PARIS — Most foreigners believe that the French Revolution has a glorious image in France. After all, July 14, the anniversary of the revolutionary storming of the Bastille, is France's national day. The revolutionary "Marseillaise" is the national anthem. And France will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the revolution in 1989.
Yet, as the celebration nears, it is more and more obvious that a large minority of French has trouble embracing the revolution. Some fret over its bloody excesses and accuse generations of teachers and historians of hiding those stark and frightful realities. Some conservatives accuse leftists of exaggerating the place of the revolution in the mythology of France.
"Let's simply be done with the French Revolution," Louis Pauwels, the conservative editor of Le Figaro magazine, wrote in a recent editorial attacking more than a century of glorification.
Such comments make some historians bristle. Even Francois Furet, a historian whose works have been cited to condemn the revolution, said recently: "It's an absurdity. The revolution is the great universal event in the history of France. It is the birth of democracy."
"An American who questioned the legitimacy of the insurrection led by George Washington would be regarded as mentally deranged," wrote Jean-Francois Kahn, editor of the French news weekly L'Evenement du Jeudi. But France, Kahn said, "has no national consensus around the events that created the Declaration of the Rights of Man and wiped out privilege based on noble blood."
Although controversy over the meaning and legacy of the revolution still festers, its mythology remains deeply rooted among the French.
The Bastille is a good example. The fortress, which often housed political prisoners and so became a hated symbol of the monarchy, was demolished after it was seized by the revolutionaries in 1789. Its site, the Place de la Bastille, is an enormous, open traffic circle these days. Parisians hardly ever notice the few stones of the fortress that have been carted away to a tiny park a few blocks away by the Seine River.
Yet the Bastille is still the symbol of protest to the French. Without thinking about it at all, almost all protesters in Paris now stage their demonstrations or begin their marches in the Place de la Bastille. Even conservatives, when they prevented the enactment of the Socialist government's education bill in 1984, mounted their successful mass protest on the site.
Moreover, images of the revolution abound in Paris: the enormous Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine beheaded Louis XVI and 1,118 other prisoners of the revolution; the Conciergerie, where Queen Marie Antoinette was held prisoner before her execution and where patient women knitted the time away while watching prisoners board the carts that would take them to the guillotine; the gardens of the Palais Royal, where orators harangued mobs to rise up against a tyrannical, absolute monarchy. Almost every palace of Paris keeps its reminders of the revolution.
For the bicentennial celebration, French officials promise to complete a new opera house on the Place de la Bastille, dedicate a spectacular architectural cube on the outskirts of Paris to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and sponsor a grand spectacle organized by French electronic jazz musician Jean-Michel Jarre.
Scholars are bracing for rounds of books and seminars on the revolution. Edgar Faure, a 79-year-old former premier who commands widespread respect, heads the official organizing committee.
But plans for a huge world's fair like that of the first centenary in 1889 were dropped several years ago in a squabble between Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and his conservative rival, Mayor Jacques Chirac of Paris.
When Chirac, now premier of France, seemed to drag his feet on the project, Mitterrand abruptly dropped it. The move took Chirac by surprise and made him look stubborn, but some French suspect that neither politician had his heart in lavish celebrations.
1793 Uprising in Vendee
In their search for symbols to counter those of the revolution, many critics have latched on to the Vendee, a western region that lies between the Loire Valley and the Atlantic coast. The Vendee, in their view, reflects all that went wrong with the French Revolution. Historians, trying to lay the revolution bare, have been delving deeply into the terrifying and depressing story of the Vendee.
In 1793, the peasants of the Vendee joined some fiery aristocrats in an uprising against the leaders of the French Revolution in Paris. The Vendeans resented the revolution's laws attacking the Roman Catholic clergy, chafed under endless fiats from Paris and finally rebelled over a call from Paris for conscription of tens of thousands of men into the army. It was not the only counterrevolutionary uprising in France in those days, but it was probably the most significant.