The French Revolution: Too close to home
by Teodoro C. Benigno

Philippine Star 13 July 2001



The world lives by symbols, by the magic power of myths and mythology. And so, tomorrow, the 14th of July, we harken again to what happened 212 years ago when liberty � however tentative, incomplete and inconclusive � was born. I can no longer remember how often and how copiously I have written about this event. For the seizure of the Bastille has long lodged in me like a spiritual-philosophical fortress well before I was a student in Paris in the years 1964-69.

Libert�, egalit�, fraternit�. How often does one invoke that Triad in times of social stress and turbulence!

But writing today about the 14th of July, I think the seizure of that once forbidding prison fortress, the Bastille, is markedly different. In fact, it gives one the heebie-jeebies. We still feel the tremors of May 1, 2001, when 50,000 poor Filipinos sought unwittingly to duplicate what happened 212 years ago in Paris by laying siege on Malaca�ang. the siege failed because it had no ideological leadership, no Roberspierre, no Marat, no Danton, no inspired and eloquent Jacobins who spread their revolutionary fever all over France.

But we remain in fear because conditions in Paris and France then and Metro Manila and the Philippines today have a piercing, haunting, gripping similarity. The Catholic Church then, as it has now in our country, dismally failed to rescue the majority of the population from poverty. The French Revolution attacked both the religious and secular groups of the existing social order, narrates Will Durant (The Story of Civilization). "It attacked both the monarchy (read, the Philippine elite) and the Church. And undertook the double task of removing both the religious and secular props of the existing order. Is it any wonder that for a decade, France went mad?"

The peasantry became a revolutionary force, Durant writes again.

"They assembled, exchanged complaints and vows, armed themselves, attacked the chateaux, burned the homes of unyielding seigneurs and destroyed the manorial rolls which were quoted as sanctioning the feudal dues. It was that direct action, threatening a nationwide destruction of seigneurial property, that frightened the nobles into surrendering their feudal privileges (August 4, 1789) and so bringing a legal end to the Old Regime." Here, how do we frighten our politicians, our seigneurs in Makati and elsewhere, into giving up their privileges? When do our peasants march?

The workers too, the proletariat, rose in equal ferocity. The bread shortages, which struck more than half of the Paris population, led to street riots. This raised "the fever of a people to a point where they were willing to risk their lives in defying the army and attacking the Bastille". This makes you shiver. Already, a clutch of labor unions are up in arms against the GMA administration, as prices soar, unemployment spreads. We hear of families selling wedding rings, and other modest heirlooms to keep alive and survive, enable some � not all � children to remain in school, nourish them however pitifully. Already, many of our children have sold their virtue to pedophiles.

And when that is depleted, what happens? Just the thought makes you shiver as many middle-class Filipinos migrate to the US and Canada. And so do multinationals switch to other countries, while hundreds of local firms declare bankruptcy and close down. With prices up and wages down, a clutch of labor unions threaten a nationwide strike. The familied Filipino worker just cannot survive on a minimum daily wage of P250.

But the centerpiece of the French Revolution was the bourgeoisie, the middle class (in our case, People Power II). The Revolution was due, according to Durant, not to the patient poverty of peasants but to the endangered wealth of the middle class. "Fundamental was the growth of the middle classes in number, education, ambition, wealth, and economic power; their demand for a political and social status commensurate with their contribution to the life of the nation and the finances of the state."

Back home, it is the same. The middle class is in a pressure cooker between an elite that seeks to perpetrate its social, economic and political imperium (big business and the political system) and the ignorance of the masses that paid homage to fallen and disgraced president Joseph Estrada.

Hunger. I have always warned about this. Painful, excruciating, unbearable hunger that comes as the economy bleeds very badly. Hunger that could ignite revolts, or expeditions to the gated and luxurious subdivisions of the rich. Hunger due not only to local conditions but an economic crisis is sweeping the US, Japan and Europe, and wreaking havoc on our near prostrate population. By this time, our rich should be massively distributing relief goods among the poor, but they are insolent and arrogant and they don�t care. Well, they could reap the whirlwind.

In 1781, the Marquis de Giradin had predicted, "Hunger alone will cause this great revolution." Oh yes, in less than seven years, "the dikes of law and custom and piety broke, and the Revolution began."

Our politicians continue to maneuver and wrangle, interested only in what�s in it for them, deals, committee chairmanships, yes seigneurial privileges, talking the same old language of pelf and privilege, unknowing or probably unheeding that the galloping herd is probably not so far away, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, of course, is not to blame for all this. She comes at a time when the Republican furniture begins to shake and rattle, when the horses neigh and their hooves fly in the night, when the dogs bark loudly and the cows moo and the black cats scurry from corner to corner, their eyes piercing in the dark.

We don�t have a Louis XVI and a Marie Antoinette. Something close to that maybe in Joseph Estrada, Loi Ejercito and his many mistresses and a court in Malaca�ang that was hopelessly sordid and corrupt. We don�t have the Petit Trianon, the playground of Marie Antoinette at Versailles. But we still have the mistresses� mansions, where a sybaritic president could lay his women in wall-to-wall splendor.

We have a different nobility here. The nobility of money, riches and pomp. They had at least in France titled nobilities which, in their time, served purposes before the nation rolled recklessly into the modern age, and when the Virtue and the Terror of the Revolution abated, you had the Thermidor and then, voila � Napoleon Bonaparte.

There was the proudest nobility of all, the nobility of the sword (noblesse d�epee), at its pinnacle during the reign of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV. There was the nobility of race (noblesse de race) which went all the way back to the Germanic Franks who had subjugated Gaul in the 15th century. Then there was the nobility of the gown (noblesse de robe), four thousand families all "whose heads had been appointed to judicial or administrative posts that automatically endowed their owners with nobility."

Such was the imperious hauteur of this nobility that Mme. Manon Roland, highly educated, refined and accomplished, a lady for the world, when invited by a titled lady, "was asked to eat with the servants there instead of sitting at the table with the noble guests." When she raised a cry of protest, "that cry went to the hearts of the middle class." And so the bourgeoisie raised their banner in defiance with their revolutionary motto: Libert�, egalit�, fraternit�.

Again the similarities. The year 1788 was "marked by merciless Acts of God." A "severe drought stunted crops. A hailstorm . . . devastated 180 miles of usually fertile terrain." Here, we have the eruption of Mayon volcano, the devastation wrought by ongoing typhoons led by Feria where for the first time, even Baguio City was flooded. We have what Louis XVI didn�t have, the unexampled brigands of Abu Sayyaf which continues to hold down a whole army.

Inevitably, all these horrors led to the seizure of the Bastille.

Here again, illusion and reality clashed with tragi-comic consequences. A Paris crowd had invaded the Hotel des Invalides, seized 28,000 muskets, but needed more ammunition which they thought was concealed in the vaults of the Bastille, widely perceived by the populace as a notorious dungeon "holding the victims of a brutal despotism." It turned out, after a successful assault on the Bastille, there were only seven prisoners, one of them a raving lunatic.

But as a symbol of an oppressive monarchy, nothing could beat the Bastille. When Louis XVI learned of the fall of the Bastille, he knew the jig was up and sought to escape with Marie Antoinette in disguise. And so the Fall of the Bastille remains one of the greatest epics in history, a sword clash at an unending horizon where the bravest of men march in quest of liberty. Because of the French Revolution and with it the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, "liberty became an explicit factor in world affairs and in history," according to historian Fernand Braudel.

Filipinos have tinkered with liberty too long and not achieved it.

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