On Feb. 7, Marianne, France's celebrated symbol of liberty, dodged a bullet -- or, rather, a black marker. At an extension of the Louvre in the northern French city of Lens, a visitor scrawled a cryptic message on the bottom part of Eugène Delacroix's iconic painting, Liberty Leading the People. Most commentators have since busied themselves with parsing the words -- a blurb, seemingly, for 9/11 truthers -- which, happily, museum officials have already erased.
What cannot be obscured or erased, though, is the message of Delacroix's masterpiece. Marianne was attacked at the very moment liberty is defending itself in one of France's former colonies, Tunisia. While the occurrence of these events is accidental, there is an essential tie between the events behind Delacroix's painting and Tunisia's current turmoil -- one that gives new meaning to the riots that followed the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a leading critic of the ruling Islamist party.
Delacroix's portrait of Marianne -- fierce, bare-breasted, and armed with a French tricolor flag and musket, leading a group of revolutionaries over a barricade of fallen bodies -- resonates across French culture. Before France converted to the euro, the painting adorned the 100-franc bill, Marianne's head was affixed to the country's coins and stamps, and Frédéric Bartholdi modeled the Statue of Liberty after Delacroix's muse. The band Coldplay even reproduced the painting on the cover of a recent album (with a very different message written across it). Perhaps more so than any other work of art, Liberty Leading the People crystallizes both a specific moment in history and a universal insight into human nature.
Of course, economic distress helped trigger the "July days" of 1830: The price of bread and levels of unemployment were intolerably high. This was the case not just for artisans and laborers, but also for those with professional diplomas. A glance at Delacroix's epic tableau reflects this brute fact: Flanking Marianne are artisans, workers, and students who, though hailing from different social classes -- the bourgeois wearing a top hat and tie, the workers sporting floppy berets -- share flourishing youth and withering job prospects.
So too Tunisia, along with its neighbors in the Maghreb, staggers under the weight of a so-called "youth bulge." In 2011, urban and rural youth joined to overthrow the kleptocracy of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime and now are challenging the Ennahda-led government's incompetence in economic affairs. Officially, unemployment fluctuates around 20 percent for the male population and skyrockets to 33 percent for those with university diplomas. While the situation is already desperate along the developed coastal region, it worsens in the interior (an economic asymmetry that dates from the colonial era under France). In the town of Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself and the country aflame in 2010, the unemployment rate among university graduates now hovers at a mind-numbing 50 percent.
In Restoration Paris, the workers and artisans were certainly fighting for liberty from job insecurity and food scarcity. But was that all? The vast majority of those men wounded during the revolutionary days of 1830, asked the reason for their engagement, replied simply: "La liberté." The barricades represented the struggle for liberty from political and religious oppression and the right to be recognized and represented in the public and political spheres. As noted historian David Pinkney concludes in his landmark study of the 1830 revolution, the "eighteenth century values of liberty, equality and fraternity" trumped "economic distress" in the unfolding of events. These young revolutionaries held the deep, widespread conviction that the mother of revolutions, 1789, far from ending with Napoleon or the Bourbons, had only just begun.