France today celebrates its
National Day, the 217th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille.
Despite the lapse of time, the French Revolution still divides opinion
today; in many countries, “left” and “right” can be quickly identified
by whether they are for or against it. (The method would probably work
here, if only Australians were taught enough history to understand the
question.)

In France itself, attitudes to the revolution largely
defined politics for another century and a half. But the
anti-revolutionary right discredited itself during World War II by its
collaboration with the Nazis, and General De Gaulle was able to build a
new centre-right political movement that accepted the legacy of the
revolution and the country’s republican institutions.

This will
be the last Bastille Day presided over by Jacques Chirac, loyal
Gaullist and president since 1995. Presidential terms have been reduced
from seven years to five (in an effort to align them with the national
assembly), so his second term ends next year, and although Chirac is
not prohibited from seeking a third term, it is universally expected
that the standard-bearer for his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)
will be interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Chirac and Sarkozy
have not always been on good terms. Two years ago, Sarkozy deliberately
announced his intention to run for UMP president on 12 July, stealing
attention from Chirac’s Bastille Day address. Chirac responded by
describing the relationship between them as “I decide, he executes”,
and forcing Sarkozy to give up his ministerial post in order to take
the party position.

But Sarkozy returned to the ministry in June
last year, and since then Chirac seems to have reconciled himself to
his rival’s growing ascendancy. And Sarkozy is trying to present the
centre-right as a united front; as Le Monde reports, he is launching his new book (Temoignage,
or “Testimony”) next Monday so as not to pre-empt Chirac’s day in the
spotlight today. “I often speak with M Chirac”, he said. “There is no
longer any tension between us.”

So despite the problems that
have plagued Chirac’s second term, the UMP seems to have stolen a march
on the opposition Socialist Party. (The Socialists will not select a
presidential candidate until November, with current front-runner
Segolene Royal still facing strong opposition.) But whichever side wins
next year, the republican tradition will continue; in a world where far
too many mainstream parties are flirting with the extreme right, that’s
something France is entitled to celebrate.

Peter Fray

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