It’s appropriate that I’m publishing today’s post from the United States, because September 6 is the birthday of one of the greatest heroes of the American Revolution: the Marquis de Lafayette. It’s also appropriate that I’m publishing from South Carolina, because Lafayette not only was a Franco-American hero, but he had a special connection to my home state.
You should know by now that I’m a big history nerd. I’ve been one all my life, and the older I get, the more convinced I am that somewhere along the way I got sidetracked from my destiny to become a history professor. The people in my life closest to me can attest to that fact. Just Sunday night, at dinner with Michel and our friends Leigh and Dwight in Columbia, I was heard correcting a Frenchman’s account of the role of the French Revolution in the birth of French laicity. What can I say? It’s a passion. So it came as no surprise when, during my first semester of French classes at the Sorbonne, I chose to do my 15-minute oral report on the life of the Marquis de Lafayette. It also came as no surprise that my 15-minute report ended up lasting half an hour! I’m pretty sure that most of my classmates’ eyes start to glaze over after about 20 minutes because … well, not everyone can be as into Franco-American history as I am. In any case, je parle américain‘s homage to the Marquis on this, the 255th anniversary of his birth, is based on that long oral report … but today, at least, I’ll be telling it in English and not broken French. So, hopefully your eyes won’t glaze over before you get to the bottom of the page.
Today is July 14, the French national holiday. Here in France, it’s officially called La Fête Nationale (“The National Celebration”) or more commonly, Le Quatorze Juillet (“The Fourteenth of July”). In English-speaking countries we call it Bastille Day. We think of it as the start of the French Revolution but, as usual with the beginnings of revolutions, it wasn’t as clean-cut as that …
The Back Story
Like the American Revolution that preceded it by 14 years, there was a long fuse leading to the powder keg of the French Revolution. Every historian will tell you that the French Revolution was the product of a number of factors: malnutrition and hunger from a series of bad harvests and the resulting spike in the price of bread, the country’s financial crisis arising from France’s loss in the Seven Years’ War and its foray into the American Revolution and, crucially, the unwillingness of France’s Ancien Régimeto address these problems effectively. King Louis XVI’s series of finance ministers had repeatedly attempted to address the crisis by calling for reform of France’s regressive tax structure that placed an inordinate burden on the poor to the benefit of the aristocracy and clergy. Not surprisingly, this progressive idea was adamantly opposed by the country’s parlements(regional bodies representing the aristocracy that exercised limited veto power on such matters). Continue reading The Bastille Might be the Symbol, but it Wasn’t the Beginning … or the End
There’s something quintessentially Parisian about the Paris Métro. From the art nouveau entrances to the winding corridors to the white-tiled walls and ceilings, there’s simply no confusing the Paris Métro with any other underground transit system in the world. But did you know how American a few of the Métro stations are? For most French, these stations are probably no more interesting than, say, Boucicaut or Bréguet Sabin, but for an American, they’re little souvenirs of home right here in Paris. Continue reading An American in the Métro