Like all true 90s girls, I was obsessed with Les Mis as a teenager. I had seven different cast albums (on cassette tape …!) and knew all three hours by heart. I was ready to loftily explain to anyone who asked that actually, it wasn’t about that French revolution … and the reply was always, “oh, there was more than one?”
Yes, my dears – in fact, our cheese-loving friends spent the better part of a hundred and fifty years shooting the bejesus out of each other, only to end up getting a reputation as cowards. So here, in a valiant attempt to defend the bravery, persistence, and outright occasional insanity of the French, who have given us so much – not only critical aid during our own revolution, the Statue of Liberty, and Gerard Depardieu movies, but also permission to call it “classy” when we drink champagne at 11 am – I give you: A Brief Guide To The French Revolutions (#2 through 7 … or maybe 8 … I lost count).
We begin in 1815, when Napoleon Bonaparte finally meets his Waterloo and stays in exile. Like your friend who always goes back to That Guy, the French decide to restore the monarchy and crown the childless Louis XVIII as their King. He comes from the Bourbon side of the French monarchy – the same line as the King who was guillotined in 1793. There are some restrictions on his power – most notably, a charter that makes him accountable to the people, and an elected Chamber of Deputies.
There is another branch to the royal family, the Orleans side. The Duc d’Orleans and his family, cousins of the Bourbons who sided with the revolutionaries, are allowed to return to France, but apparently Christmas dinner with the Bourbons is still pretty tense.
1820: The Duc de Berry, son of the King’s brother Charles (a Bourbon), is assassinated at the opera without a living son. His wife, then two months pregnant, starts praying for a boy, because the unpredictability of fertility and gender is a great foundation on which to base a system of government.
1821: The Duchesse de Berry gives birth to a boy, Henri. The Bourbon succession appears secure.
1824: Louis XVIII dies. His brother, Charles X, becomes King.
“Charles X, vintage engraved illustration. History of France 1885.”; Morphant Creation / Shutterstock.com
“Coronation of Charles X, vintage engraved illustration. History of France 1885.”; Morphant Creation / Shutterstock.com
1825: Charles is crowned in a totally OTT throwback ancient regime coronation at Reims Cathedral. This goes over really well with the Liberals, as do his first acts of legislation – to reimburse nobility for land lost during the revolution, bring back the death penalty for sacrilege, change inheritance laws so that large estates can be built up again, and censor the press.
He then improves the situation by keeping on Jean-Baptiste de Villelle – a cross between Mr. Burns and Scar from The Lion King – as Prime Minister. (Fun historical fact: in a film, Villelle would be played by Paul McGann.)
Some of these moves are defeated by the Chamber of Deputies – pretty much the first time the Deputies have challenged the King. This defeat is cheered by many of the newspapers and pamphleteers now filling Paris, as the population grows more literate.
“Villele, vintage engraved illustration. History of France 1885.”; Morphant Creation/Shutterstock.com
1826: Charles puts forward a bill to censor the press, which faces such criticism from the Chamber of Deputies that it’s ultimately withdrawn. Several Deputies apparently comment “neener neener neener.”
1827: Charles continues to polish his mad PR skillz by reviewing the National Guard and completely flipping out when they fail to show the proper respect. He disbands the Guard, but neglects to a) pay them, or b) take their weapons from them.
“Come on,” he asks Villelle, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
In November, Charles holds an election for the Chamber of Deputies and despite pulling every electoral fraud trick in the book, up to and including having his own men count the votes, he still gets his ass kicked by the various opposition groups.
“I guess the old days are gone, and I need to learn to rule in cooperation with the elected representatives of the people,” Charles says, and promptly appoints a Cabinet full of liberals and moderates who reflect the will of the voters.
Actually, he cobbles together a Coalition, appoints a Cabinet full of ultra-Royalists, sacks Villelle, and places a weak moderate named Martignac in his place (probably for the express purpose of having him fail, so he can blame the Liberals for it).
1828: Martignac fails. Charles appoints Jules de Polignac, who was born in Versailles, good friends with Marie Antoinette, is a fan of censorship and absolute monarchy, and gets his jollies by kicking three-legged puppies.* (*Allegedly)
“Polignac, vintage engraved illustration. History of France 1885.”; Morphant Creation / Shutterstock.com
1829: A group of Deputies desperately holding up the King’s majority defects to the opposition, leaving him without a mandate. Charles dissolves the Chamber of Deputies and declares he will rule alone, which, politically speaking, is the equivalent of grabbing a megaphone and shouting into the streets, “have another revolution! Seriously! I’m begging you!! I AM GIVING THIS ONE TO YOU PEOPLE ON A SILVER PLATE!!!!”
Protests begin, demanding the King let Parliament sit. Charles, meanwhile, does what embattled leaders usually do in these situations, and finds a pretext for a foreign war – in this case, in Algeria, basing the campaign on the fact that the viceroy of Algeria had hit the French Ambassador with a fly swatter.
People died in this war, remember.
While it temporarily buoyed up patriotic sentiment, because people are stupid and I have no hope for humanity, it had the unfortunate – for Charles – effect of making the eldest son of the Duc d’Orleans look really good, as he excelled in battle and was also kind of a dish. #TeamOrleans starts trending on Twitter.
1830: Charles re-opens Parliament on 2 March, with the Duc d’Orleans loyally in attendance.
Unfortunately, just as Charles is warning his opponents that he will censor them if they block his legislation or even maybe just look at him funny, the crown falls off his head and lands at the Duc d’Orleans’ feet because you can’t make this shit up.
In July, Charles uses the panic button in Article 14 of the charter – basically a self-destruct switch that allows the King to rule by dictate in times of emergency, without bothering with petty details like what counts as an emergency. He issues a series of Ordinances, suspending freedom of the press, drastically limiting suffrage, removing the ability of the middle classes to vote or stand for office, and dissolving the Chamber of Deputies.
The people of Paris respond by building barricades in the streets, looting the gun shops, hiring mercenaries, and generally behaving the way people do when they’ve been systematically repressed and have access to weaponry.
To deal with the riots, Charles drafts in the A Team, otherwise known as the remnants of the Garde Royale, led by General Marmont, who had retired from the army in order to become a gentleman farmer and raise a flock of sheep that wore overcoats (I am not making that up), but who still served a turn once every three years as Guard-Generale of Paris. He then decides he’s got nothing left to worry about and goes to put his feet up and catch up on ESPN.
Three days later, the riot has turned into a full-scale revolution, and Charles is forced to abdicate.
His son, Louis, the Duc de Angouleme, signs the same abdication paper twenty minutes later. (Louis XIX, therefore, technically reigned as King for twenty minutes – along with Luis II of Portugal, who was shot with his father and died 20 minutes later, he is officially the shortest-reigning monarch in history. This is useful in pub quizzes, and also as a handy tip not to name your child Louis/Luis if you’re royalty.)
The Duc d’Orleans is sworn in as King Louis-Philippe. He re-establishes the National Guard, secures religious freedom, reforms the electoral system, and gives medals to veterans of the 1830 revolution, and otherwise sets about making the Ancient Regime fanatics very unhappy. The extreme Republicans on the left keep shouting about Louis-Philippe’s alliances with the merchants and bankers, going on strike, forming political clubs, and demanding the execution of Charles’ ministers, but since they’re all wearing unfashionable anoraks and trying to get everyone to sign up to the Socialist Worker Party outside Le Foods de Whole, nobody pays them much attention.
Following elections in October, Louis-Philippe boldly replaces a set of ultra-Royalist bankers, merchants, and other middle-class bourgeoisie with a new, revolutionary set of liberal bankers, merchants, and other middle-class bourgeoisie. Two main parties emerge from these elections – the vaguely Socialist, anti-Empire Parti du Mouvement, and the more conservative, monarch-friendly Parti de la Resistance. Louis-Philippe, a moderate at heart, sits at home sulking and listening to “Stuck In The Middle With You” on constant repeat.
He then puts Charles’ former ministers on trial, but refuses to consider the death penalty, which leads to rioting.
“Louis-Philippe… Detail, Oil on canvas”; Everett – Art / Shutterstock.com
1831: A memorial service for the Duc de Berry is held to commemorate the oh-so- important 11th anniversary of his death, and not in any way to provoke the leftwingers. Everyone is shocked when the Parisians revert to their favorite hobby of rioting in the streets.
Louis-Philippe responds not by shooting the protestors, but by arresting the ultra-royalist priests for provoking the masses. Earthquakes are reported in Paris as Louis XVI spins in his grave.
Over the next few months, riots occur across the country for the following reasons:
- The rioters from December’s riots are acquitted, so we’ll riot to show that rioting is bad.
- The economy sucks, so nobody’s buying silk, the silk workers are getting stiffed, and the government’s response is “gee, I guess it sucks to be you.”
- The Prefect cancelled the Carnival because we made fun of the King.
- The King’s civil list is costing 13 million francs and maybe he hasn’t noticed we can’t buy food.
- It’s June and it’s hot and, hey, we’ve got all these guns we haven’t used for two months.
Louis-Philippe, remembering how well suppression of free press and free assembly worked for Charles, passes a law forbidding public political meetings. The geniuses of Paris and Lyon take two whole seconds to think, before forming “dining societies” and hosting “dinner parties” in private homes and basements of cafes.
1832: Just as things seem to be stabilizing, a massive cholera epidemic hits France, killing over 100,000 in a few months. Public health measures (mostly ineffective) are seen as intrusive government interference and lead, well, not to riots, since everyone’s too busy dying, but to a certain amount of resentment.
Since politics is a horrible business, and people are awful, this giant public health crisis is seized on by both the left and the right wing, and Louis-Philippe puts down two uprisings – one by the Duchesse du Berry, who really should get some kind of award for “not knowing when you’re beaten,” and one by a bunch of students who are pissed off that the cholera has killed their left-wing hero General Lamarque. This tiny insignificant uprising, which was easily crushed and which had absolutely no historical significance whatsoever, happened to be written up thirty years later by Victor Hugo and has since inspired an enormous amount of fan fiction of widely varying quality.
Book Cover (Les Misérables) Courtesy of Signet
1834: Further crackdowns on meetings lead to riots. Minister of the Interior Adolphe Thiers steals the plot of Minority Report and makes “preventative arrests” of several hundred left-wing leaders.
1835: The trials of the rioters are turned into a three-ring circus of republican propaganda – despite four years of barricades and riots, for some reason it’s this that finally turns general public opinion against the leftwingers and allows Louis-Philippe to prove yet again that power corrupts and even those that do read history are doomed to repeat it, as he uses this swing in public opinion to pass censorship laws and give the police more power against rioters.
1836: Continuing the years-long game of Rioter Whack-A- Mole, a random Bonaparte relative pops up in Strasbourg with a whole lot of guns, and starts screaming about the French throne. Dispensing with such trivial formalities as arrest, trial, and transparency, Louis-Philippe press-gangs Bonaparte onto a ship and he ends up in New York. To be fair, we’ve all had nights like that.
1837 – 39: A return to some economic stability helps Louis-Philippe for a while, but the fracturing of the opposition – some Republican, some ultra-conservative, varying degrees of constitutional monarchists, and so on – leads to chaotic attempts at coalitions after hung parliaments. The Parisian mob, for once choosing to remember history, compares the various dissolutions of parliament and resulting elections to Charles’ heavy-handed attempts to get rid of Parliament altogether. When Parliament gathers to sit in April 1839, they gather outside the Palace, rioting and singing the Marseillaise, in what may be history’s most belligerent karaoke night.
1840: The Industrial Revolution is bringing its promised peace and prosperity to France, with 14-hour workdays, no possibility of unionization, a quarter of a million registered beggars, and 3 million registered charity cases. The phrase “working urban poor” comes into use for the first time in history. The response of Louis-Philippe’s laissez-faire, business-friendly government is to pass a law saying how nice it would be if children under eight years old didn’t work, I mean, we’re not really going to stop you, but just think about how nice it would be, okay?
For some reason, the urban poor aren’t satisfied. Some people just want a free ride, you know?
1843: Karl Marx, with the same instinct that draws a pantsless Lindsay Lohan towards a camera, comes to Paris and meets Friedrich Engels.
1846: The harvest fails. Louis-Philippe is seen whimpering in the corner and banging his head against the wall.
With the inevitability of dominoes – a fall in wheat production leads to a rise in prices, which leads to a decrease in the purchasing power of ordinary workers. This means that the industrial production which had been perfectly fine the year before now produces way more than people can actually buy, which means massive lay-offs.
Without jobs, people withdraw their savings from the banks. The banks run around in circles screaming “we’re all going to die, we’re all going to die!” and threaten to collapse.
Louis-Philippe, determined that such an unstable system could never be allowed to happen again, quickly nationalizes the banks, institutes a strong social safety net and progressive income tax, and closes all corporate tax loopholes. Economic stability and equality has reigned in Europe ever since.
No, seriously, what he did was import a bunch of wheat from Russia, which was great in the short run in terms of “people not dying in the streets quite so much,” but not so great in the long run in terms of “the economy of an entire country.”
1847: The harvest fails again.
The secret dinner parties, or “champagne de banquets” ramp up. Louis-Philippe formally bans one on 22nd February 1848.
Never ones to resist a good riot, the people of France bring out the barricades, guns, and red flags yet again. At the news of the Prime Minister’s resignation, a crowd gathers outside the Foreign Ministry. In one of the worst-timed accidents in history, one of the soldiers’ guns goes off, leading to riots. The soldiers calm the situation by firing into the crowd and killing fifty-two people. By nightfall, a fully fledged revolution has broken out across the city, and within a few days, the National Guard has turned their guns on the King’s own troops, and Louis-Philippe, perhaps one of the best-intentioned failures in history, has abdicated.
The random Bonaparte relative from 1836 (remember him?), washes up in Paris and sits on the sidelines while the alliance between the working class and the bourgeoisie from February falls apart and they end up shooting each other in the streets in June. He then gets himself elected President and, three years later, declares himself Emperor, which only goes to show that Frank Sinatra was right about New York. He lasts twenty years before he is overthrown in the communist uprisings of the Paris Commune in 1871.
France then falls into a 20-year economic depression, along with pretty much the rest of Europe, emerging to enjoy 20 years of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings before getting creamed by the First World War and gaining the “cheese-eating surrender monkey” reputation they so enjoy today.
Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in “Chilperic,” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895-96; Everett – Art / Shutterstock.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margaret Pritchard Houston was almost literally born in the gutter, as her dad parked at the wrong entrance to the hospital and had to leave her mom to go find a wheelchair. She has lived in the UK since 2005, is a trained teacher, a community theatre fanatic, and works with children in the Church of England. Her play, Alexander, received 4-star reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and her novel, Fraternité is published by Pigeonhole books. Margaret lives in North London with her two cats, and is mom to Isaac, who died in 2015. Enquiries should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
“Fraternité tracks an illicit love story through the filthy streets of revolutionary Paris. You may have seen Les Mis, perhaps even had a crack at Victor Hugo, this is something else altogether.”
Fraternité is available through Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Fraternit%C3%A9-Margaret-Houston-ebook/dp/B01CEX2FSK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1464767283&sr=8-1&keywords=Fraternite
Or can be purchased direct from the publisher: https://thepigeonhole.com/books/fraternite (requires users to sign up and create an account, and prices are listed in pounds, but they do take American credit cards, AND here you get all the extra content, like the playlist, the Pinterest boards, the “Revolution on Film” article, etc. – this extra content is where the piece you’re reading originally came from.)
Me on Twitter: @HoustonMargaret
“VERNET, Emil-Jean-Horace (1789-1863): Louis-Philippe and his Sons on Horseback in front of the Bar of the Chateau de Versailles, 1846.”; Courtesy of Everett – Art / Shutterstock.com