The revolution is the 'other' foundational event for France. It is as important to the non-religious side as the baptism of Clovis is to those with a traditional religious faith.
The American revolt was in some ways the inspiration, but it was a very different event. The American affair was not exactly unbloody, but on the whole was a fairly civilized happening (unless you believe Gibson's The Patriot version of it). The French brought all their passion to their revolution, and it must have seemed like the end of the world. The nightmare that was the Terror was truly appalling. In the Conciergerie museum, on the Ile de France, you can see a list of all those executed in Paris during those violent months, some for the crime of merely being a driver, or a baker to 'The Traitor, Capet' (aka King Louis XVI). The list goes right round a room, in small print. It makes sobering and sad reading.
When crimes so massive as those judicial murders have been committed, those connected in any way have simply to go on with it. There can be no going back; any weakening can only result in a possible victory for one's opponents, and then one is certainly going to be a victim of revenge and punishment oneself. Having committed atrocities, the only thing is to stay in charge, and be proud of what has been achieved. You brazen it out. This is the foundation of secular France, whose anthem is the extraordinarily bloodthirsty Marseillaise. Its motto is Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and by and large it (eventually) succeeded in establishing just that. Bourbon France may have been Romantic, but it was Wrong for all the reasons I have alluded to in previous posts, plus a lot more. 'Let them eat cake' (or brioche) may have been a calumny in the case of Marie Antoinette, but it was a common enough attitude before the Revolution. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, on the other hand, have led to the liberal France being really very illiberal, imposing a sort of one-size-fits-all policy (of which the laïcité argument is a part) that denies divergence or differentiation among the countless nationalities now to be found in France. The argument about the hijab, for instance, is not so much an objection to either religion in general or Islam in particular as a determination that no Frenchman or Frenchwoman should stand out in any way from the common notion of Frenchness.
So, you have two strands of self-understanding in France. The traditional religious standpoint adheres to the Clovis moment as being the decisive moment of French self-understanding. Here you will find many monarchists and right-wingers, many, if not most of whom are also Catholics of a traditional persuasion, going regularly to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. These have a traditional notion of the Glory of France, so it is not to be wondered at that many of these families' sons end up in the army. I heard somewhere that a few years ago, one of the great military schools (?St Cyr?) actually appointed its chaplain from the Fraternity of St Peter because so few of the students wanted the Ordinary Form of the Mass. So, in France, traditionalism in religious matters more often than not involves all these other things as well. It is a culture, an outlook entirely of itself, and not well understood outside France. in the States, in the UK, traditionalism is mostly about religion (though in the US there can be associated matters like Republicanism, opposition to big government, the right to bear arms and the rest, but they are not essentially linked, just the same sorts of people tend to hold the same sorts of views). In France, the linkage is a real one; this school of thought is usually called Integrism; a complete vision for France, one might say, honouring her glorious past (but not, of course, the revolution and all that stands for), and working to make it her future too. Il faut que la France survive!
Having been held by a large proportion of the Church, this all went pear-shaped in the 1960s. France was profoundly shaken by the events of that era (Algeria, De Gaulle, Student riots and all that), and the Church was no exception. Liberal ecclesiastics were enthused by Pope John's opening to the world, and embraced secular France with a will. Broadly speaking they turned their back on Clovis, and embraced the revolution instead as the cultural and meaningful moment of French history. What in English we call a 'trendy' or a 'liberal' is in France known as a 'Soixante-Huitard', a Sixty-Eighter, a man of 1968.
Imagine the impact this had on those to whom the vision of Clovis, the union of Throne and Altar, meant everything! It seemed like the basest treachery and betrayal to embrace the atheistic, masonic liberalism of the state, of Clemenceau, of the Marseillaise; it was like joining the tricoteuses as they jeered the Carmelite nuns of Compiegne ascending the scaffold singing the Salve Regina.
And if you ever want to see a grey-shirt French priest get apoplectic, just mention integrism to him.
I'd like in the next post to look at the nineteenth century in France, and what it had to contribute. But I hope today that I've helped explain to English speakers a little of what went to make Archbishop Lefebvre do what he did, and why his movement is so strong in France, more than anywhere else.