On Saturday, I visited Chartres and stood in awe inside its cathedral. I was as stunned by its splendour as I was by the knowledge that men once wanted to blow the cathedral sky high. The Revolutionary Committee was only prevented from carrying out its wish in 1793 by a local architect who warned that removing all the rubble would be a complicated task. So instead they stripped the cathedral of its metal and burned the peat wood sculpture of the black Madonna. The cultural sacrilege of the late-eighteenth century has returned to France in the shape of the Yellow Vest mob, many of whom share the Revolutionaries’ hatred of their country and its traditions.
The real Yellow Vests, the ones who last winter staged peaceful protests throughout France, have deserted the movement this year. Some because they accepted the concessions made by Emmanuel Macron; others because they saw how their movement had been commandeered by a venomous coalition of anti-capitalists, anti-Semites and anarchists.
This ragtag army ran riot in Paris on Saturday, sacking shops, torching cars and battling police. Some desecrated a statue of Maréchal Alphonse Juin, a military hero of the First and Second World Wars. It was a repeat of the cultural vandalism of December last year when a mob stormed the Arc de Triomphe and smashed up artefacts and hacked down statues.
At the time, the minister of public action and accounts Gérald Darmanin likened Yellow Vests to the ‘brown plague’, the nickname of the Nazi Brownshirts of the 1930s, implying there was a far-right element to the movement. He should have walked the streets of Paris the day after, as I did, and read the far-left invective daubed on walls and shop windows to better understand the ideology of the rioters. Darmanin is not alone among western politicians in believing fascism can come only from the right; but the prevalent fascism of the 21st century arguably comes from the left, from people who use physical and intellectual intimidation to silence their opponents.
The fascists within the Yellow Vest movement are united by a hatred of the West, capitalism and Jews (the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut had the misfortune of encountering some Yellow Vests in February and received a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse from one protester linked to radical Islam). They don’t just want to bring down the Macron government, they want to destroy France and everything it represents in its current guise, as their ancestors did in the 1790s.
Central to the Revolutionaries’ strategy of creating a new France in the 1790s was the ‘Dechristinazation’ of the country. They destroyed roadside shrines, tore down religious statues, closed or razed churches, removed any Christian link to place names and issued a new Revolutionary calendar that dispensed with religious influences. They also banned words, forbidding the use of ‘Madame’ and Monsieur’ in favour of ‘citizen’. This is not dissimilar from today’s radical feminists, who want to restructure the French language to make it gender-neutral.
One shocked eye-witness to the ‘Terreur’ described to her sister how, in Auxerre, ‘nothing escaped their rage, they showed no respect for the antiquity of the monuments; the most touching images served only to stir up their rage’.
The Revolutionaries were disgusted by their country’s roots, as is a section of the French left today, such as the anarchists in Grenoble who in January burned down a church, and the French wing of Antifa who celebrated the fire in Notre-Dame this year by declaring:
‘The only church that illuminates is the one that burns’.
As in Britain, in France there is a moral vacuum at the heart of the left. Unsure of what it stands for and who it represents, the lack of leadership has led to the resurrection of the violent, iconoclastic and intolerant mob rule of the Revolutionaries, waging a new form of ‘terreur’.
Last week, a rabble of anti-capitalists stormed the faculty of law at Lille university, where former president François Hollande was scheduled to promote his new book. Opposed to the presence of a man they regard as a turncoat, the vandals destroyed 450 copies of the book to the distress of the bookstore that helped organise the event. ‘I didn’t expect to witness in France in 2019 the destruction of books,’ said the shocked manager. ‘How can one continue to work in a bookstore if it’s no longer possible to talk to those we abhor? Democracy is built on exchange.’
For some of the far-left in France, democracy deserves only to be destroyed, along with the books and the statues.