Monday, July 14, 2008

Le 14 Juillet

This flag flies above the entrance to the Lycée (high school) Charles de Gaulle, directly below my window

Paris_Tricolore, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

Happy Bastille Day! For the ignorant among you, July 14 is France's July 4. It celebrates the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. The French Revolution is often compared with the American Revolution as far as both being touchstone moments when the power was transferred from the plutocracy to the general population. However, there are a couple differences.

First, America's Independence Day commemorates the signing of a carefully crafted political statement, outlining the colonies' grievances against the British crown and declaring their sovereignty. On the other hand, Bastille Day commemorates a public riot.

Second, the American Revolution marked the start of a political system that has continued for the most part unchanged throughout the nation's history. France's system has experienced some bumps along the way, including an unfortunate decade called the Reign of Terror, a dictator who overran most of Europe, the restoration of the monarchy, a couple more revolutions, and a humiliating occupation by a foreign country.

All this to say, I think the French appreciation of their democracy is very different than the American one, primarily because it has been such a small portion of the nation's history.

Americans like to talk about democracy and the American way in the same breath as if they were one and the same. French people recognize that what makes them French and what makes them a democracy are two different things. It allows them to more freely call into question the actions of the government without being labeled anti-French. In the USA, when the government succeeds in tying together being patriotic and being supportive of the government as two halves of the American Way, it has undermined the democracy it claims is part of its genetic code. By assuming that just because we are American we are the very definition of liberty we run the risk of having the former define the latter rather than the other way around.

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