A Brief History of French Socialists
The country once named Gaul has produced some of the greatest writers such as Hugo and Balzac; some of the most-skilled generals such as Napoleon and De Gaulle; and many other remarkable historic figures. Yet regardless of such achievements, the French economy has long been impeded by collectivist policies. Despite being the 10th largest economy, its level of economic freedom is behind former communist countries such Albania and Bulgaria. What is ironic is that France produced some of the greatest proponents for freedom — such as Bastiat, Say and Tocqueville, yet French leaders, both historical and contemporary, have failed to heed the pleas of their fellow statesmen.
Neither countries nor cultures are built overnight; the United States had the foundation of both the British and the Roman Empires before it cemented the foundation of relative freedom its citizens enjoy still to this day. Similarly, France did not adopt collectivism overnight. Rather, it has seen key periods that have made France fertile soil for a certain brand of aggressive socialism. Below I will discuss three such periods: The French Revolution, the Paris Commune and post-World War II France.
The French Revolution
Despite the modern portrayals of the events that succeeded the storming of the Bastille in 1789 as cries for liberty, the reality of the French Revolution is wholly different. If one were to read Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, it would be evident that the policies adopted by the revolutionaries were much similar to those adopted by communist revolutionaries two centuries later. Burke noted the abstractness of French ideals of liberty, namely liberty for the sake of liberty, rather than the practical nature of it. Behind the philosophies of Rousseau and de Mably, France sought to shape human nature as seen fit by the new leaders, while disregarding all of its past history as being that of oppressor vs the oppressed. It essentially gave way for people to instruct others how to act, rather than allowing individuals to do as they themselves see fit. The newly anointed class of revolutionaries killed and jailed all those opposed to their ideas, while confiscating land and property en masse, from both the clergy and the nobility. The land was, among other things, used to back the newly introduced currency — the Assignat, whose purpose was to finance all government expenses. As such it naturally reached an abnormal rate of inflation, causing it to be discontinued soon thereafter. Organizations such as the Cult of Reason were founded to curb religious thought with churches and the clergy being constant victims of reprisals. More men had lost their lives during this turbulent period than during the reign of the supposedly draconian French dynasty. A myriad of other instances of injustice that were more akin to the October Revolution of 1917 rather than the fight for liberty were introduced, but are beyond the scope of this paper.
The Paris Commune
It is sufficient to note that the events of the Paris Commune were described as a “dictatorship of the Proletariat” by Karl Marx to understand their nature. As Prussians troops besieged Paris during the 1871 war, the French were forced to flee to Bordeaux and eventually accepted the terms of surrender, giving Alsace and Lorraine to Bismarck. The war was a foolish act embarked on by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew Louis Napoleon and was opposed most notably by Adolphe Tiers, a prominent politician during the Second Republic. Following the war and capture of Louis Napoleon, that same Tiers sought to create a new, republican government, but the people of Paris feared how “republican” such a government would actually be. Ironically, the Parisians decided to form one that surely would not be republican — a separate, communist one in Paris. Guarded by the French militia, known as the National Guard, this new government stayed in power for two months, but nonetheless, did not fail to leave its mark during that short amount of time. The Commune’s leaders sought reprisals against the wealthy with mass looting throughout the city, as well as reprisals against its political enemies such as Tiers, whose house they burned down. A hostile relationship was also established with the Catholic Church, as it accused it of being part of the monarchy’s supposed crimes. More than 200 members of the clergy were arrested and more than 20 churches were shut down. Paris was eventually re-captured by the actual French Army, but upon retreating the Communards set ablaze a great part of the city, causing irreversible damage and completely ruining historic buildings such as the Tuileries Palace. The whole event left between 10 and 20 thousand men dead altogether and a lasting political impact on France.
Following World War II, collectivist sentiment in France grew. Some of the biggest cities, such as Toulouse, were run by SFIO — the direct arm of the Soviet Union in France. The same party captured over a third of the votes in the 1965 presidential election. One of the most important events from this period were perhaps the 1968 protests that engulfed Paris and the whole of France. Although protesters were marching the streets under the banners of liberty and equality, the reality is that their purpose was to install communist rule in France. Students began protesting against capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism, and tradition. The protests then spread to factories with strikes involving over 10 million workers, more than a fifth of the total population for two continuous weeks. The protests were so detrimental that the French economy was put on halt throughout their time and de Gaulle even secretly left the country. The protests were detrimental in another form, as France with perhaps the strongest army in Europe at the time, was dangerously close to becoming communist, at the height of the Cold War. Another, equally important event was the election of Francois Mitterrand in 1981. Policies introduced under his regime from 1981-1995 were nothing short of socialism. They included mass nationalization of key firms and industries, mandatory 39-work weeks, a 10% increase in the minimum wage, increases in taxes and a myriad of other government infringements of liberty. Perhaps the most detrimental of his policies were the nationalization of all remaining banks, as the country’s largest banks, namely, BNP Paribas, Société Générale and Crédit Lyonnaiswere were already nationalized following the end of World War II . This effectively left no leeway for any competition, as everything was run by the state. Some of these policies introduced by Mitterrand and policies of similar nature still hamper the French economy today, as it has, for example, among the shortest work weeks in Europe, which is effectively mandated by the state.
France needs to go back to its roots — to the philosophies of Bastiat rather than Rousseau, to the principles of Western individualism rather than Russian-inspired socialism. But, as we have seen, French history is punctuated by numerous attempts to truly embrace socialism, and the weight of history is no small obstacle. Even an abrupt turn toward markets could not turn the ship around over night, and France will need time to heal the wounds inflicted by centuries of collectivist thought.