Marianne in Tunisia

How Delacroix's famous painting explains the troubled North African revolution.


On Feb. 7, Marianne, France’s celebrated symbol of liberty, dodged a bullet — or, rather, a black marker. At an extension of the Louvre in the northern French city of Lens, a visitor scrawled a cryptic message on the bottom part of Eugène Delacroix’s iconic painting, Liberty Leading the People. Most commentators have since busied themselves with parsing the words — a blurb, seemingly, for 9/11 truthers — which, happily, museum officials have already erased.

What cannot be obscured or erased, though, is the message of Delacroix’s masterpiece. Marianne was attacked at the very moment liberty is defending itself in one of France’s former colonies, Tunisia. While the occurrence of these events is accidental, there is an essential tie between the events behind Delacroix’s painting and Tunisia’s current turmoil — one that gives new meaning to the riots that followed the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a leading critic of the ruling Islamist party.

Delacroix’s portrait of Marianne — fierce, bare-breasted, and armed with a French tricolor flag and musket, leading a group of revolutionaries over a barricade of fallen bodies — resonates across French culture. Before France converted to the euro, the painting adorned the 100-franc bill, Marianne’s head was affixed to the country’s coins and stamps, and Frédéric Bartholdi modeled the Statue of Liberty after Delacroix’s muse. The band Coldplay even reproduced the painting on the cover of a recent album (with a very different message written across it). Perhaps more so than any other work of art, Liberty Leading the People crystallizes both a specific moment in history and a universal insight into human nature.

Of course, economic distress helped trigger the "July days" of 1830: The price of bread and levels of unemployment were intolerably high. This was the case not just for artisans and laborers, but also for those with professional diplomas. A glance at Delacroix’s epic tableau reflects this brute fact: Flanking Marianne are artisans, workers, and students who, though hailing from different social classes — the bourgeois wearing a top hat and tie, the workers sporting floppy berets — share flourishing youth and withering job prospects.

So too Tunisia, along with its neighbors in the Maghreb, staggers under the weight of a so-called "youth bulge." In 2011, urban and rural youth joined to overthrow the kleptocracy of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime and now are challenging the Ennahda-led government’s incompetence in economic affairs. Officially, unemployment fluctuates around 20 percent for the male population and skyrockets to 33 percent for those with university diplomas. While the situation is already desperate along the developed coastal region, it worsens in the interior (an economic asymmetry that dates from the colonial era under France). In the town of Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself and the country aflame in 2010, the unemployment rate among university graduates now hovers at a mind-numbing 50 percent.

In Restoration Paris, the workers and artisans were certainly fighting for liberty from job insecurity and food scarcity. But was that all? The vast majority of those men wounded during the revolutionary days of 1830, asked the reason for their engagement, replied simply: "La liberté." The barricades represented the struggle for liberty from political and religious oppression and the right to be recognized and represented in the public and political spheres. As noted historian David Pinkney concludes in his landmark study of the 1830 revolution, the "eighteenth century values of liberty, equality and fraternity" trumped "economic distress" in the unfolding of events. These young revolutionaries held the deep, widespread conviction that the mother of revolutions, 1789, far from ending with Napoleon or the Bourbons, had only just begun.

So too with Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. During the last days of Ben Ali’s regime, protesters in Tunis held high baguettes, not weapons. Many foreign commentators immediately concluded that the demonstrators were protesting high food prices, but as Julia Clancy-Smith notes, the brandished baguettes meant something else entirely: The people would not be bought off by Ben Ali’s frantic promises to create thousands of jobs. Bread, yes, but a threat as well as a demand: the protestors were in effect saying that they would eat only bread as long as liberty was denied. This is, moreover, a demand aimed at all the political parties and not just Ennahda. As one Tunisian student recently warned in Le Monde: "It is high time to begin a second revolution in our way of thinking. Rather than waiting for change, we the young must create it."

This youthful urgency, in France then and Tunisia now, results largely from the confrontation between secular and religious forces. In Delacroix’s painting, rising above the smoke and confusion of the street, are the towers of Notre Dame cathedral. Fluttering above them is the French tricolor flag, marking the ascendancy of republican over religious values. Ever since 1789, tensions in France between the Catholic Church and secular society had deepened, breeding extremists in both camps. The so-called ultras, the moniker adopted by the militant Catholics who controlled the Chamber of Deputies, spurred popular resentment in their effort to impose their faith: the Chevaliers of the Faith, who sought, in the words of their leading intellectual, Louis de Bonald, to substitute the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen with the Declaration of the Rights of God. Aligned with fanatical groups busily erecting crosses and burning books, the ultras passed a notorious law that prescribed the death penalty for acts of sacrilege.

Although the eras and religions differ, the fear of modernity and the repudiation of politics shown by the ultras in France and Salafists in Tunisia are all too similar. While the term Salafi covers a vast mosaic of groups and a great variety of Quranic interpretations across the Muslim world, the most violent and anti-democratic movements in Tunisia have embraced the term. Just as the Chevaliers of the Faith and the French ultras dismissed secular political parties as a pestilence, so too do Salafists look with a jaundiced eye at Tunisia’s secular political parties. In fact, the Salafists pose a peril to any effort by moderates within Ennahda to seek popular support. Belaid, the assassinated critic, had repeatedly warned against the rise of religious violence orchestrated by the Salafists — and abetted, if only through its silence, by the ruling Ennahda.

Marianne has particular resonance too for Tunisian women, who are especially alive to the threat presented by the Salafi movement. Of course, no more in 1830 than in 2013 were there bare-breasted women brandishing rifles and leading workers and students against the forces of reaction. Yet with Marianne, Delacroix created a figure that is at once thoroughly mythic and strikingly real. Marianne embodies not just the form of ancient Greek models — Winged Victory of Samothrace is perhaps the most powerful inspiration — but also channels the many instances of (fully clothed) women in the streets who helped the wounded and hauled paving stones to the barricades. In fact, Delacroix was in part inspired by the contemporary account of Marie Deschamps, who took her fallen brother’s place on a Parisian barricade. Tunisian women have acted with similar courage. There is the example of Khaoula Rachidi, a university student in Tunis beaten by Salafists when she tried to prevent them from replacing the Tunisian flag with the black Salafi banner on her campus, and that of Besma Khalfaoui, the wife of Belaid, who declared that her husband’s assassination "gives us reason to hope" — hope, of course, that those who believed the revolution did not need to be defended will now wake up.

Ever since the series of seismic events called the Arab Spring began in 2011, participants and observers have repeatedly cited 1789 or 1848 as historical comparisons. But Delacroix’s tableau suggests that the overlooked revolution of 1830 perhaps most sharply anticipates Tunisia’s current situation. The larger-than-life figures in Liberty Leading the People resemble the larger-than-life young men and women on the streets of Tunis who, following Belaid’s assassination, are resisting the efforts to derail what their earlier revolution began. The Salafists have replaced the ultras, and militant Islam has taken over from fanatical Catholicism; at the same time, the red-and-white flag of republican Tunisia flies over the crowds rather than the tricolor of republican France, and it is not just young men, but also young women who in claiming the streets have claimed their liberty. They are not wearing the Phrygian cap, that potent symbol of the revolution atop Marianne’s flowing hair. But they are also not wearing headscarves — no less a potent symbol, if only by its absence, in a country where the forces of religious extremism are attempting to impose not just the veil, but also the niqab.

Of course, the "three glorious days" of July 1830 did not lead to a republic, but to another monarchy, one that nevertheless distanced itself from Catholicism — it was no longer the country’s official religion — and shaped a nation ruled by enlightened law, not religious dogma. And Tunisia? There isn’t a king waiting in the wings to assume power. But many Tunisians fear that Rached Ghannouchi, the charismatic leader of Ennahda, dreams of establishing a theocratic autocracy. Just this week, the magazine Jeune Afrique warned, in an editorial titled "Ghannouchi Unmasked," that the leader aspires to create an "Islamic dictatorship." The failure of Prime Minister Hamad Debali, a member of Ennahda, to persuade his own part to retire from the government and be replaced by technocrats sealed his resignation on Tuesday, Feb. 19 — and will only deepen popular suspicions over Ghannouchi’s aims.

Given these doubts, Ghannouchi might recall the strange life of Liberty Leading the People. In the crackdown that followed a wave of popular unrest in 1832, King Louis-Philippe’s regime removed the painting from the Luxembourg Palace: It was, clearly, too explosive to be kept in a public place. It remained hidden until 1848, when King Louis-Philippe was in turn overthrown and the Second Republic was born. Delacroix’s painting should remind us that while regimes can run from liberty, they cannot hide from it. Or, for that matter, keep it hidden.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of the forthcoming book Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.


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