When this article originally appeared in slightly different form in The New Yorker in 1989, it was spring (May 1), François Mitterrand was still President of France, Jacques Chirac was still Mayor of Paris, France had not yet celebrated the bicentennial of its Revolution, the Opéra Bastille had not yet opened its doors, and the meaning of "popular" was as unsettled as it is in the spring of 1997.
My friend Paolo Fabbri, the semiologist, says that in his professional opinion the hero of the French Revolution was not "the people" but a local demolition man by the name of Pierre-François Palloy. Paolo Fabbri commutes between his lectures at the Sorbonne, where there is an Institute of the History of the French Revolution and where scholars spend entire careers hypothesizing who the people were (and what they wanted and whether they got what they wanted), and his lectures at the University of Palermo, where no one talks about the people, and the citizens who wander around with knives and rifles seem to Paolo to be interested more in fighting each other than in fighting for the rights of man. The size of Paolo's own Palermo class, "Symbolic Efficacity," went from two dour girls to four dour girls after he was listed with the city's leading Mafiosi in a guide to "the sixty most famous people in Palermo." He thinks that spending two weeks a month in Sicily gives him a wholesome perspective on what is referred to here as "the bicentennial discourse." [...]