The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism 
by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall.
California, 341 pp., £35.95, April 2005, 0 520 24180 0
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What can be done with a people that produces 246 different cheeses? General De Gaulle’s remark may be apocryphal – France has far more than 246 cheeses – but it captures a central dilemma in French history. How could such a diverse collection of peoples be forged into a single nation? The question remains pertinent. Despite an apparent unity, regional differences and identities remain strong. There are Breton, Occitan, Basque and Corsican independence movements, and even a tiny separatist grouping in Savoy. Regional cuisine is proudly preserved, and a Burgundy mustn’t be confused with a Bordeaux. Much of France’s 19th and 20th-century history was, as Eugen Weber put it, about making ‘peasants into Frenchmen’, about creating national unity around one language, one history, one set of national symbols. French imperial policy worked the same way, stressing the cultural assimilation of the colonies to form a ‘greater France’.

There is little celebration in France of ‘multiculturalism’ in the English-language sense of the word. National identity is understood in terms of the relationship of citizens to the state: all are equal and all are to be treated the same way. But what constitutes equality and sameness? Can one be French if one does not speak the language? Can one be both Muslim and French? Or Jewish and French? After the Dreyfus Affair, a resolution of sorts was reached with the total separation of church and state, but republican secularism has been interpreted in a way which has failed to resolve the problem. The recent debate over headscarves suggests that the French state is not so much blind to religious difference as concerned to erase it in public life and institutions.

For Alyssa Sepinwall, the ‘crucial question’ of the Abbé Grégoire’s life, and the central problem of the French Revolution, was ‘how to build a coherent and egalitarian national community out of a diverse people’. Regional and linguistic differences were far greater than they are today. A fifth of the population did not speak French, but Breton, or Provençal, or Occitan, or Alsatian German. Then there were millions who spoke a patois, possibly around the same number as those who spoke standard French. There was no single legal system, and a host of customary and regional law codes. In inheritance law, for example, some parts of the country had male primogeniture, others had equal division of property between sons, others again gave daughters an equal share. A pint in Paris was not necessarily the same as a pint in another town, and there were hundreds of local variants for measuring weight, length and volume. Then there was the byzantine tax system, which obliged people in some provinces to pay far more in both direct and indirect taxes than people living only a few miles away. The nobles and the clergy were the major beneficiaries both of financial advantages such as tax exemptions and of forms of privilege that bestowed status. But many other groups had privileges, too: certain provinces, by virtue of the agreements made when they came under the French Crown; particular towns, thanks to their individual charters; and individuals who, because of their occupation, might not have to pay the salt tax, might be exempt from prosecution before the ordinary courts, or might have the right to petition the king in person.

Why did the revolutionaries of 1789 attempt to create a polity based on the elimination of difference? For decades, a growing number of others had been demanding reform of the inefficient administrative and tax system, and with the calling of the Estates General the moment seemed to have come. There was also a political logic to the ideal of the nation. As Sepinwall points out, the deputies who came to Paris in the spring of 1789 relied on a rhetoric of national unity to overcome the opposition of the privileged groups who were hostile to reform. When the men of the Third Estate created the first National Assembly, in defiance of royal authority, they needed to legitimise their actions, and did so by appealing to the authority of a sovereign nation, independent of the monarchy. On behalf of ‘the nation’ they abolished special privileges and declared all French citizens equal before the law. Yet their rhetoric opened the way for demands for inclusion by groups whom the deputies did not have in mind at all. Were Jews to be admitted to full citizenship? Or people of mixed race in the French colonies, who began demanding citizenship in the autumn of 1789? And were the slaves in those colonies now to receive the same rights as their owners and other Frenchmen? For that matter, should the illiterate peasantry have the same say in government as the educated classes, even if many of them did not speak French and were likely to vote as the parish clergy or the local nobles told them to?

Unlike most of the revolutionaries of 1789, and most unusually for a Catholic priest, the Abbé Grégoire was convinced that Jews and blacks and the poor should be granted citizenship. And he had the courage and the rhetorical power to make his case. Along with Robespierre, he opposed the proposal that French males should be divided into ‘active’ and ‘passive’ citizens: ‘active’ citizens, those with a certain level of wealth, were given full voting rights, while ‘passive’ citizens – all the rest – enjoyed the other rights of citizens but could not vote or stand for election. At first Grégoire’s views were disregarded and the active/passive distinction was enshrined in the constitution of 1791. As the pressure from excluded groups increased, however, he provided the deputies with the useful idea of regeneration, which he had developed in the 1780s, when he won an essay competition proposed by the Academy of Metz on the subject ‘Are there ways of making the Jews more useful and happier in France?’ He argued that the perceived degeneracy of the Jews in 18th-century Europe – their aversion to gentiles, their physical deformities and sexual degradation, their debased morality and their taste for moneylending at usurious rates, none of which he disputed – was not inherent but rather a result of their circumstances and of the way they had been treated. Giving them religious freedom and the right to practise other trades would ‘regenerate’ them: ‘If we encourage the Jews,’ he wrote, ‘they will insensibly adopt our way of thinking and acting, our laws, our customs, and our morals.’ This, he believed, would also lead them to convert to Christianity. But regeneration must be a gradual process, new rights being accompanied by an obligation to adopt the morals and customs of the French.

Grégoire was condemned for expressing these radical views, yet the idea of regeneration was adopted by the National Assembly because it provided a way of reconciling its declarations about universal human rights with concerns about the consequences of extending these rights to groups who might not be able to exercise them appropriately. In January 1790, the deputies granted citizenship to Sephardic Jews; the Ashkenazim were allowed into the national fold the following year. In May 1791, people of mixed race who had two free parents were given full citizenship. Others of mixed descent, and free blacks, were enfranchised in April 1792. The active/passive distinction remained until the 1791 constitution was swept away by the insurrection of August 1792. In the meantime, Grégoire and others worked to improve the education of the peasantry and in particular to find ways of eliminating the different patois that he believed created an obstacle to citizenship.

Grégoire’s belief in regeneration didn’t extend to women. Like Rousseau, he saw them as inherently emotional, irrational, easily corrupted and an evil influence on public life. Unlike most Enlightenment thinkers, he didn’t believe that women had superior moral qualities to men, though he agreed that they should play a key role in raising children, and strongly supported the education of girls. He rejected calls for citizenship to be granted to women, and the majority in the National Assembly agreed with him, particularly because women’s resistance to the new Constitutional Church (created in 1791 to replace the Roman Church) and their disorderly behaviour in the face of food shortages had begun to seem a threat to the Revolution itself.

Little known before 1789, Grégoire quickly gained a reputation as a forceful speaker: he persuaded the majority of the clerical deputies to the Estates General to join the Third Estate, and was one of the first to take the Tennis Court Oath, appearing in the foreground of David’s painting. He was secretary of the National Assembly during the session of 14 July 1789, and later president, as well as a key member of some of the important committees that did much of the real work of revolution. One of the leaders of the Jacobins, he welcomed the overthrow of the monarchy and actively supported the patriotic war against the European powers, condemning the external and internal enemies of the Revolution in sometimes sanguinary terms. He was an architect of the Revolution’s cultural policy, designed to regenerate the French people through education, by eliminating symbols of monarchy, and by the use of the French language in all parts of the country.

Grégoire was one of the first to take the clerical oath of 1791 and later that year was elected bishop of Blois, an appointment that has led his later detractors to condemn him for opportunism. Yet, as Sepinwall demonstrates, he was convinced that there was no necessary conflict between the ideals of Christianity and those of the Revolution, even though the increasing anticlericalism of the leading revolutionaries made things more and more difficult for him. He never rejected his Catholic faith or gave in to the pressure to renounce his vows: he played down religious references in his speeches, but even at the height of the dechristianisation campaign, and at the risk of losing his life, he continued to wear his bishop’s robe.

This resistance enabled him to survive the fall of the Jacobin regime even though he had been one of its most active supporters. After 1794 he was one of the founders of the Conservatoire Nationale des Arts et Métiers, which set out to extend the practical application of technology. He also became active in the campaign to abolish slavery, while continuing to insist that the extension of the French colonies was good both for France and for the colonised people, who would acquire the benefits of French civilisation. At the same time, he struggled to rebuild the Revolutionary Church and was its principal spokesman right up to the moment when Napoleon signed the Concordat with Pope Pius VII in 1801.

Partly for this reason, but also because of a continuing commitment to republicanism, Grégoire remained in opposition to Napoleon and subsequently to the restored monarchy. Until his death in 1831, at the age of 80, he continued to write pamphlets and books, to campaign against slavery, and to encourage independence movements in Latin America and particularly in Haiti. He maintained an extensive correspondence with American, European and Latin American abolitionists and republicans. And increasingly he wrote defences of what he saw as the true Catholic religion. A multi-volume history of religious ‘sects’ recounted the errors of everyone from Voltaire to the Anabaptists, Islam and the Greek Orthodox Church, while condemning the actions of popes and church officials who had allowed the true Church to become corrupt.

Sepinwall is mostly interested in Grégoire’s intellectual career and has little to say about his personal life, on which the sources are limited. Even so, she convincingly demonstrates the way that his views on the Jews, the French peasantry and colonialism were shaped by his experiences in late 18th-century Lorraine and Alsace. The origins of his other convictions, however, his republicanism and his anti-feminism, remain disappointingly mysterious. She is also excellent on his posthumous career. Having been refused the sacraments by the archbishop of Paris because he wouldn’t renounce his loyalty to the Revolutionary Church, he became a symbol of liberal Catholicism and 25,000 people attended his funeral. To many Jews he remained a hero, and throughout the 19th century he was celebrated by black leaders in the United States and the Caribbean. As Fascism gained strength in the 1930s, Grégoire became a symbol for leftist Jews and republicans, and after the war he remained a hero for anti-imperialists and civil rights activists. Despite his support for French imperialism he was praised by Ho Chi Minh as ‘the apostle of the liberty of peoples’. More recently still, as part of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, he was placed in the Panthéon, the first priest to be thus recognised. Church leaders refused to attend the ceremony.

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