The slingshot may be the oldest weapon known to humankind, short of a simple rock, and in unequal matchups—like David versus Goliath or Palestinian teenagers versus the IDF—the slingshot is the weapon of the underdog.
In French, a slingshot is “une fronde,” probably from its Latin cognate funda. But une fronde is much more than a slingshot. It’s the common noun formed from la Fronde, a five-year rebellion against the child king Louis XIV and his regent, cardinal Mazarin. From 1648 to 1653, the Fronde united politicians, magistrates, the bourgeoisie and the common people against the crown. But although it took place only a few short years after revolutionaries in England beheaded their own too-overbearing king, it would be over a century before there would be a regicide in France; after the Fronde was crushed, the expansion of royal powers continued apace and Louis XIV became a byword for autocratic megalomania.
The lasting legacy of the Fronde has been in the realm of culture rather than capital-H History: the term frondeur or frondeuse came to designate someone partaking in a lighter and more nonchalant form of rebellion, in the tradition of the biting mazarinades used to satirize Mazarin and the central government (“What is a prince? A criminal no one dares punish. —What is a Jesuit? A political sage who skillfully uses religion,” says a 1649 gem titled Catechism of courtiers in the court of Mazarin). A frondeur is a dissenter armed with impertinence: “Skeptical and frondeur,” as a character in a 1899 book is described, “believing in neither God nor devil.”
In the course of time, that elusive, defiant quality of esprit frondeur came to be understood as part of the French national character. “The French, with their ‘esprit frondeur’ and their tendency to laugh at everything, do not understand how the English,” wrote Sir Thomas Barclay in 1914, “are mortally offended when their queen is attacked.” And the iconic Astérix, an affable rebel trickster, was once glowingly described by the right-wing nationalist weekly Valeurs Actuelles as possessing esprit frondeur and “embodying French ingenuity.”
As nationalist sentimentality seized on the idea of the esprit frondeur, the term has taken on a populist, rabble-rousing connotation. In practice, today it gets applied willy-nilly to all kinds of contestations: lawyers, rural mayors, housing activists, and all kinds of groups can organize a fronde. But in recent history, it’s been members of parliament joining a fronde against the leadership of their own party. Under the presidency of François Hollande—a socialist who campaigned on promises to be the enemy of finance only to take a sharp right turn—the left wing of the Socialist Party turned frondeurs, frequently breaking their partisan allegiance to protest against public spending cuts and corporate tax breaks. This conflict came to a head over an omnibus economic deregulation bill, the “Growth, Activity and Equality of Economic Chances Act,” which shocked dyed-in-the-wool socialists. It passed forcibly on August 6, 2015, when the Prime Minister overrode the National Assembly by invoking article 49.3 of the constitution.
The creator of that labor bill was then-Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron, who would be elected president in 2017 (beating ten other candidates, including a representative of the frondeur wing of the Socialist Party, Benoît Hamon). Having defeated the socialist frondeurs who cost him and his predecessor a great deal of political capital, and possibly scarred by the experience, Macron has kept parliament and his party, La République En Marche (LREM), on a very tight leash; indeed, LREM MPs are routinely (and derisively) described as “godillots”—literally “army boots,” the good little soldiers of the political party. But in April, a limited contingent of frondeurs emerged within the centrist ruling party when the National Assembly was preparing to vote on a hardline immigration and asylum bill: citing concerns about protecting the most vulnerable, a dozen MPs from 313-person ruling coalition abstained from voting. It was not very effectual; aside from raising the hackles of the majority leader, it’s hard to see what it accomplished, and the party majority dismissed the outliers as bleeding hearts.
The left wing of LREM are being called frondeurs by analogy with the rebels of the Socialist Party, but they seem like the timid echo of a more fiery parliamentary fronde that has been smoldering in the left wing of the Assembly, as a whole, since its members took office in May 2017. The France Insoumise (Rebellious France) party and communist MPs have used props and publicity stunts to agitate against LREM’s agenda as well as more traditional means such as censure and good old-fashioned haranguing. And throughout the spring and summer, France has experienced what’s been a called a fronde sociale as strikes were called in key sectors like airlines, the national railways, trucking, and sanitation. The atmosphere of contestation was amplified by a wave of civil disobedience: students occupied and shut down their universities; environmental activists who were squatting in a wildlife preserve to prevent the construction of an airport faced off against the police; and as they have ever since Macron’s election, protesters have been taking to the streets to denounce the president and his policies, defying increasingly violent police repression.
The current situation doesn’t match the violence of the original Fronde, but it returns to the roots of the concept, in a sense. The Fronde took aim at the power consolidated around the child king and his entourage; today, as political analyst Antoine Perraud asked: “have we not elected a child-king?” Macron’s hyperactive narcissism, his verbal aggression when provoked, his need to transgress, and his megalomania—all these traits make sense, Perraud argues, as the personality of a tyrannical boy who has yet to develop self-control.
The parallels don’t stop there: Macron has rued the absence of “the figure of the king” in French democratic politics, and like Louis XIV, he reigns over a political system in which the parliament’s power has been curtailed in favor of the executive and a few trusted advisors (for Macron, this role is filled officially by PM Edouard Philippe and behind the scenes by embattled henchman Alexandre Benalla). As Macron’s autocratic tendencies become more obvious, his ratings are tanking and contestation grows.
Unlike the Sun King, Macron was elected, of course (even if the other choice was a neo-fascist). But this fact strikes at the heart of the French self-image; this nation of esprits frondeurs and hard-bitten skeptics voted to give the presidency and a parliamentary supermajority to a vaguely messianic figure with a neoliberal track record, who released a manifesto titled Revolution while selling a political platform lifted from Margaret Thatcher.
It may be that a people so easily taken in by such an obvious, doublespeaking huckster (because he went to the right schools and wears a suit)—or their compatriots who fall for Marine Le Pen’s racist demagoguery—aren’t so suspicious of authority or rebellious-minded after all. Then again, the stories we tell about our national characters often ring hollow in this way. Like Americans stockpiling guns against a future homegrown gestapo (while ignoring ICE abductions in their neighborhood), many French people take pride in their grandparents’ resistance to Nazi occupation while vehemently hating immigrants, Roma people, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities.
More to the point, the idea that a nation is congenitally disposed to rebellion or freedom can easily provide cover for servility and subjugation. In a nation of skeptics, no one needs to be on guard against orthodoxy, after all. If everyone’s a rebel, then why worry about the establishment? If everyone’s a frondeur, no one has to admit that they wanted a king.
Tour of Babel is a regular Popula column in which we translate the world’s words that can’t be translated, the phrases and expressions that don’t travel (but that also, it turns out, do).