricolor and a placard reading light after darkness. In the nave was a symbolic mountain with statues of Nature and Liberty on top, and on the sides, monsters with human faces half-buried in the rock, symbolizing the frustrated powers of superstition. The 10,000-strong gathering sang a hymn to Reason, and then there was a bonfire on the altar of the remains of saints beatified by the Court of Rome and a few Gothic parchments.

‘June 1989’, the prospectus continues piously, ‘will be the month of fraternity, in memory of June 1789, when people expressed the desire for modernization and democratization.’ You could put it like that. What Laignelot bellowed at the Jacobins of Brest was, ‘The people will not be truly free until the last king has been strangled in the entrails of the last priests.’ The prospectus: ‘From April 1 to November 15 in the Tuileries there will be masques, games, spectacles designed to evoke what happened between 1789 and 1799, putting the accent on institutional reform, which marked the progress of parliamentary democracy.’ This would have made Saint-Just smile, given his pithy view that ‘long laws are public calamities’.

‘There were never so many plays in Paris as during the revolution’, Bruno Villien told me. ‘If you left a basement empty it turned into a theatre. Lots of plays were about current events, on a day-to-day basis. The storming of the Bastille was performed on the stage two days later. Some of the actual participants in the storming turned up and played their roles. People jumped up on the stages a lot and argued about what was being said. At Talma’s first big hit, Charles IX, there were huge riots.’ It was like a newsreel. People went to the theatre to find out what was happening and to swap news. The practice continued under Napoleon, who was an ardent theatregoer, dropping long memoranda on Talma about technique and tragic theory. Before the curtain went up they would announce the outcome of battles and the names of casualties.