Mob violence and government repression
The Paris Crowd
Rioting broke out, not in Paris, but at Beaumont-sur-Oise, 25 miles to the north. It began on April 27, 1775. It soon spread south - to Versailles, a six-hour walk from Paris - and finally, to Paris itself. It was almost serious enough to lead to a postponement of the coronation of Louis XVI, set for June 11. The coronation came off as planned. Yet, the government was forced to call out troops to stop the rioting. Even with troops, it took several weeks, hundreds of arrests and two public executions before the government finally regained control. The events of 1789, which would mark the start of the French Revolution were still 14 years in the future. To outward appearances, the riots represented nothing more than a bad episode. These particular riots came to be called the 'Flour War,' a recognition that they had something to do with food shortages, and were, possibly, a little more severe than most protests.
Our impressions of the Parisian mob, and its grievances, have been shaped by a relatively limited, but nevertheless grisly, actions. Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," reinforced that impression. It does not paint a flattering picture. Whatever their grievances, the Paris crowd proved as inflexible and unjust as the nobility had been. Dickens had any number of examples to draw upon. The Revolution was inaugurated, on the day the Bastille fell (July 14, 1789), by a crowd which had stuck the severed heads of the Bastille's commander, de Launay, and de Flesselles, the chief magistrate of Paris, on pikes, and paraded them through the streets of Paris. On July 22, the mob would repeat its actions, this time with the heads of Bertier and Foulon. Foulon's head suffered the additional indignity of having its mouth crammed with grass and straw. (This was something of an additional punishment for his rumored participation in a "famine plot," by the nobility, to starve Paris.) The head of the Princesse de Lamballe received similar treatment in September 1793. In May 1795, a crowd entered the Convention hall, shot one of the deputies, and carried his head around the hall on a pike. If these examples were grotesque, the number could not match those of August 10, 1792, when the Swiss Guard surrendered at the Tuileries. The mob hacked some 600 to death, then mutilated the bodies.
What would cause the crowd to react in such a macabre manner? The level of intensity went well beyond the desire to kill or to take revenge. There was a feeling that death was not enough punishment, or that mere execution was an inadequate way of expressing the outrage felt by the individual. At the same time, there may be less interest in the motivations of the crowd, and more interest in the actions themselves. It is not really the motivation of the crowd which holds our attention, it is simply the repulsiveness of the actions it took. The guillotine, another powerful symbol of the Revolution, holds our attention for the same reason.
Beyond a fascination with the specific cause of the macabre behavior exhibited by the crowds in the most violent confrontations, there remains the broader question of the underlying causes of the disturbances themselves. Disturbances came in many forms, some peaceful, some destructive. They could range from the somewhat "uneventful" protest marches, to fights at food stalls or invasions of bakeries, to the ransacking of warehouses. Nearly all contained an element of economic hardship. Food complaints probably provided the spark for the majority of disturbances. Marchers complained about shortages of food or, if available, its high price. If they weren't complaining about the lack of food, demonstrators were worried about unemployment, possible job loss or low wages.
On May 21, 1795 the national Convention was invaded by a mob and one of the Convention's deputies was murdered. The mob had a simple economic and political platform: bread and the Constitution of 1793. The next day, with the crowd gone, the Convention ordered regular army troops to surround the three districts where the demonstrators lived. The Convention had had enough of mob rule. It demanded the surrender of the murderers of the deputy. They were surrendered and guillotined, as were 36 others who the convention believed were involved. If it could sympathize with the plight of the poor and starving, it was tired of trying to satisfy a group whose demands changed every day and whose demands knew no bounds.
The nobles had been sacrificed at the start of the Revolution, but that had not been enough. Then the mob blamed the Girondins, and they had been sacrificed. It had turned its back on Robespierre, but sacrificing him had not helped with wages or the supply of bread either. The crowd also seemed to have a very short memory, when it came to policy, as well. First, it had complained that the prices for basic commodities and foodstuffs was too high. When the government responded with price controls, it complained that goods had disappeared or that their prices on the Black Market were above the maximum. The government itself was uncertain of which policy to follow. It was inclined to allow the market to operate freely, yet the benefits from that policy were not immediately apparent, particularly to the poor and unemployed who were in desperate economic circumstances. If the government was undecided in matters of economic policy, it came to a consensus that it would no longer be second-guessed every other week. If the decision was unpopular and would require troops to implement, so be it.
References to the free market seem out-of-character, almost out-of-place, in the repressive atmosphere of 1795 France. The global market was two centuries in the future. Having introduced the debate, there is a temptation to analyze the assumptions made by the Convention, even to offer criticism or advice. Stepping into the debate, however, is a trap, since there is evidence supporting both sides of the argument. The market argument is that the market would eventually provide Paris with all the grain and bread she needed, provided that there was no government interference. If the evidence was there for everyone to see, the Convention and the crowd came to different conclusions about its policy implications. Debate about free market ideas has not even been settled at the start of the 21st Century, so it would be difficult to apply it to 1795. There is other economic evidence which provides a clearer understanding of France's economic condition.
The 'Flour War,' if more prolonged and more serious than most disturbances, was not some violent exception to a normal state of tranquility, and food shortages were not a problem limited to 1775 or 1789. Le Havre and Nante endured riots and "price-fixing," in 1768, as did Rheims, in 1770. The French economy, for all its potential, seemed always on the verge of collapse. It was not just the major catastrophes, such as the hailstorm which struck northern France in July 1788, which were disruptive. More routine failures wreaked havoc as well. Frozen rivers could prevent barges from moving or mills from operating, but it was the lack of reserves which could turn that disruption into a disaster. Drought, in summer, was another source of disruption. Governmental decisions seemed to have an impact out of all proportion to their expected result. When Calonne lifted controls on grain in 1787, the market response was so overwhelmingly positive, that surplus stocks disappeared. The market would seemingly defy market logic. Instead of providing more goods, the free market brought increased prices and shortages. The agricultural economy proved incapable of supplying all potential markets. Speculators, or those living closest to producing areas, snapped up produce as soon as it entered the market. Paris often was left out completely. Regions almost competed with one another for available supplies. Bread on Parisian bakery shelves came at the expense of bakeries and shoppers in smaller towns. After the 'Flour War' of 1775, Grenoble, Toulouse, and Bordeaux, to the south, saw rioting in 1778, 1784, and 1785.
Continuing shortages and no end to the violence
In June 1788, Grenoble would provide one of the preliminary confrontations of the Revolution. The government decided to exile the members of the Grenoble Parlement, but chose a market day, Saturday, June 7, as the day to use troops. The fight was technically between the king and the magistrates, but the crowd which assembled made the struggle their own. Economic grievances were not immediately apparent either. In the background however, was a recent increase in bread prices, coupled with bread shortages, and an unstable employment situation. What began as a strike and protest march, in the morning, escalated into a full-scale riot. Individuals climbed to the roofs of buildings and threw tiles down on the soldiers. Finally some of the soldiers opened fire. Four were killed and some forty injured. When the soldiers retreated from the city, the crowd completed the "Day of Tiles" by ransacking the governor's house.
A few unguarded comments were sometimes all it took to turn a restless crowd into an enraged mob. The wallpaper manufacturer Reveillon, speaking at an electoral meeting, suggested that deregulating bread would lead to lower prices, which in turn, could reduce labor costs. Paris was coming off of a difficult winter in 1789, with bread shortages, low wages, and unemployment a major concern of workers. They read his economic remarks as an actual threat to cut wages. On April 27, only a company of 50 troops saved Reveillon's factory and house from the mob. Instead, they destroyed the house of another manufacturer, Henriot. They returned on the 28th, managed to slip by the soldiers guarding the front, and with Reveillon running out the back of his factory, proceeded to destroy it. A reinforced troop of soldiers returned and, in an attempt to control the mob, fired into it. The death toll was 25.
The demand for bread in Paris seemed insatiable. Bread prices would not peak until July. As if the impatience of Parisians wasn't enough, government officials now had to contend with angry mobs in other regions in May. Shortages brought on by the efforts to supply Paris caused bread riots in Flanders, Artois, Picardy, and Normandy. The problems of Paris' bread supply, and market-day unrest, would not be solved until November.
The year 1792 gave the appearance of calm. A slave rebellion in the West Indies did bring sugar shortages in January and northeastern France endured grain riots throughout January and February. The mayor of Etampes was lynched by a mob in February when he failed to order a grain price reduction. Dunkirk's warehouses were also destroyed by a mob in three days of rioting in February. The crowd was angered by the fact that grain was being exported while they were going hungry. In August a mob stormed the Tuileries and ended the monarchy. Louis XVI would be tried in December and executed in January 1793.
Sugar shortages continued into 1793, leading to price increases. When coffee prices increased as well, there were petitions for a maximum law, setting price limits (February 1793). The crowd would become more active and Paris would experience grocery riots from February 25th to the 27th. On May 1 a crowd of 8,000 would mob the Convention, demanding price controls on bread. A mob in Lyons ransacked a warehouse containing provisions destined for the army on May 24. The crowd seemed most intimidating on June 2, when, between 75,000 and 100,000 people, partly angered by the refusal to control prices, surrounded the Convention and forced a purge of the Girondins. In June crowds of women attacked the shops of soap suppliers and forced sales at reasonable prices. On September 4, the Convention was confronted again by a demonstration of workers, protesting continued shortages. The following day it would implement the Terror. Finally, on September 29, it passes the General Maximum Law, imposing price controls on goods. On October 16, Marie Antoinette was beheaded. The Girondins, who had been purged at the insistence of the crowd, on June 2, were executed on October 31.
In February 1794, the government finally released its schedule of price controls, the major goal of the workers for much of 1793. It was rising food costs which most concerned workers. They were less pleased when the government sought to apply the maximum to their wages. Tobacco workers who asked for a wage increase found their leaders targeted in April. On July 5 Robespierre allowed wage controls to be introduced in Paris. When he was confronted by a rebellion within the government on July 27, he hoped to rally the Parisian workers to his side. There was no enthusiasm for his cause and the crowd, on other occasions willing to confront the Convention, failed to respond. He would be guillotined the following day. The government would abandon wage controls in August, but it would also do away with the Maximum in December.
The end of the Terror in 1794 did not signal a return to political normalcy nor an end to economic problems. Problems with the transport system would disrupt the grain supply system, beginning in December. The rivers froze. Bread was rationed in January and the government had to buy additional grain before winter was over. On March 22, women petitioned the Convention for better bread supplies, which prompted the requisitioning of two-thirds of what was available from suppliers on March 24. This was not enough to satisfy the hungry, who rioted for bread on March 27 and 28. A march on the Convention of about 10,000 people on April 1 and 2, is followed by a law disarming "terrorists," on April 10. Another mob tries to intimidate the Convention on May 23, demanding 'Bread and the Constitution of 1793, and killing the deputy Feraud. Once the mob is gone, the Convention orders the districts which had produced the rebellion surrounded by troops. The murderers of Feraud are surrendered, then executed. Those identified as the leaders also are killed.
The uprising of Prairial, as the May demonstration came to be known, was essentially the end of mob rule. The government would still struggle with shortages, through the summer of 1795, and again in February 1796. However, it would never permit the crowd to regain the power it had held in 1789 or 1793. Napoleon would see that that part of the policy continued in effect, once he gained power.