12:00 AM, Jul 7, 1997 • By DAVID FRUM
A Victorian Englishman went to his local library looking for a copy of the French Constitution; "I'm sorry sir," the librarian replied, "but we don't carry periodical literature." A creaky joke, but the British had reason to laugh. In the century after the 1789 revolution, France adopted a dozen new constitutions: in 1790, 1792, 1793 (never put into effect), 1795, 1799, 1804, 1814, 1815 (also never put into effect), 1830, 1848, 1852, and 1875.
And it wasn't as if the French behaved themselves in between overthrowing regimes. The monarchy of King Louis Philippe lasted 18 years, from 1830 to 1848, but it was punctuated by two important Paris insurrections -- one in 1832 and another in 1834 -- and eight assassination attempts on the monarch. Napoleon III ruled for 19 years, and survived six assaults, one of which killed eight and wounded 150. Before the Third Republic could establish itself after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, it ferociously crushed a dissident "Commune" government organized by Paris radicals. Altogether, 60,000 or more Frenchmen perished in internecine fighting between 1814 and 1871.
The English-speaking countries have never known anything like this sort of turmoil. The last break in the continuity of British government came in 1688. And while American history has certainly been stained with violence, the United States too has seldom gone in for radical legal or constitutional upheavals: Only in 1865, and then only in part of the country, have Americans ever suffered anything like the total collapse in state authority that the French have lived through once or twice in every generation.
The French seem in recent years to have grown embarrassed by their bloody history. Back in 1950, the revolutions and counterrevolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries could still be romanticized; these were bourgeois revolts that gave way to premature proletarian uprisings, and were then followed by temporarily successful but ultimately futile attempts to reimpose a bourgeois order. Without Marxism to infuse world-historical meaning into slaughter, all too many French writers prefer to avert their eyes from the disorder in the city streets and study instead the changeless rhythms of life in the countryside.
But if the French revolutions of the 19th century have less to say to the French of today than they once did, perhaps they have more to say to those of us in the English-speaking world. It may be that the question that has long interested English-speaking historians of France -- Why have our societies been so stable when theirs has not? -- should now begin to give way to a new, less flattering question: What does the instability in France's past tell us about the instability that may lie in our future?
Robert Tombs, a professor of history at Cambridge University, puts the problem of instability at the very top of his list of concerns in his new account of 19th-century France. In 1789, the French had discovered that it was possible for a society to capsize itself, shatter its old institutions, and invent entirely new institutions, removing its old elites and creating new ones. Tombs observes that "the sudden violent remaking of society was a new concept of politics. It upset old certainties, reversed relationships of power and intruded into every aspect of life." The French were not able to recover their balance for decades afterward. The French mistrusted one another; so fantastically mistrusted one another that they were capable of believing even the most lurid horror stories about their internecine enemies. "Conspiracy theories," Tombs writes, "perpetuated 'the language of civil war' in politics. They portrayed not a society pluralistically divided by legitimate beliefs and interests, but a 'binary divide' between a united, patriotic and wholly legitimate 'us,' and a diverse unholy alliance of traitors and criminals 'them.' The struggle was dramatized into a historic battle for the soul of France and the future of the world."