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French Revolution: Memories, Symbols, and Rituals

“Memory,” Michel Foucault has argued, “is actually a very important factor in the struggle… If one controls the people’s memory, one controls their dynamism… It is vital to have possession of this memory, to control it, administer it, tell it what it must contain[1]”. History is essentially a recording of man’s memories of his past. The French Revolution is an essential part of French and European History as it was the first modern revolution against Monarchy and would shake the foundations of Europe to its core. Historians examine the rituals and symbols of the French Revolution so that the excesses of the revolution will never again be visited upon the world, this is so because of three reasons, the first history is the record of what happened then, the second history tends to repeat itself, third by applying the lessons of history the mistakes of the past can be avoided.

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A Record of the Past

The French revolution was the first of many European revolutions that would overthrow the Monarchy in favor of Democracy. Angry with the excesses of the French Monarchy, the Nobility, and the Church the successful revolutionaries would wreak a terrible vengeance upon all these institutions. When happened was so terrible that the early years of the French Republic were known as the reign of terror. The revolution, the first of many in Europe, was the herald of what was to come for the rest of Europe.

According to Henri Bertin; “In matters of government, the knowledge of facts was all the more important in that we have always seen great errors become the harbingers of great disorders and those who wished to trouble states have always begun by misleading peoples[2].” This was certainly true in Late 18th Century France which was a powder keg waiting to explode. Louis XV and his son Louis XVI fought many wars prior to the revolution and this drained the royal coffers. This in turn forced the monarchy to raise taxes. In the 18th Century, France taxes were mostly borne by the peasants who were not too please by their sorry lot in life. Especially since they frequently saw their taxes wasted on the lavish lifestyle of the nobility. This was aggravated by a famine that struck France around the time of the revolution.

Politics in any society depends upon the existence of cultural representations that define the relationships among political actors and thereby allowing individuals and groups to press claims upon one another and upon the whole[3]. In France, the only meaningful representation was the Estates-General, a body that had not convened for nearly two centuries by the time of the Revolution. While the Estates-General had been held inutile, the King was an absolute monarch. Even when it existed the Estates-General did little for the people because the three Estates were divided into Nobility, Church, and Peasantry and each estate had one vote. Since the interests of the Church and the Nobles were usually the same the Third Estate was largely powerless. There was even less representation for the peasants in the absence of the Estates-General. When the Estates-General was called in 1789 it was ineffective Knowing that they had no peaceful means to press their claims upon their King, the peasants, working class and the bourgeoisie (the Third Estate included all those who were not Nobility or Clergy) had no choice but to resort to a violent revolution to redress their grievances. As Abbé Sieyès, said, “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something[4]”. As a result of the revolution, it would become something indeed.

The revolution did not happen overnight it was the result of dire resentment fanned by a long campaign of anti-monarchy publications. A substantial proportion of the pamphlets of the Pre-Revolution grounded their political arguments upon historical claims[5]. History in such circumstances may often have been a pack of tricks; but, Voltaire notwithstanding, they were played more against the living than the dead[6]. The slanted view of history being presented by the revolutionaries was biased towards creating discontent against the King. It was a subtle form of trickery designed to sow the seeds of rebellion which found fertile soil among the angry French peasants. Abbé Sieyès’ earlier statement for example was very useful for inciting the peasants to rebel.

Given the nature of the Old Regime as a historically constituted social order, recourse to historical and jurisdictional arguments was a traditional response to the crises within the traditional body politic. It was a familiar feature for example, of the ideological struggles associated with the Wars of Religion and Fronde[7]. By presenting twisted views of the past to the people the revolutionaries inspired fervor for their cause. One particularly useful fact was that the monarchy had existed for centuries but did little to uplift the plight of the peasantry. Also, a historical fact was that the peasantry worked the land but received little benefit from their toil because most of their produce was siphoned to support the Nobles and Clergy. A popular drawing of a peasant working the land while carrying a noble and a priest was iconic of this setup. Symbols such as these were very effective in inciting the revolutionaries.

The revolution’s excesses included a ban on the public worship of Catholics. Naturally, the Catholics had to find ways of fighting back to oppose this oppressive measure. Catholics in prerevolutionary regions of France were especially likely to combine religious and revolutionary language in surprising ways and to transform and appropriate the language of the Revolution in support of Catholicism[8]. The political and religious activism of the Catholics in Yonne provides a representative illustration of the religious revival[9]. Often the same revolutionaries in the provinces who fought for greater freedom against the monarchy found that Religious freedom was being heavily truncated. Naturally, they felt the pressing need to oppose this, and since they were already experienced in the propaganda methods to overthrow a king it was easy for them to marshal those same abilities to end restrictions on their liberties. Often peaceful protests, sometimes not, would break out in order to restore religious freedom.

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The French Revolution’s excesses resulted in the reign of terror. Increasingly radical leaders would fall upon each other and send their predecessors to the guillotine to follow the King’s example. As more and more heads rolled the regime became increasingly unstable. The experiment with Democracy results in a series of reforms such as removing property requirements for voting which subsist to this day.

It would up to a young Corsican Artilleryman named Napoleon to restore order. Ironically, after working so hard to rid itself of a King, France would clamor for a man who would later claim the title of Emperor. Napoleon would soon thrust all of Europe to war and his Imperial legacy lives on to this day. For example, the Napoleonic code is the basis of the code of laws of many European Nations. Also, the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire and the eventual formation of the state of Germany were direct results of his reign.

In summary, the symbols and icons of the french revolution are recorded because they present the storied history of France during those turbulent years. The post-revolution years were bloody and chaotic but were an indispensable part of the formation of the modern French State.

The Cycles of History

History repeats itself, so goes the old truism. This is true of France from a historical perspective. Between the late 18th century to the early 20th century, France moved from the republic, the monarchy, and then the republic again in cycles. After ridding itself of Louis the XVI and his spendthrift wife Maria Antoinette France was a republic, at least in theory, only to revert to Monarchy under Napoleon. After Napoleon’s first defeat a puppet King was placed by Napoleon’s conquerors only to step aside once Napoleon returned from Exile. After Waterloo, France would become a republic. But it was an Emperor, Napoleon III, who would surrender in Paris in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. These cycles are marked by disenchantment with the previous form of government and thus a clamor for the other form. This can be compared to the way the United States elected Barack Obama, a Democrat, in part as a show of its gross dissatisfaction with George W. Bush and Republican rule.

Famine and poverty were what led the working class to support the first French Revolution. After realizing their power the French Working class would utilize this power again and again to realize needed reforms and to ventilate their demands. It was a truly unwise president/king that would ignore the pleas of the working class. This mentality subsists to this day. France can be considered a socialist state because of all the benefits it gives to its unemployed and its workers. benefits which were won by the working class in occasionally violent protests.

Another notable cycle can be seen in the way that foreign adventurism becomes the basis for the downfall of a regime. Louis the XVI spent vast sums of money supporting the Americans in their revolutionary war. Napoleon for his part spent the strength of his new nation trying to export the revolution to the rest of Europe. Both Monarchs would be deposed and the republican government would replace them.

Another noteworthy repetition was the suppression of the press. Prior to the revolution, the king had placed strict censorship against the press fearing its use to subvert imperial authority. Censorship resulted in the press going underground in the form of pamphlets and illegal newspapers. Whenever the press is forced to go underground widespread discontent results and a revolution is often not far behind. Due to the tendency of French History to repeat itself, historians analyze the symbols and rituals of the revolution as a means of preventing its horrors from ever returning.

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Lesson learned

The French Revolution was the result of long-held discontent against the monarchy. The French were tired of rule by a king, attempts by others to gain absolute power resulted in failure. Hence, in the current set-up of the French republic one man, indeed one party can only obtain so much power. French governments are typically coalition governments between different groups working together for a common aim. No single political party has a majority. As a result, many agendas are given weight and considered by the government as the members of the coalition government all try to press their own priorities into the governmental agenda. While this limits the effectiveness of the government since it has to attend to so many interests, it also means that most if not all groups are adequately represented and attended to. This makes the French Republic a truly representative government.

The French Revolution became possible because the bourgeois and working-class united with the peasants to overthrow the Monarchy and the Nobles. This was a lesson well learned by future governments. It can be said that France to this day has one of the most socialist democracies in the world. Workers are entitled to large separation pays and numerous benefits that exceed those of other Europeans. These protections were hard-won by the working class as a result of the French revolution and later revolts where the workers demonstrated their power. Successful French governments can not ignore the clamor of its working-class which has been emboldened by its past successes. Recently the working class has been increasingly active in pressing its rights amidst the global recession.

In conclusion, the symbols and rituals of the French Revolution are studied in the same manner that an Oracle or Priest of antiquity would study the signs in animals or stars. What happened then can very likely happen again and it is up to the present to strive to prevent the mistakes from being repeated.


Doyle, William (2001). The French Revolution: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192853961.

Baker Keith, Memory and Practice: Politics and the Representation of the Past in Eighteenth Century.

Desan, Suzanne. Redefining Revolutionary Liberty: The Rhetoric of Religious Revival during the French Revolution.

Film and Popular Memory: An interview with Micheal Foucalt.” Radical Philosophy.

Xavier Charmes., History and Documents Paris 1886.

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Francois Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution p. 33-36.

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