In a recent column, I took Peter FitzSimons to task for saying that the Marseillaise was written ‘in honour of the troops of the town, who were heading up to Paris to take on those trying to restore the French monarchy.’
Mr FitzSimons is so passionately against our time honoured constitutional system that he introduced this canard into not a political commentary, but his sports column in the Sydney Morning Herald on 12-13 November, 2005.
In reply, I pointed out that Rouget de Lisle, variously described as a royalist or a moderate republican, actually wrote the Marseillaise on 25 April, 1792 in Strasbourg, and not Marseilles, and moreover, while France was still a constitutional monarchy.
So there was no question about its restoration. The Marseilles volunteers subsequently adopted it: it was not written with them in mind.
A reader has questioned my reference to France being a constitutional monarchy. My reference was accurate, but perhaps I should have explained the context. Or perhaps I should have avoided the word "constitutional."
In any event, the constitution of 3 September 1791 changed France into a constitutional monarchy, thus ending the absolute monarchy so exquisitely refined under Louis XIV.
The Marseillaise was written while the monarchy still existed.
The monarchy was abolished later. This was on 20 September, 1792, although for all intents and purposes it ended on 10 August of that year with the storming of the Tuileries and the arrest of the King,Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette and their subsequent murders after the sort of show trials used by twentieth century dictatorships.
(The unfortunate Russian Imperial Family did not even merit a show trial before their massacre by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.)
The revolutionaries did not bother to proclaim a new constitution until half way through the following year -24 June 1793. This was soon replaced.
In fact, since the revolution France admits to fourteen constitutions. If we add the text establishing the Vichy fascist government, that is one every 14 or 15 years.
In the same period, Australia has had one national constitution which has worked superbly.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, most of Australia has lived under an Australianised version Westminster system.
This fact apart, Mr FitzSimons certainly chose a most unfortunate time to eulogise the French Revolution.
France was in one of those crises that they almost seem to plan every few years – just think back to the last presidential election, then back to 1968, then 1958, and of course to the collapse of the Third Republic, to Vichy, to the post war interregnum under the Premier -President de Gaulle ( he held both positions briefly), and to the birth of the short lived Fourth Republic.
The French are taught to esteem and romanticise their revolution, which was actually a disaster.
The worst aspect is that as a result, many French people, especially the young, think in terms of a popular uprising being the solution to those crises which, precisely because of this romanticisation , they almost seem to want.
This at least in part explains the design of Paris under Napoleon III , the president who, by the cunning use of that device so loved by republicans because they can abuse it, the plebiscite, turned himself into an authoritarian emperor.
Those magnificent broad avenues were chosen not just for aesthetic reasons.
Napoleon’s great town planner, Georges-Eugène, Baron Haussmann , rammed those avenues through old Paris to ensure the mob could not so easily put up barricades and challenge the imperial authority, and so that the army would have easy access to all points of the city.
As a result, most of mediaeval Paris was destroyed . Had they existed then, the heritage authorities would not have allowed it. But as a result we do have a masterpiece.
The Avenue Hausman, which leads up to the Arc de Triomphe and into the Champs d’Elysée is named after the Baron.
But town planning apart, there are political lessons in France’s history.
These relate to not listening to the elites and abandoning the constitutional system which has worked and worked so well for such a long time.
Notwithstanding the efforts of some silly and uninformed people who have unsuccessfully tried to turn the disorder at Eureka into some Antipodean popular uprising, Australians , fortunately, have no tradition of revolutionary republicanism.
Until next time,