Nepali Times Asian Paints
State Of The State
Napoleon to neo-Mao


PARIS-Bastille Day commemorates the storming of a Paris prison on 14 July 1789 that marked the beginning of the French Revolution. These days, the anniversary is about pomp with a military parade down the Champs-Elysees and fireworks over the Paris skyline. The guest of honour this year was UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, with the Blue Helmets leading the parade that included Nepali peacekeepers.

France today has a practical rather than idealistic approach towards foreign policy. Sustained by a subsidy on baguette and other services, the bourgeoisie can concentrate on the arts, commerce and statecraft. It wasn't always like this. French history has swung wildly between left and right until it found its equilibrium in the Fifth Republic.

'The French peasant was a Bonapartist,' wrote Marx about mid-19th century upheavals. Present day France has given successors of that peasantry a very strong presidency. But the French are also very proud of the Revolution and the French Commune, and have a strong tradition of street demonstration and powerful local governments.

Marx eulogised the uprising but thought it was not resolute enough to last. Lenin concluded that the leniency that revolutionaries showed towards the traditional elite led to its downfall. Mao considered the event as a first historical step towards the culture of revolution.

Like communists everywhere, Nepal's neo-Maoists also talk about the Paris Commune with watery eyes. But they are all foreigners to a majority of modern French. For Parisians at least, the Commune, like the Revolution or the Restoration earlier, were merely historic surges that purged the society of rotten elements and made it stronger.

A holistic sense of history perhaps explains the popularity of museums, castles, gardens, art galleries, concerts, operas and theatres. In the cafés the talk is about taxes and divorces, global warming and France's bloated army. Despite his glamorously distracting wife, President Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have his ears to the ground. He plans to cut the army by 40,000 and promises to convince the EU to reduce VAT.

The Maobadis want a French style republic so that Pushpa Kamal Dahal can be its president. That would require the Nepali middle class to reach critical mass. There is no fail-proof prescription for ensuring a vibrant bourgeoisie, but refraining from threatening those who champion fundamental freedoms would help. That essentially is the main lesson of the French Revolution: extremes of extravagance and scarcity breed instability that in turn leads to a faster cycle of revolutions.

But maybe that is the gist of history everywhere, and the French seem to have learnt their history well. The French court whichever regime they think will serve its national interest, and that could be why the level of French engagement in Nepal is so low: they don't need to buy anything from us and we can't afford to pay for what they sell. Bilateral relations over 50 years has been sustained by French mountaineers and intellectuals. Tibet has remained a favourite concern because of domestic public opinion. Unlike Anglo-American market-led economies, France is more state centric.

But the commercial class is influential, often trade unions and owners work in tandem to protect their interests. The world's most comprehensive social security system couldn't survive without collaboration between capital and labour. It is the bourgeoisie that binds these supposedly antagonistic classes together through the manufacture of innovation and a marketplace of ideas in a vibrant democracy.

Perhaps our Maoists, who idolise the French so much, could pick a lesson or two from France's history. That way they can skip the two centuries of turmoil, war and confusion that followed the French Revolution and model Nepal after the cohesive, egalitarian and pragmatic state that France is today.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)