“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”
That is how British author Charles Dickens begins his famous novel “A Tale of Two Cities,” about the turmoil and bloody violence before and during the French Revolution. The plot and characters span the English Channel, which separates Britain from France, and the rest of Europe, then and now.
The book, published in 1859, can strike modern readers as melodramatic. However, developments in the plot directly address current conflicts and tensions in both Britain and France. Among them are the dangers of revolution out of control, and the heroic character of self-sacrifice for others.
Current dramatic political developments in both London and Paris cry out for context, as a Victorian author might write, insightfully in this case. Focus on the immediate and purely national dominates media reporting, while real understanding requires historical and transnational analysis.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May, on Dec. 10, delivered an intense speech in Parliament on the importance of leaving the European Union, known by the shorthand term “Brexit.” However, she also announced the scheduled vote on the House of Commons on the departure agreement just reached with Brussels is postponed.
After many months of extremely complex negotiation with the European Union, this is a devastating setback, a confession of abject political weakness, and may result in her removal as prime minister. There simply is nothing close to majority support in the House of Commons for the agreement.
In a June 2016 referendum called by David Cameron, May’s predecessor as Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader, British voters came down in favor of leaving the supranational economic organization, though by only a narrow margin. Cameron had expected victory, and in the wake of defeat, he resigned.
Theresa May succeeded him, and proceeded to compound the Conservatives’ political problems by calling a surprise general election for June 8, 2017. Instead of winning seats, the party lost their ruling majority.
Reduced to a minority, Prime Minister May and colleagues are able to govern only through an informal alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. That small but now pivotal group is unalterably opposed to Brexit.
Across the Channel, President Emmanuel Macron of France also made a major speech on Dec. 10, in this case directly to the nation. He promised a higher minimum wage, lower taxes and - by implication - less arrogant leadership.
He is responding to large-scale and at times violent public demonstrations against economic conditions. Demonstrators are called “yellow vests” because many wear the distinctive safety jackets French law requires in vehicles
France has a long history of political instability, though not since the era of President Charles de Gaulle, who led France for a decade ending in 1968. The determined leader of the anti-Nazi Free French in World War II, he possessed unique prestige.
As head of France’s government in the 1960s, De Gaulle employed a strategy encompassing image, institutions and foreign policy. He established the Fifth Republic, including a new constitution, which greatly empowers the president.
What is missing from the current conflicts is any evidence of the historic animosity between Britain and France, lasting into the 19th century. Two horrific wars in the 20th century ended that sort of intense, militaristic nationalism.
Europe’s economic community is a positive consequence of those wars, and well-planned efforts to integrate Germany into Europe through peaceful pursuits. Both war and bloody revolutions have been forestalled.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.