Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Facts About Bastille Day

Another year, another Bastille Day in the (fifth) French Republic. I hope no one gets the wrong impression from my somber attitude on 14 July. The Principality of Monaco and the French Republic are good friends these days, everyone gets along and no one wants any unpleasantness. Many people also have the attitude that there’s no such thing as a bad time to have a party. However, I cannot condone such festivities on a day like this. Aside from all the horror the Revolution visited on France itself, the chain of events that started with the storming of the Bastille did no good for anyone in Monaco either, least of all the House of Grimaldi. There is no need to go into all of that in detail, we have covered it all before; the Grimaldis being stripped of their French titles, Prince Honore III being deposed, Monaco annexed to France, many going to prison (even the little future Sovereign Prince Florestan) and most horribly the wife of Prince Joseph of Monaco being among the last to be sent to the guillotine. But, in France itself, it is worth remembering on a day like today just how little most people know about the actual facts surrounding the storming of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution.

The Kingdom of France was, undoubtedly, at a low point at the time. The economy was in shambles, hunger and poverty were widespread, too many in the aristocracy were living lives of indulgence far away from the people they should have been looking after and many in the clergy were more concerned with their own comfort than with administering the sacraments and teaching their people. However, the two young people at the pinnacle of power in France, His Most Christian Majesty King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, were not blind or uncaring to these problems. Both had each been working in their own way to solve the immense problems they had so recently inherited. King Louis XVI enacted many common sense policies to alleviate the suffering of his people. He cut expenses at Versailles, cut government expenditures overall, refused to go deeper into debt and refused to raise taxes. He ended the government monopoly on grain which allowed for lower prices that more people could afford. He taxed wealthy landowners for the first time and, though he was not required to, paid his own share as any other landowner would. Likewise, Queen Marie Antoinette helped to educate poor children, had her own kitchen opened to the poor, cut down on lavish parties (yes, despite all you’ve probably heard) and simplified her own wardrobe in an effort to make frugality chic.

Unfortunately, the accumulated problems of decades could not be overcome quickly and the radical firebrands were doing everything possible to mislead, misinform and radicalize the public while spreading the most vicious lies they could think up about their King and Queen. For example, partly in an effort to pay for the war against Great Britain on behalf of the United States, King Louis XVI enacted a tax reform which raised revenues but lowered taxes for the poor. Revolutionary propagandists played their game of misinformation, only telling people that the King would be collecting more money (not less from the poor) and implying or stating outright that this was all for his own enrichment rather than paying for the needs of the country. King Louis had done everything in his power to be reasonable and accommodating. Early in his reign he had encouraged local parliaments and he recalled the Estates-General. However, the firebrands only increased their agitation, whipping the mob into a frenzy and blaming the King for ills he had absolutely no control over. Finally, someone pointed to the prison-fortress of the Bastille as the imposing symbol of absolute royal power that had to be wiped out.

On July 14, 1789 a Parisian mob stormed the Bastille, which was actually nothing like what they had been told or what most people today think it was. Naturally, it looked very harsh and foreboding from the outside, but inside the prison conditions were not terrible, certainly no worse than any other prison of the time and probably better than most. The fact was that there was practically no one in the Bastille. The popular portrayal would have one believe that the Bastille was crowded with the poor, tortured victims of an autocratic monarch. In fact, it was almost empty of prisoners. The only people present to be liberated were four forgers, two lunatics and a pervert who had been locked up at the request of his own family. The real victims were the unfortunate men who just happened to be doing their job guarding the prison. All 120 soldiers were brutally massacred by the hatchet-wielding mob and the governor had his head cut off and stuck on a pike. This was the bloody and inglorious start of the horrific bloodbath known as the French Revolution.

Monaco was, of course, much more fortunate than France. Most of the family survived, Monaco was ultimately given back her independence and the Sovereign Prince was restored to his rightful throne. The French monarchy was restored as well but, sadly, the Revolution had done too much damage in France. The mentality of the country had changed and the moral core of the country would never be quite the same again. The traditional monarchy would fall, replaced by another Kingdom of France that tried to reach an accomodation with the revolutionary mindset only to be undone in 1848 and all of this in between the two efforts at empire led by the famous Napoleon and his later nephew. It says something profound that, despite some minor problems, the Principality of Monaco in all that time has continued on in peace and ever-increasing prosperity, secure in the traditions of a centuries old monarchy led by a family everyone knows and loves while France had more revolutions, the Paris Commune and is currently on their fifth effort at a republic. Monaco has long depended on the protection of France but these facts, perhaps, suggest that France might benefit from taking a lesson from the little principality on her southern coast.

Vive le Roi!

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