Global Geopolitics

The history of Bastille Day has a lesson for today’s politics

Today France celebrates its Bastille Day, the unity of the French people day, marking the storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789 the generally accepted start of the French Revolution.

I believe that Bastille day and the ensuing French Revolution give us a potential path for the populism politics of today. As History.com puts it, the French Revolution “played a critical role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people”.  (source: History.com)

The ‘will of the people’ has been very evident in voting around the world over the past year. The UK Brexit vote, the elections of Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron saw the ‘will of the people’ lead to major political shocks in the UK, USA and France.

However, a reshaping of politics that is effective in bringing the changes that the common man yearns for can take many years. Bastille Day was only the beginning not the end of the French Revolution. Indeed, it wasn’t until ten years later, on November 9 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup and appointed himself France’s “first counsul” that the French Revolution was complete and some sense of prolonged order was brought to the country.

In those ten years, France suffered numerous purges. One would have thought that the National Assembly’s adoption of a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen) in August 1789 would have cemented the revolution into something tangible, with a blueprint of aspirations to bring the country together. However previous structures of control and influence vested in royalty, the church and others brought significant conflict to France. Various purges of different groups took place with the guillotine in heavy use between 1792-1794.

So what we should learn from Bastille Day in respect of today’s modern world? Firstly, that the recent geopolitical shifts in the western world are the likely start, not the end of a potentially major resetting of the will of the people. Secondly, many of today’s global political leaders are very unlikely to be the long-term answer to the aspirations of the masses. Thirdly, it is more likely that global politics goes through many phases before people feel that political leadership is meeting their needs.

To my mind today few world leaders are answering the true underlying problem in the world today. What people seek, as they did back in the French Revolution, is fairness, a fair distribution of wealth and income. One internationally accepted measure of the fairness of income distribution is the GINI coefficient. The higher a country’s GINI coefficient, the greater the lack of income distribution. A rating of zero is a totally egalitarian economy, and a ranking of 100% is a perfectly unequal society/economy. The World Bank’s latest report on the GINI coefficient shows a significant rise in the global GINI coefficient from 48.8% in 2010 to 65.5% in 2016 indicating rising inequality around the world.

However, there are few signs that the current group of global leaders are going to address the issue of inequality. President Trump’s proposed tax policies in some respects only reinforce the lack of wealth and income distribution in the United States. Emmanuel Macron has not put income and wealth redistribution front and centre of his policies. And the Brexit issue was more of a protest than the start of a path to less inequality. Interestingly though that the subsequent strong showing of “Leftie” Jeremy Corbyn in the UK general election is probably the first sign of significant support for more socialist policies.

So France will today celebrate the symbolism of Bastille Day. Global political leaders should reflect on the parallels between the world at that time and today’s world where there is evident inequality. Nobody wants to see years of political turmoil. But until politicians truly reflect on ‘the will of the people’ and bring policies that bring radical change we will have to be prepared for future

This article was attributed and provided by PG International

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