A Poignant Bit of French History

The best aspect of Popkin’s book is that the author gives a historical account and analysis of the social, political, cultural and economic conditions and events that led up to the 1789 uprising. Such account and analysis of the prelude to the upheaval is paramount to understanding the complex background causes as to why the French people’s revolution was inevitable. Popkin’s description of the influence that some renowned 18th century thinkers like Voltaire, Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had on the revolutionaries is illuminating. His account of the bloody aftermath, in which the revolutionaries turned on one another for a variety of reasons, is equally engaging and insightful.

Although it was to be decades later that the ideals of liberty and equality would eventually materialize, the 1789 event nonetheless marked a crucial turning point in French history which signaled the demise of the old regime’s corporatist society and the birth of democracy.

Reading the book led me to brood over the life and times of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who took on a tragic role at a tragic time in a tragic place. Above all, she suffered a super-tragic personal fate.

Being a foreigner on French soil (she was born an Austrian princess and sent to France in an arranged marriage at the age of 14), she was an easy scapegoat for Austria-hostile court officials to point a finger at when things turned bad in the country. Through most of her life as a Dauphine and Queen, she was a victim of malicious calumny and court politics. France’s precarious financial situation was constantly blamed on her extravagant lifestyle, when in truth she was trying to cut down on court expenses and promote a simple peasant’s lifestyle. Her husband Louis XVI had been brought up in an Austria-hostile environment and saw to it that she would have no say in French politics. She was groundlessly rumored time and again to have engaged in extra-marital and deviant sexual acts of various sorts (including lesbianism and incest). The rumor-mongers even went as far as putting words into her mouth – she never said “Let them eat cake” when the bread crisis broke.

In the midst of all this pressure, she was not getting any moral support from her own mother, who was more concerned with court etiquette and the interests of an Austria-France alliance. Tragically, she lost her eldest son to tuberculosis when he was only seven.

Her bad luck didn’t stop there. Shortly after the storming of the Bastille by revolutionaries on July 14, 1789, and after the royal family had been kept under surveillance in the Tuileries Palace for a while, they tried unsuccessfully to escape to Austria and were captured at Varennes. This botched escape attempt gave the Jacobin party (the more radical of the two revolutionary factions, the other party being the Girondins) a good excuse (treason) to get rid of monarchy once and for all. It also foreshadowed the execution of Louis XVI and his queen. Before this happened, while being imprisoned at the Temple Tower, Marie-Antoinette had to go through the ordeal of hearing of the gruesome death that befell one of her bosom friends, princesse de Lamballe, during the notorious “September Massacres” of 1792. Her body was mutilated by angry mobs, her leg was shot from a cannon, and her head was cut off, put on a spike and paraded under the prison window of the Temple where the queen was held captive.

Marie-Antoinette’s greatest humiliation came when she was taken to a sham trial in October 1793, on the heels of the execution of her husband. It was a sham trial because those in power had already decided on her death sentence irrespective of the trial outcome. She was charged, among other unfounded accusations, with incest with her younger son. At first she remained silent. When pressed for an answer to the incest charge, she said “If I have not replied, it is because Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

What chutzpah and what spirit for a fragile ill-fated woman who knew her end was near!

But no chutzpah nor spirit was any match for deliberately fabricated accusations coming from the misinformed mobs, who had long been holding prejudiced opinions of the queen thanks to unrelenting smearing propaganda against her by court detractors.

Her tragic life and the lives of many others were expended in exchange for the realization of the French people’s ideals of liberty and equality, which were set as the cornerstone of the nation’s evolving democratic movement in the nineteenth century. The country never deviated from the principles of liberty and equality since the adoption of the Declaration of Rights of Men and of the Citizen during the Revolution. This Declaration was the precursor document to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can perhaps be said that the French revolutionaries had made some morbid mistakes which led to many years of political instability in the country. But the French people were sensible enough to learn from their mistakes and moved on unwaveringly.