On 8 December 2018, at the peak of the gilets jaunes crisis, a helicopter stood ready to take off in the gardens of the Élysée Palace. Protesters had threatened to storm the president’s residence, and Emmanuel Macron feared that the anti-riot police – although eight-thousand strong and equipped with armoured vehicles as well as water cannon – would fail to contain them. On social media it was rumoured that police bosses didn’t trust their officers to carry out orders if they were asked to use firearms against ordinary French citizens. Was France on the verge of another revolution?
The gilets jaunes invoked the revolution of 1789 time and again. Protesters wore the red Phrygian cap, sang the Marseillaise and staged mock guillotine executions of Macron. The rumoured hesitation of police forces – credible since a majority of officers support Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and have little sympathy for the centrist president – conjured up memories of the defection of the Gardes françaises to the Parisian insurrection that stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789. There was of course no revolution in 2018: the police remained loyal, the government caved and Macron survived, literally and politically. In 1789 Bernard René de Launay, the Bastille governor, wasn’t so lucky. Although hot-air balloons enjoyed great popularity in 1780s France, he didn’t have one ready to take off from the fortress’s courtyard, and died at the hands of the mob. His head was stuck on a pike and paraded around the streets of Paris.
French people, it seems, have no wish to forget the extraordinary events of their great revolution and often want to re-enact them. This sense of extraordinariness was initially shared across Europe and the world. Two days after the storming of the Bastille, even Lord Dorset, the British ambassador in Paris, couldn’t conceal his enthusiasm: ‘The greatest Revolution that we know anything of has been effected with, comparatively speaking – if the magnitude of the event is considered – the loss of very few lives. From this moment we may consider France as a free country.’ By the end of the Reign of Terror in 1793-94 and two decades of war with other great powers, the loss of life had turned out to be much greater than Dorset thought. Yet the awesomeness of 1789 as a model of human emancipation inspired revolutionaries of various kinds – liberal, socialist, anticolonialist – worldwide until at least the mid-20th century. Only the Anglo-American world, perhaps because it thought itself already emancipated, has remained largely immune to the messianic allure of 1789. By hailing France’s sudden accession to the status of ‘free country’, Dorset meant that it had abruptly attained a state of political bliss that Britons had built over centuries.
I was schooled in France and well drilled in the cult of 1789. Indeed, I remember feeling moved to tears when, aged about seven, I read my first account of the storming of the Bastille, the abolition of privileges, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It was the closest I’ve come to a religious experience. This makes me certain that I understand the extraordinariness of 1789 better than non-French readers. But one should also beware the biases that such a background induces. The passage of time, including twenty years living in a British society not famed for its revolutionary fervour, have dented my youthful enthusiasm. But when I think or read about those events, I still feel emotional and – I make this confession because it reveals the cult’s purpose – proud to be French.
The revolution of 1789 brought down an eight-hundred-year-old monarchy, which despite many setbacks remained Europe’s most powerful state in the 1780s: the most populous, one of the most prosperous and one which enjoyed undisputed intellectual dominance across the continent. Even Herder, a strident defender of cultural diversity, admitted that French was ‘the most widely spoken and indispensable language of Europe’ because it was ‘the most suitable for the purposes of narrative, logic and reasoning’. Notwithstanding Carlyle’s grotesque caricature of the French aristocracy as an instance of ‘debauchery and depravity … perhaps unexampled since the era of Tiberius and Commodus’, popularised by Dickens and other Victorian moralists, the political elite of Ancien Régime France was astonishingly reform-minded and open to Enlightenment ideals. At the time it was swept away, the monarchy was trying hard to curtail the tax privileges of the aristocracy and the Church; it had granted civil rights to Protestants in 1787 and abolished judicial torture in 1788.
So why did the French not only topple the Ancien Régime, but opt to create an entirely new political order, at the price of so much bloodshed and upheaval? Contemporaries and historians have offered numerous, often contradictory answers. The early adversaries of the revolution invoked divine punishment and an odious atheist cabal. Tocqueville, the most celebrated French liberal thinker of the 19th century, viewed the revolution as the unintended consequence as well as a formidable acceleration of the Ancien Régime’s centralising state-building efforts. Marx and subsequent historical materialists pointed to class struggles, casting the overthrow of the nobility by the bourgeoisie as a model for the coming overthrow of the latter by the proletariat. Republican positivists in the late 19th century portrayed the revolution as the beginning of their struggle for secular democracy against the dark forces of clerical reaction. Post-Marxist historians, embracing the linguistic turn, highlighted the forging of a new political culture in the later 18th century, including novel words and concepts, which ultimately rendered possible both pluralist democracy and totalitarianism in the 20th century. Recent advocates of a global turn have undermined exceptionalist claims, stressing the French Revolution’s debt to the American Revolution of 1776 and pointing to the equal extraordinariness of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the first to enact a durable abolition of African slavery – though historians of the French Revolution, in France and elsewhere, are the most prone to dismiss this global perspective as a fad.
Grandiose theorising often ages badly, not least because with hindsight it becomes easy to see how theories reflect contemporary concerns. Could historians not produce a more modest account but one more likely to stand the test of time? An account that pays more attention to the how and less to the why? Enter Robert Darnton, the author of a dozen major books on Ancien Régime France. Darnton is not averse to theory. His work bears, lightly but discernibly, the imprint of his collaboration with the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, with whom he taught a seminar on history and anthropology at Princeton. Darnton’s dialogue with anthropology enabled him to spearhead a broadening of cultural history, from an account of high culture to an ethnographic inquiry into ‘the way ordinary people made sense of the world’. One of the most celebrated results of this approach was The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), in which Darnton dissected seemingly anecdotal events, including the rounding up, mock trial and execution of several cats by printing-shop apprentices in 1730s Paris, to show what they revealed about the day-to-day workings, tensions and ‘cosmology’ of Ancien Régime society.
Darnton’s work has earned applause and caused controversy. Like a great deal of cultural history, it has also been confronted with the polite indifference of mainstream historians: the tale is well told and entertaining, but how does it shed light on political or economic transformations? Can cultural anthropology help explain the outbreak and extraordinariness of the French Revolution? In The Revolutionary Temper, Darnton answers such interrogations with a subtle and gripping account of how ordinary Parisians became revolutionaries between 1748 and 1789. It’s a book that no one else could have written, a captivating exploration of how Parisians gradually became passionate enough about their political and social order to contemplate overthrowing it.
Darnton offers 46 snippets of what Parisians became excited or indignant about, including war and peace, court intrigues, the sex lives of their monarchs, taxes and speculation on the stock exchange, the long-running power struggle between the Crown and parlements (the high courts of the Ancien Régime), the price of bread. Less obviously, he also looks at mesmerism – the medical doctrine of Franz Mesmer, who sought to cure ailments through the harnessing of animal magnetism – and hot-air balloons, which more convincingly showcased the possibilities of modern science.
Consider the so-called ‘scandal of the sacraments’. In the late 1740s, Church authorities prevented those with heterodox Jansenist beliefs from receiving the last rites. This enraged the Parisian populace, who considered the persecuted Jansenists holy men and women. In Darnton’s deft telling, this theological quarrel is revealed as an early example of ordinary Parisians – through the dissemination and public reading of royal edicts and judicial decisions – encountering such novel notions as the ‘legitimate liberty of citizens’ and ‘the nation is above kings.’ To quell the disturbance, the monarchy imposed a policy of silence – an 18th-century version of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ – on Jansenist opinions. But the crisis exposed the weakening grip of the Catholic Church on Parisian minds and the stirrings of a new, popular political consciousness.
Even more striking is the Kornmann Affair. From 1787 until 1789, this scandal captured the attention of ordinary Parisians as much as the financial and political crisis that was engulfing the Bourbon monarchy. The wife of Guillaume Kornmann, an Alsatian banker, had been seduced by Daudet de Josan, a dashing man of the world with powerful connections at Versailles. Kornmann had his wife sequestered by lettre de cachet (executive Crown order). Daudet, using his court connections, enrolled the help of a former lieutenant general of police and of the playwright Beaumarchais, so he could keep up the affair. What shocked Parisians wasn’t the attempt to sequester Kornmann’s wife, but the unofficial intervention of a despotic police official and the depraved Beaumarchais to prevent Kornmann from asserting his rights as a husband and a citizen. Pamphlets recounting the details of the case sold in the hundreds of thousands, and Kornmann’s lawyer went on to become an advocate of revolutionary change in the Estates General turned Constituent Assembly in June 1789. Darnton’s dissection of the affair and its impact conveys what ordinary Parisians came to detest about the absolutist monarchy – not least the fear of its intrusion into their private lives, including the increasingly sacred space of the family, as a bourgeois sensibility displaced the libertine moeurs of the aristocracy. It also prefigured the short-changing of women during the revolutionary 1790s, and the popularity of a Napoleonic regime after 1800. Although Napoleon’s rule was in many ways more despotic than the old monarchy’s system of government, it was more respectful of the husband’s domestic authority: ‘The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband,’ the 1804 Napoleonic Code infamously asserted.
Darnton’s analysis of Parisian perceptions of high politics from 1787 to 1789 is punctuated by snippets about the unusually harsh weather and how it nurtured popular anxieties. On 13 July 1788 hailstones weighing as much as a pound and a half ravaged the wheat fields around Paris. Fear of famine seized the capital and the price of a four-pound loaf of bread increased from eight to twelve and a half sous. From November 1788 until March 1789 Parisians experienced one of the coldest winters since records began at the beginning of the century: snowfall, temperatures as low as -12.5 degrees centigrade and a frozen Seine conspired to push the price of bread even higher. Newsmongers feared that the extraordinary weather might cause a ‘horrible revolution’.
The Revolutionary Temper relies almost exclusively on immediate accounts rather than recollections and sometimes reads like contemporary journalism. Darnton probably wouldn’t take offence at this description. His father was a war correspondent for the New York Times, killed in action in the Pacific in 1942, and his younger brother was a contributor to the same paper for forty years. Darnton himself had a short spell working for the New York Times in the 1960s, and while holding a visiting academic position in West Berlin in 1989-90 he suspended his researches in order to write a chronicle of the democratic revolution then unfolding before his eyes in East Germany. The result was Berlin Journal, in which he compared East German protesters to the Estates General and the fall of the Wall to the storming of the Bastille. The Revolutionary Temper could have been titled Paris Journal, with Darnton assuming the role of a reporter dispatched to the late 18th century.
If an explanation of the revolution emerges from Darnton’s sketches, it is rooted in the development of a vast, complex and multifaceted ‘information system’ that spread news but also emotions across Paris. A great deal of Darnton’s work has consisted in unravelling the various components of the Ancien Régime’s information system, from the circulation of censored books by librarians and peddlers to the communication of news by nouvellistes de bouche in the public space or by authors of popular nouvelles à la main. The absolute monarchy became increasingly tolerant of these and other means of bypassing official censorship, using it to gauge public feelings or manipulate them – at its peril, Darnton’s account implies.
These days we know very well that more news doesn’t always result in more truthful information. The ideas and emotions that galvanised the Parisian news-consuming public were different from the lofty principles expounded by canonical Enlightenment thinkers. Newsmongers would spread craques (‘fibs’, or ‘false news’ in Darnton’s translation). The news that caught the attention of 18th-century Parisians often took the form of rumours that the mighty were plotting to starve or ruin ordinary people, or even kidnap children in order to satisfy their sexual and other appetites. It was a swirl of rumours that precipitated the fall of the reform-minded minister Charles-Alexandre de Calonne in 1787. Calonne wished to abolish the tax privileges of the aristocracy and the clergy, yet he was so vilified for his alleged ‘depredations’ of the public purse that, fearing for his life, he had to flee to London – an unprecedented cancellation of sorts for a minister of the Crown. The tribunal of public opinion was growing more powerful, but it wasn’t necessarily fairer than the Ancien Régime system of government.
Darnton’s emphasis on information systems as a factor in modern political change has an obvious appeal. Before the age of revolutions, the printing press had already facilitated the Reformation. The emergence of mass media around 1900 ushered in an age of mass democracy and totalitarianism. Anticolonial movements learned to use radio and TV as well as printed news to undermine European rule, even when they were outgunned by the colonial state: the classic case is the triumph of the Algerian nationalist movement, which despite being crushed on the battlefield attracted sufficient sympathy around the world to force France to concede independence in 1962. The rise of social media has also played an important part in more recent revolutionary uprisings, including the Arab Spring of 2011 as well as the gilets jaunes movement. Conversely, the heavy-handed censorship of the internet in China testifies to the regime’s perception of circulating news as a threat.
Darnton’s argument may reflect our own concerns about the ‘age of information’, just as previous interpretations of the revolution’s origins projected contemporary anxieties. But then he never claims to have identified a single cause, merely to be highlighting how the notions that took hold of Parisian minds, from ‘love of liberty’ to ‘familiarity with violence’, went on to shape the revolution’s unfolding. There’s also a question about his focus on Paris, which was anything but representative of France’s still overwhelmingly rural society. It’s hard to deny, however, that Paris played a crucial role in the eruption and radicalising of the French Revolution, and insurrections in Paris set off revolutions or attempts at revolution again in 1830, 1848 and 1871, in France and across Europe. In 1831, Heine described Paris as the ‘new Jerusalem’ of revolutionaries and made it his home for 25 years. The Parisian revolutionary temper also filled conservatives with dread: ‘When Paris sneezes, Europe catches a cold’ is the plaintive quip attributed to Metternich, the incarnation of counter-revolution.
When and how did this temper cool off? The failure of the Paris Commune in 1871 offers useful clues. In part, it was its increasingly socialist undertones that made the Parisian taste for revolution too frightening, for the new middle classes and small rural property owners as well as the old aristocracy. This gave the conservative provisional government of the Third Republic – appropriately headquartered in Versailles – the legitimacy to put down the insurrection by violent means: between five thousand and twenty thousand Parisians were killed during the Bloody Week of 21-28 May 1871. Another factor was the embourgeoisement of Paris, encouraged by successive French governments in the 19th century. Haussmannisation sought to make Paris cleaner, more beautiful and better suited to modern economic exigencies, but also less prone to revolution. New broad avenues were designed to facilitate the traffic of city-dwellers and commodities, but also of soldiers and gun-batteries.
Since 1871, Paris has ceased to spark French or European revolutions. The student riots of May-June 1968 re-enacted some revolutionary gestures, but they didn’t involve much of the Paris populace and weren’t a serious attempt to seize power. In the following decades, gentrification completed the eradication of the revolutionary temper. Today Faubourg Saint-Antoine conjures images of late-night café culture rather than sansculottes yearning for a new political order. Unlike the revolutionaries they wished to emulate, the gilets jaunes of 2018 overwhelmingly hailed from small-town provincial France. They chartered buses to come and act out revolutionary rituals on the Parisian stage, where they met not only with the violent response of the police, but also with the contempt or hostility of Parisians. Darnton’s book suggests that today’s social conditions in Paris – a modern urban sprawl in which the ‘dangerous’ classes are kept away from the seats of power – make a 1789-style revolution unlikely. Macron might be advised to cease comparing himself to Jupiter, and to give up spending his weekends at the Lanterne, the hunting lodge of the Versailles palace, lest his monarchical provocations trigger more riots. But he can probably dispense with the helicopter on standby at the Élysée – the sansculottes are long gone.
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