Begonvil, Bougainville and Bastille Day

Begonvil, Bougainville and Bastille Day

Few documents in the history of Mankind have been as influential as the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. But unlike the similarly inspirational 1776 American Declaration of Independence, it does not include a right to the pursuit of happiness.

Across the world official July 14 celebrations are held. For French citizens the National Day is an occasion to gather with friends and family to relax. As a nation we have much to celebrate but in July 2014 the prevailing mood is one of anger, not happiness. The country is hopelessly stuck in reform sclerosis. Some analysts argue that the country is on the brink of a new revolution.

The people have realized that the second socialist government is as economically illiterate and dogmatic as the first. Unemployment and emigration continue to rise while in Paris ministers generate a lot of hot air but few meaningful changes. In the past two months industrial production fell by 3.7%. Daily revelations of financial scandals involving the use of public funds by political parties and unions are shaking the people’s faith in the strength of our institutions.

There is no avoiding the depressing conclusion that our political class has turned our democracy into a “mediocracy,” and that we are governed by a click of professional politicians who have become the principal obstacle to our pursuit of happiness.

I am not in the mood to celebrate either the Revolution or the failing socio-economic model which has emerged from it. Hence I have chosen to write about one of our forgotten heroes, a gentleman-explorer who narrowly escaped the revolutionary folly of the “Reign of Terreur,” and whose name was given to a colorful plant often gracing Turkish gardens.

Commonly referred to here as “Begonvil,” it is known to botanists as “Bougainvillea.” Endemic to South America the plant was first described by the naturalist who had joined France’s first expedition around the world (1766-9) under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

The naval officer’s singular vision and exemplary leadership changed the course of our history. After mustering financial support from Saint Malo merchants, he managed to convince Louis XV to approve his project. And so he set sails from Brest with two ships and crews of hardy Breton sailors. Thanks to him France would become a key player in the discovery of the Pacific. Two centuries later, the French maritime domain is the world’s second after the USA. French Polynesia alone has a surface equivalent to the EU.

His book “Voyage around the world”, the first international best seller, created the myth of Tahiti as a paradise on Earth. Last spring I too “discovered” the beautiful island after sailing across the Pacific Ocean from Panama.

The sail on my uncle’s modern French-built Amel 54 had little to do with the voyage of the frigate Boudeuse. Only the perils of the seas had not changed. During our 4,000 nautical miles voyage I felt that Bougainville’s spirit of adventure and freedom was with us. I wished too that my grand-father could have shared with me the stories of his circumnavigation aboard the Marine Nationale cruiser Tourville (1927)... Different times, different boats, different people, different stories, but continuity in our history to fill me with pride and happiness.

In the meantime, in Paris « plus ça change plus c’est la même chose ». Our Republican Monarchy is rotten. Sadly without a clear heading and a capable captain at the helm, it is going nowhere fast.