Jim Wagner
Croyez les Femmes
By Jim Wagner
October 17, 2018

On July 14, 1789, responding to hysterical rumors that political prisoners were being tortured in a medieval fortress in the center of Paris, a mob of French anarchists and proto-Marxists, accompanied by their newly formed Bourgeois Militia and abetted by deserters and malcontents from the regular French military, stormed the Bastille in an assault that is today celebrated as the symbolic beginning of the French Revolution. Within that fortress they found four convicted forgers, two lunatics, and the Marquis de Sade – but no political prisoners. De Sade, from whom we have the term "sadism," had been imprisoned by King Louis to prevent him from further torturing his wife. It was the wild ravings of this pervert, who was also the author of the steamy 120 Days of Sodom, (use your imagination!) that seem to have first attracted the attention of the mob.

But long before these events the passions of the Paris street people had already been virulently inflamed by a deluge of slanderous publications generically known as libelles (from which we get the English word "libel"). These screeds, which were largely pornographic, portrayed the king and queen as both politically malevolent and sexually depraved. Some of them have been preserved, and they are quite explicit. https://flashbak.com/la-porn-revolution-the-filthy-sex-propaganda-that-destroyed-marie-antoinette-38405/ After many years of steady defamation, and in spite of numerous liberal reforms which the king had volunteered on behalf of the lower classes, a climate of hatred against the crown was about to release its thunder.

As a result of poor harvests, bread was in short supply. Fear of a possible famine was aggravated by a power struggle between certain privileged guilds, which insisted upon an exclusive right to sell grain and bread, and the royal ministry responsible for managing the economy. Suspicions of hoarding coupled with factional antagonism and a simmering animosity toward the crown ultimately led to a violent paranoia. When on October 5th of that same year rumors of a Pacte de Famine (a conspiracy theory asserting that the king's ministers were deliberately withholding bread in order to starve the poor) drifted through the Paris market place, thousands of street women exploded into rioting. This, the real beginning of the French Revolution, is known to history as "The Women's March on Versailles."

Convinced that bread was intentionally being withheld to starve them, and egged on by a miscellany of radicals seeking power on the pretext that they represented the interests of the poor, this frenzied mob of women, now seven thousand strong, looted the Paris armory and then marched on to Versailles, where Louis XVI was just then meeting with the National Constituent Assembly to pass further reforms. These new reforms would have included what have come to be known as the August Decrees, mandates to formally abolish the privileges of both nobles and clergy. They included also the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a kind of Bill of Rights, along with a written constitution to secure those rights to the French people.

Notwithstanding all of this progress, or perhaps by intent both ignorant of it and apathetic toward it, the female rabble of Paris, having breeched the largely cosmetic palace security, forced the king to accede to additional demands. And then, their new demands having been met in full, they forced Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette (famously but falsely accused of having told the people to eat cake) to return captive with them to Paris, where they were put on show.

This led in quick order to full-blown revolution. The chaos of events ultimately encompassed by that revolution would take volumes to enumerate. But for our purposes a Cliffs Notes style of summary will do. Radical socialists (largely professional men seething over limits to social advancement placed on their class) soon claimed power. They immediately seized all church property, and then issued a new paper currency backed solely by that confiscated property and enforced as the only legal medium of exchange. Simultaneously, they began to sell off that very same property, now the collateral for their new monetary system. But they did not offer it on the open market. Rather, as boon to their cronies in the moneyed class, they sold the land to them on credit, with no payment due for twelve years. Of course this flood of new property on the market undercut the value of land even while it reduced the backing for the Revolution's feeble fiat notes. The result was an almost immediate financial collapse, accompanied by runaway inflation, desperate shortages, and an extensive black market.

Meanwhile (and recall that through all this the guillotine was steadily lapping up the blood of anyone even remotely associated with the old order), the ascendant radicals set up an arbitrary and capricious system of taxation which punished the frugal and productive regions of the nation for the benefit of the wanton and profligate. Moreover, their system also subtly exempted from taxation the comrades of their own circle. They also loaded the scales of the electorate to favor preferred groups and regions, effectively neutralizing the votes of others. When their edicts were popular, the guardians of the Revolution basked in public acclaim. When their dictates were met with popular resistance, they required their captive king to enforce them, further justifying the hatred of him which they had so artfully fomented. And finally, when their Revolution began to falter, they simply cut off his head.

The Revolution next divided the country into a vast geographical network of ever diminishing squares, each a political unit operating more or less independently of all others and without regard to any human or natural boundaries. Simultaneously, they proclaimed their visionary "Rights of Man" in terms so broad and vague as to imply, and almost immediately to cause, the overthrow of virtually every institution which up to then had supplied order. Discipline throughout the already ineffectual bureaucracies dissipated in confusion, with the result that civil operations of every kind were rendered impossible. Revolts spread throughout the country. But by then military order had likewise collapsed, as soldiers too began to digest the realization of their own new and nearly unlimited rights. In consequence, at exactly that point when order was most in need there was no means to contain the rapidly widening ferment. While some military units were sent out to enforce the newly enacted rights, others were sent out to suppress them. (For a full and highly compelling examination of these events, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France offers excruciating detail.)

This pandemonium soon resulted in a full-blown civil war, which raged more or less at random throughout the provinces. Meanwhile, "The Terror," as it had come to be known, continued to devour its own. Those revolutionaries who had once led "the people" were now being consumed by them as the number of those officially condemned to the guillotine approached twenty thousand. France's European neighbors, all monarchies, soon became alarmed, and before long the Revolution was simultaneously engaged in both civil and international wars. This state of affairs continued for ten years, until on the 9th of November in 1799 a Corsican artillery officer crossed the Frankish Rubicon to declare himself emperor of France.

Napoleon settled the civil wars at home almost immediately, and then took on with vigor the international conflicts he had inherited. The story of his spectacular successes (and equally spectacular failures) is so widely known as not to bear repeating. But the human cost of those many wars, arising as they did ultimately from the rioting of some agitated women in the Paris market a full quarter of a century earlier, was without rival until the 20th Century. By the time the sun had finally set over the gentle Belgian farmland outside Waterloo on that celebrated June day in 1815, something like three and a half million soldiers had died in what would come to be known as the Napoleonic Wars. Millions more were wounded, and approximately as many civilians died. The toll can be fairly compared with the Holocaust.

But curiously, in the two centuries that have now elapsed since those monstrous events concluded, not a single shred of evidence has ever been produced to indicate a royal plan to starve the poor people of France. Furthermore, notwithstanding contemporary myths in adoration of the glorious events leading up to the French Revolution, the celebrated Women's March on Versailles was not a spontaneous event. Numerous speakers had regaled the Paris rabble with fictitious accounts of royal perfidy, inciting them to march on the Versailles Palace. In fact the plan to attack Versailles was so widely circulated that it even saw print in the Mercure de France just weeks before the women took to their heels (while circumspect members of the French aristocracy took to their ships).

Were those women of the Paris streets telling the truth? Perhaps. Many of them may well have believed the quaint and practically absurd notion that their own king intended to starve them to death. But I submit to you that many others simply did not care whether or not the rumors were true. The Women's March on Versailles was a means to power, plain and simple. While many of the more gullible participants undoubtedly failed to realize that power was the objective, any pretext would have sufficed for their leadership. The final paranoid claim that launched that march was merely one more in a series of deliberate slanders that had been tossed before a willing mob.

And when the Revolution got that power it so craved, how did that turn out for France? Was it worth the carnage, the ten or so million killed or wounded and the millions more who were left homeless and destitute? Were the successful revolutionaries able to achieve any of the noble goals they had so confidently proclaimed? Quite the contrary, they proved unable to build anything of lasting value. They knew only how to tear down – a lesson for our times. Ironically for the maenads of the Paris streets, they never were included in the aptly named "Rights of Man." Those raging women were simply used and then forgotten. And what of the monarchy they so carelessly threw off? By 1830 the people of France had had enough of both revolutions and emperors. The brothers of poor Louis XVI were recalled to resume power, the Bourbon dynasty was restored, the surviving supporters of the monarchy were welcomed back to France, and things were once again much as they had been before the women marched on Versailles. Only the dead knew the difference.

Believe the women? By all means! I do believe those women who kept their heads and refused to be duped by the schemers and opportunists set upon slandering their way to power. I believe those women who sensibly stayed at home during all of this needless conflict and bloodshed, the women who cared for their children and then tearfully buried the fathers and brothers, husbands and sons that a few malicious and ill-timed words had so cruelly cut down.

Yes! Je crois ces femmes! (I believe those women!)

© Jim Wagner


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Jim Wagner

Jim Wagner is a retired businessman and freelance writer. His degree is in Psychology with a minor in English from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, where he lived, worked, farmed and studied for nine years after his repudiation of the Vietnam War... (more)


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