Du Côté de Chez Madame Defarge

Du Côté de Chez Madame Defarge

These days, even London and Paris seem a bit like North Korea.



“This is France, not North Korea,” snarled a bland-looking Frenchman after I’d pointed out that we were in the rather dingy non-smoking section of Le Sancerre, a modest little brasserie in the Marais. Still, he put down his lighter and Marlboros. Since I was a three-pack-a-day man until I went cold turkey on my fortieth birthday, I could feel his rage. An hour later I was in the Conciergerie and transported back to the heyday of the Committee of Public Safety, when the status of France, in the eyes of its enemies across the Channel and the Rhine, made the land of Kim Jong Il look as tame as the Democrats in Congress in Year Seven of Bush time.

The Conciergerie is at the west end of the Île de la Cité, where the cathedral of Notre Dame stands. Part of the Palais de Justice, it is most famously where suspects were taken during the French Revolution. In the early years following the fall of the Bastille in 1789, you had a sporting chance of walking out of the Conciergerie with head and shoulders still connected. A notice on the stone wall next to a bust of Robespierre said that in the Revolution’s first year only a third of the accused were found guilty. The place really picked up after the establishment in the spring of 1793 of the Revolutionary Tribunal and the installation of public prosecutor Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, who bustled well over a thousand into eternal sleep (“Death is nothing but eternal sleep” was posted in all cemeteries in the Revolutionary period), including Marie Antoinette, Danton, Hébert and Robespierre, before the blade fell on his own neck in May 1795.

These days the Disneyfication of historical sites proceeds in lockstep with the construction of those worldwide boondoggles par excellence, “visitor centers” and “heritage” facilities. Not so in the Conciergerie, a heavy place. You can imagine being hauled in, dumped in a cell along with a passel of vicomtes and ducs, given your minute in court and not long thereafter taken to the door–there it was right in front of my nose–behind which was a horse harnessed to the tumbrel, with Madame Defarge and her knitting crew waiting for you in the front row, where the guillotine stood in what is now the Place de la Concorde, near the Crillon Bar.

It was a cold day in Brumaire when I visited the Conciergerie, and shortly thereafter the Métro train I was riding on went through a station called Guy Môquet. At one end of the platform there were vases of flowers forming a little shrine to young Môquet, the 17-year-old member of a group of twenty-seven Communists in the French Resistance who were shot by the Nazis on October 22, 1941, as reprisal for the killing of a senior German officer. Before he was shot Môquet wrote a famous letter to his parents and brother, saying he was ready to die, having “done my best to follow the way that you have laid out for me” (his father was a Communist deputy) and concluding, “I…kiss you with all this child’s heart of mine. Be brave!”

Since his death Môquet has been prominent in the martyrology of the Resistance. This October President Sarkozy said Môquet’s last letter should be read in every school on October 22 as a way of reminding youth of high ideals. Leftist teachers and old Communists reacted harshly, saying Sarkozy was an opportunist and a hypocrite, and how did this fit with his schemes to curb immigration? Sarkozy canceled plans to attend a reading of Môquet’s letter at a school. Who knows what his real motives were? He says he chokes up every time he reads the letter, and maybe he does. His wife was about to leave him, and maybe he was trying to change the subject in advance.

Force any young person to listen to an uplifting letter once a year and you reap negation. If Sarkozy had wanted to finish off the memory of Môquet, this was the way to do it. If he’d signed a law saying any minor caught mentioning Môquet’s name would be shot, he’d have perpetuated young Guy’s glory for decades to come.

The moral: let people think for themselves. When Enlightened Public Opinion required that Nobel Prize-winning geneticist James Watson’s lecture at the Science Museum in London be canceled, no one spoke up on behalf of the prospective capacity of the audience to say their collective intelligence was acute enough to withstand Watson’s views on the different results obtained by Africans in IQ tests. No one pointed out the obvious–it seems such to me–which is that these IQ tests are devised by white Protestants. The answer should be to have Africans devise tests based on their cultural assumptions.

It’s easy enough to adopt a high moral tone about a 79-year-old espouser of nutball eugenics, but it’s another matter to take a whack at IQ tests, which were devised by upper-class eugenics fanatics at the start of the twentieth century. Le Monde ran a high-minded piece on “The Temptation of Race” by Stéphane Foucart on October 30 claiming that it was only with the advent of “science” that we learned that “humanity is one big family.” Such nonsense. It was with the rise of the “scientific method” that we got the skull measurers and the IQ testers and the genetic mountebanks telling us that various bits of humanity were trash. Sarkozy wants DNA tests at the border post.

A few days after the Science Museum nixed Watson while insisting that “the Science Museum does not shy away from debating controversial topics,” I stepped onto the Eurostar train to London to attack the cult of anthropogenic global warming at the “Battle of Ideas” conference at the Royal College of Art. I thought for a moment on the Eurostar that the old lady in the next seat, looking a bit like Madame Defarge, was actually Donald Rumsfeld in disguise, fleeing possible arrest and trial as a war criminal. But it seems he fled across the Rhine. In London the organizers told me the Gore groupies had, without success, tried to get the RCA to ban the Battlers. These days, North Korea is everywhere.

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