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Rejecting Rue de Robespierre
Parisian councillors have guillotined a plan to name a street in France's capital after the revolutionary leader
guardian.co.uk Saturday 3 October 2009 15.00 BST
There was a time when the announcement would have made headlines all over the world. Instead, it was relegated to a little side column in Libération but the news still came as a kick in the teeth for history-minded Parisians.
By a narrow majority, the city council rejected a proposal to name a square or street "Robespierre".
Yes, Robespierre: a hero of the revolution for some, a bloodthirsty dictator and terrorist for others. Indeed, it is in the streets of Paris of the year 1793 and 1794, during the Reign of Terror, that the later term "terrorist" originates.
But it is strange that Paris, the former red capital of France, should be so timid and not give its due to a central (if questionable) figure of the revolution. The French towns of St Etienne, Brest, Arras, Marseille, Belfort, Aubagne, Quimper, St Dizier and Alès all have a street, impasse, square or boulevard named after Robespierre.
Of course, Robespierre has always been the most divisive figure of the French revolution. I can recall epic conversations with my Gaullist father who loathed Robespierre and Napoleon in equal measure. And those across the Channel who have been fed Edmund Burke's views of the French events usually have nothing but profound disgust for the man and probably put him in the same bag as Stalin and Pol Pot. The difference, of course, is that Robespierre may be partly responsible for about 3,000 deaths by the guillotine, but the victims of Stalin and Pol Pot's run into millions.
I would agree with Clémenceau who once said that "the revolution is made of one block" " one cannot simply pick and choose among its heroes and events. In other words, you either accept the revolution and its heritage or you don't.
Robespierre, for better and for worse, is part of this heritage and shouldn't be put aside simply because he is a less palatable figure than, say, Danton or Lafayette.
What this affair really reveals is a profound divergence in the historiography of the French revolution. Your views will depend on whether you learned your history from the works of Albert Soboul or François Furet (unless, of course, you studied both).
The bicentenary of the French revolution in 1989, a few months before the fall of the Berlin wall and the Romanian revolution, saw an attempt at reconciliation between those two schools of thought " one which, at the time, provided for future history students like me a much-appreciated intellectual truce. Today, that truce enables me to wish for a Robespierre Street in Paris, in the name of history, rather than for the sake of Marxist ideology.
Is there a Jacobite street in France?