Volume 2 Number 7
Practical Brotherhood
01 July 1989

There is some point in looking back into the lives of our forebears and seeing how a few French people, who now belong within one frame simply because of the chance of marriages down the generations, experienced the period. I took such a look at the ancestors of my sons.

France's famous historical event, the capture of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, was more of a gesture on the psychological level than a decisive move in the balance of forces. The ancient fortress contained fewer captives than symbols. That well-meaning man, the prison governor, whose head was paraded on the end of a pike, was no tyrant; he was merely naive enough to believe that he could appease the mob by showing that the whole place held only five prisoners.

For us in France, the celebration of these events offers us excuses to throw parties, reasons to focus on a variously interpreted period of our history, and pretexts to revive differences between left and right.

Each of us, according to our political view, tends to retain only those facts which bolster our opinions. There is some point in looking back into the lives of our forebears and seeing how a few French people, who now belong within one frame simply because of the chance of marriages down the generations, experienced the period. I took such a look at the ancestors of my sons.

One, a nobleman from Montauban, was thrown into prison and later died from the results of his ill-treatment there. As a Protestant, he had been a beneficiary of the Edict of Tolerance signed by Louis XVI in 1787, allowing a degree of freedom of conscience; he became a victim of the intolerance of the champions of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Another, an apprentice tailor from Toulouse who belonged to the illiterate peasantry and whose father could not even sign his name, profited from the circumstances to become a respectable Parisian bourgeois. An ill-fated young woman, married to an officer in the National Guard in Lyon, found herself a widow after her moderate husband had been accused of lacking revolutionary zeal. A Rheims wool merchant was totally ruined and died in despair and want.

We are, in fact, the offspring equally of the victors and the victims of this upheaval, and of some who were both, since revolutions often swallow up their instigators.

But let us try to take a dispassionate look at this formative stage of the French nation. The young American republic, which had just come into being, was the point of reference. The British monarchy watched with mistrust this dangerous uprush of ideas, which had already cost it a rich colony. Louis XVI –who reminds one somewhat of Mikhail Gorbachev - conscious of the inefficiency of the French economic system and short of grain, was in favour of perestroika, a remoulding of the national life. But events overtook him. France went on a completely different road from that followed on the other side of the Atlantic; democracy proved ephemeral and only took root 80 years later. Britain, devastated by the American triumph, benefited from the French hiatus and took France's place as the strong man of Europe.

The French revolutionaries who had inscribed Liberty and Equality on their monuments had not yet adopted Fraternity as one of their slogans. What makes people brothers is the consciousness of a common Father. God's name dominated the American Declaration of Independence: laws were made `in the name of Almighty God'. It was purposely avoided in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: `The principle of sovereignty is vested in the nation,' wrote our ancestors in Article 3. It is in the name of the nation, which they believe they represent in person, that the Robespierres, the Hitlers, the Pol Pots send their fellow citizens to their deaths.

Is democracy possible without reference to the God who makes us brothers, to the Supreme Legislator who is lord of our laws? That is the question which should be raised by the bicentenary of 1789. Is not the secular concept of progress, brought about by the total separation of the political and the spiritual, simply a Utopia? The 20th century is dominated by this concept. The world of Islam - whose true nature is at times masked for us by some fanatical aspects - is strongly questioning it.

At a moment when our young people are dreaming of a more brotherly human society, when China is eager for democracy, when Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to reinject dynamism into his Union and we are looking for harmony in our Community, can we contemplate social progress for the whole planet without realizing that the way to advance is to put God back in his place?

It may be difficult to envisage this divine aspect being taken into account in international, economic and social relations - although why not? - but it is clear where it is needed in the conscience of those who are called to lead their countrymen along the road of a practical brotherhood. The future of the planet will depend on their spiritual reference points. If they have none, we will believe we are making progress but will in fact stray into Utopia - a word from the Greek, meaning `nowhere'.

Andre Malraux, doubtless aware of the dangers to the human race of our global tensions, summarized this paradox: `The 21st century will be religious or it will be nonexistent.'

Michel J Sentis is a French writer. His book (with Charles Piguet) 'Ce Monde que Dieu nous con tie' has been published in English as `The World at the Turning'.