x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The Instant Expert: People Power in Paris

This week Kevin McIndoe looks at why France celebrates Bastille Day and how a peasants' revolt changed the world.

THE BASICS Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille (a large prison in the centre of Paris) on July 14, 1789 - a victory for the French people against the autocratic King Louis XVI. What began as a revolt turned into the French Revolution, and the Bastille was demolished later in the year.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE The French peasantry, tired of rising food prices, long work hours, high taxes and wretched living conditions, sided with the liberals and intellectuals of the emerging middle classes. France was also broke, due to the cost of its wars. Meanwhile, as the royal court at Versailles was seen as being indifferent to the plight of the poor, a movement for radical change became unstoppable.

A RIGHT ROYAL PASTING, THEN? Yes. In 1791, France became a constitutional monarchy in which Louis XVI had to share power with the revolutionaries. A national assembly was set up to draft a new constitution, but the legislature collapsed as the country went broke. Egged on by his wife, Marie Antoinette, Louis decided to leg it to the north-east, where he hoped to mount a counter-revolution. However, the royal family made it to only the small town of Varennes. Their disguises as servants might have worked had Louis (not the sharpest tool in the box) not tried to buy something in a shop and was recognised. The family was taken back to Paris in disgrace and confined to the Tuileries Palace.

OH DEAR. WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? In order to govern, the legislature needed the support of the radical Jacobins. But its insurgents stormed the Tuileries and took the royal family prisoner. A republic was proclaimed and Louis was executed in 1793, having been accused of cosying up to France's enemies, such as Austria.

THE REIGN OF TERROR Between 1794 and 1795, about 30,000 people were dragged under the guillotine and beheaded, with their severed heads usually held up to a braying mob in what is now the Place de la Concorde. However, as leading figures such as Maximilien Robespierre were themselves executed, the revolution turned in on itself. As the movement fragmented, the army suppressed riots and counter-revolutionary activities, and the general Napoleon Bonaparte eventually gained total power.

NOT EXACTLY A CAKEWALK THEN? Oh, you had to mention that quote, didn't you? Many historians claim that Antoinette never uttered the words "Let them eat cake" when told that the peasants had no bread. As one of her biographers, Antonia Fraser, said: "A callous and insensitive statement, and she was neither." Unfortunately, the Queen, who was guillotined in 1793, has been stuck with the line.

WHY IS THE FRENCH REVOLUTION SO IMPORTANT? It was a seismic point in world history. An unfair social system that had refused to cede political power was sent packing after the people had clamoured for more land, freedom, wealth and representation. The revolution led to a worldwide awareness of democratic ideals, and created the will to fight oppression. Its influence continues to reverberate to this day.

BUT THERE WAS A DOWNSIDE, RIGHT? Absolutely. The revolution failed to establish a long-lasting democratic government in France, and ultimately replaced one form of autocracy with another in the figure of Napoleon, who became Emperor in 1804. The French monarchy went on to be reinstated twice, but was abolished in 1848. In 1971, when Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People's Republic of China, was asked by the then-US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to assess the effects of the French Revolution, he replied: "It is too early to tell."

 

Five rebels with a cause

VLADIMIR LENIN (1870-1924) The creator of the Soviet Communist Party and leader of the 1917 October Revolution. He ordered the execution of the royal family and set up the world's first socialist state.

MAO ZEDONG (1893-1976) The founding father of the People's Republic of China in 1949, which he ruled until his death. Famously said: "Revolution is not a dinner party, it is an act of violence."

CHE GUEVARA (1928-1976) Probably the most potent symbol of rebellion, the Argentinian, a qualified doctor, abandoned medicine and joined forces with Fidel Castro to eject the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista from Cuba in 1959.

LECH WALESA (1943-) An electrician and leader of a workers' revolution against the communist state in Poland in 1980. He went on to become the country's first democratically elected president in 1990.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI (1945-) Her National League for Democracy party won a landslide election victory in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in 1990, but the military junta refused to hand over power. She has been under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years, and was released last year.