The French Revolution
(Révolution française, La)
Starring: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Jane Seymour,
François Cluzet, Jean-François
Balmer, et al.
Directors: Robert Enrico & Richard T. Heffron
for use in U.S. and Canada only); Color
Number of tapes: 2.
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A history of the French Revolution from the decision of the
king to convene the Etats-Généraux in 1789 in
order to deal with France's debt problem. The first part of
the movie tells the story from 1789 until August 10, 1792
(when the King Louis XVI lost all his authority and was put
in prison). The second part carries the story through the
end of the terror in 1794, including the deaths by guillotine
of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Danton, and Desmoulins.
Summary written by
The French Revolution (1789-99) violently transformed France from a monarchical
state with a rigid social hierarchy into a modern nation in which the social structure
was loosened and power passed increasingly to the middle classes.
There is considerable controversy over the causes of the Revolution. Marxist
scholars emphasize material factors: as the population increased, food supplies grew
short; land had become divided into such small parcels that most Frenchmen lived close
to the subsistence level; and after 1776 agricultural recession forced property owners
to exploit their sources of revenue. Marxists also maintain that commercial prosperity
had stimulated the growth of a monied middle class that threatened the position of the
established landed aristocracy. Other social historians emphasize the importance of the
growing discrepancy between reality and the legally defined social structure, which
distinguished men by hereditary or acquired rank and recognized corporate rather than
individual rights. They also emphasize, however, the complexity of French society and
question the importance of capitalism.
Political historians usually regard the weakness of the monarchy as a crucial factor.
Nominally, the benevolent Louis XVI (r. 1774-92) was the absolute ruler of a united
country. Actually, so many rights, or privileges, were retained by provinces, towns,
corporate bodies, the clergy, and the nobility that the king had little freedom of
action. Moreover, since offices in the legal and administrative system--and the noble
rank that went with them--could be purchased and bequeathed as property, a new
aristocracy of ennobled officials had developed. These men were able to monopolize
profitable employment, to frustrate royal reforms, and to prevent the monarchy from
raising taxes to meet the ever-increasing costs of government and of war. Some writers
contrast the arbitrariness of the old regime with the desire, stimulated by the
Enlightenment and the example of America, for reforms and more participation in
government; curiously, few historians have attached much importance to the gradual
growth of national consciousness.
The expense of the French participation in the American Revolution made fiscal reform
or increased taxation imperative after 1783. Since no further revenue could be raised
from a peasantry already overburdened by taxes and manorial dues, the royal ministers
-- particularly Charles Alexandre de Calonne -- attempted to tax all landowners
regardless of privileges. When this plan met with resistance in the law courts and
provincial assemblies, the ministers tried to replace those bodies with more
representative ones. In 1788 this led to the Aristocratic Revolt, a wave of defiance of
"despotism" that compelled the ministers to agree to convene the States-General for the
first time since 1614.
THE COURSE OF THE
The Revolution of 1789
The first phase of the Revolution was marked by moral and physical violence. The
States-General met in 1789 in Versailles but were paralyzed by the refusal of the Third
Estate (the Commons) to meet separately as a distinct, inferior body. On June 17 the
Commons took the crucial revolutionary step of declaring their assembly to be the
National Assembly, thereby destroying the States-General. This first assertion of the
sovereign authority of the nation soon inspired a popular rising in Paris, marked by the
storming of the Bastille on July 14. Concurrently, urban and rural revolts occurred
throughout France. Suspicions generated by the political crisis had aggravated the
discontent aroused by the failure of the 1788 harvest and an exceptionally severe
winter. The peasants pillaged and burned the chateaus of the aristocracy--an episode
known as the Grande Peur ("Great Fear")--destroying the records of their manorial dues.
The National Assembly established a new legal structure by abolishing privileges,
venality, and "feudal" obligations (August 4); formulating a Declaration of Rights
(August 26); and specifying basic constitutional principles that left the king as the
chief executive officer but deprived him of any legislative power except a suspensive
veto. Louis's reluctance to sanction these decrees led to a second Parisian uprising,
the so-called March of the Women. On October 5 a mob marched to Versailles and forced
the king, who had to be protected by the revolutionary national guard under the marquis
de Lafayette, to capitulate. Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were moved
immediately to Paris, followed by the Assembly. France thus became a constitutional
monarchy, and legal distinctions between Frenchmen disappeared; but the king was
practically a prisoner, and many people were permanently alienated by the pretensions
of the Assembly and the prevailing disorder.
The Reconstruction of France
In 1789-91, a comparatively peaceful period, the National Assembly did much to
modernize France. Despite the Declaration of Rights, the reformed franchise still
excluded the poor; but the public maintained its faith in freedom and unity, as shown
in the first Festival of Federation, a celebration of national unity on July 14, 1790.
Bankruptcy was averted by the confiscation of ecclesiastical land, and the church and
law courts were reconstructed to conform with a rational and uniform system of local
government by elected councils. Dissension nevertheless developed as several drastic
changes, such as the reorganization of the church by the Civil Constitution of the
Clergy (1790), followed in rapid succession. In 1791 the call for a clerical oath of
loyalty crystallized the conflict between the new sovereignty and traditional loyalties
and split the whole country.
When King Louis tried to escape from Paris (the flight to Varennes, June 20, 1791),
civil war seemed imminent. The Assembly, however, retained control. A Parisian crowd,
which had assembled to demand a republic, was dispersed by force on July 17, and Louis
was reinstated after he had accepted the completed Constitution of 1791. The Revolution
was then believed to be over, and the National Assembly was dissolved on September 30.
In reality, however, religious and social strife had shattered the unity of the Third
The Revolution of 1792
In 1791-92 the hard-won constitution collapsed. On Apr. 20, 1792, the new
Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria, which it believed to be instigating
counterrevolutionary agitation and thus launched the French Revolutionary Wars. Louis,
who looked to Austria for succor, vetoed emergency measures, and Austrian and Prussian
forces invaded France. Insurrection broke out in Paris. On August 10 the palace was
stormed, and Louis was imprisoned by a new revolutionary Commune of Paris. The
Legislative Assembly, reduced to a "patriotic" rump, could only dispute the Commune's
pretensions and order the election by manhood suffrage of a National Convention.
Meanwhile, the invaders took Verdun, and alleged counterrevolutionaries were massacred
in the prisons of Paris.
Foundation of the Republic
Born of this second revolution and briefly favored by military victory, the National
Convention horrified Europe by establishing a republic (Sept. 22, 1792), inaugurating a
policy of revolutionary war, and sending the king to the guillotine on Jan. 21, 1793. It
also appalled France by its own furious disputes. A militant minority, the Montagnards,
who spoke for Paris and the left-wing club called the Jacobins, demanded vigorous
revolutionary measures. Their opponents, the Girondist leaders of the amorphous majority,
looked to the provinces and hoped to consolidate the Revolution. In the spring of 1793,
as the military and economic situation deteriorated and a savage royalist rising began
in the Vendee region of western France, the Montagnards gained ground. Emergency bodies
such as the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal were then
established, but unified leadership was lacking until the Parisian insurrection of June
2 compelled the Convention to expel the Girondists and accept Montagnard control.
The Reign of Terror, 1793-94
The Montagnard Convention then had to contend with invasion, royalist civil war, and
widespread provincial revolts against "the dictatorship of Paris." Initially, Georges
Danton tried to placate the provinces, and the democratic Constitution of 1793 was
approved by plebiscite and celebrated at a Festival of Unity (August 10). After July,
however, Maximilien Robespierre's influence prevailed, and armies were sent to subdue
rebellious cities. When the city of Toulon voluntarily surrendered to the British, a
demonstration in Paris compelled the National Convention to establish (September 5) the
repressive regime known as the Terror. A fearful time ensued: the Committee of Public
Safety strove to organize the economy and the war effort; the Revolutionary Tribunal
sent state prisoners, including the Girondists, to the guillotine; and agents of the
Convention known as Representatives of the People enforced bloody repression throughout
France. A campaign of dechristianization, marked by a new Revolutionary Calendar
computed from Sept. 22, 1792 (1 Vendemiaire, Year I), led to the closing of all churches
on 3 Frimaire, Year II (Nov. 23, 1793).
From December 1793, when republican armies began to prevail, both at home and abroad,
the Terror became identified with ruthless but centralized revolutionary government.
Because dissidence was now classified as counterrevolutionary, moderate Montagnards such
as Danton and extremists such as Jacques Rene Hebert, a leader of dechristianization,
were guillotined early in 1794. The centralization of repression also brought
innumerable victims before the Revolutionary Tribunal, whose work was expedited by the
draconian Law of 22 Prairial (June 10). As a result of Robespierre's insistence on
associating Terror with Virtue, his efforts to make the republic a morally united
patriotic community became equated with the endless bloodshed. Finally, after a decisive
military victory over the Austrians at Fleurus (June 26), Robespierre was overthrown by
a conspiracy of certain members of the National Convention on 9 Thermidor (July 27,
1794). After trying in vain to raise Paris, the Robespierrist deputies and most members
of the Commune were guillotined the next day, July 28.
The Thermidorian Reaction
During the ensuing period (1794-95) of the Thermidorian Reaction, government was so
weakened that anarchy and runaway inflation almost overwhelmed the republic. In the
southeast the royalists conducted a "white terror," and in Paris gangs of draft-dodgers,
called la jeunesse doree ("gilded youth"), persecuted the patriots. Twice, in Germinal
and Prairial (April and May, 1795), there were desperate risings demanding "Bread and
the Constitution of 1793." Without the Montagnards and Jacobins, however, whose club was
closed in November 1794, the sansculottes ("those without kneebreeches," the name given
to extreme republicans) could achieve nothing, and the Convention broke the popular
movement permanently with the aid of the army. The death (1795) of the imprisoned
dauphin (titular King Louis XVII) and an unsuccessful royalist landing in Brittany also
checked the reaction toward monarchy, enabling the Convention to complete the
Constitution of 1795. This liberal settlement was approved by plebiscite, and it took
effect after a reactionary rising in Vendemiaire (Oct. 5, 1795) had been suppressed by
General Napoleon Bonaparte (the future Emperor Napoleon I) with what he described as "a
whiff of grapeshot."
The Directory, 1795-99
The Constitution of 1795 established an executive Directory, two assemblies, and a
property owners' franchise. Many provisions, including the initial derivation of
two-thirds of the deputies from the Convention, guarded the republic against any
reversion to either democratic Terror or monarchy. The only attempt to renew violent
revolution, Francois Babeuf's communistic Conspiracy of Equals (May 1796), was easily
thwarted; but executive weakness and the annual election of one-third of the deputies
made stability unattainable.
In 1797 the directors purged the parliament ruthlessly, branding many deputies as
royalists and sentencing them to the penal colony of French Guiana (called "the dry
guillotine"). This coup d'etat of Fructidor (September 1797) was a devastating blow to
all moderates. Thereafter, although administration improved and French power increased
in Europe, coups against conservative or radical revivals occurred annually until 1799,
when the Abbe Sieyes, determined to strengthen central authority, enlisted the aid of
Bonaparte to effect the coup d'etat of Brumaire (November 9-10).
The Consulate, 1799-1804
The Constitution of 1799 established the Consulate with Bonaparte as First Consul.
He used his power to effect a remarkable reorganization of France, most notably
reestablishing centralized control and restoring Catholicism by the Concordat of 1801.
Constitutional controls and republican institutions were nonetheless steadily eroded
until the creation of the First Empire (1804-15) ended the revolutionary period.
The most concrete results of the French Revolution were probably achieved in 1789-91,
when land was freed from customary burdens and the old corporate society was destroyed.
This "abolition of feudalism" promoted individualism and egalitarianism but probably
retarded the growth of a capitalist economy. Although only prosperous peasants were able
to purchase land confiscated from the church and the emigrant nobility, France became
increasingly a land of peasant proprietors. The bourgeoisie that acquired social
predominance during the Directory and the Consulate was primarily composed of officials
and landed proprietors, and although the war enabled some speculators and contractors
to make fortunes, it delayed economic development. The great reforms of 1789-91
nevertheless established an enduring administrative and legal system, and much of the
revolutionaries' work in humanizing the law itself was subsequently incorporated in the
Politically, the revolution was more significant than successful. Since 1789 the
French government has been either parliamentary and constitutional or based on the
plebiscitary system that Napoleon inherited and developed. Between 1789 and 1799,
however, democracy failed. Frequent elections bred apathy, and filling offices by
nomination became commonplace even before Napoleon made it systematic. The Jacobins'
fraternal--and Jacobin-controlled--community expired in 1794, the direct democracy of
the sansculottes was crushed in 1795, and the republic perished in 1804; but as ideals
they continued to inspire and embitter French politics and keep right and left, church
and state, far apart.
The Revolution nevertheless freed the state from the trammels of its medieval past,
releasing such unprecedented power that the revolutionaries could defy, and Napoleon
conquer, the rest of Europe. Moreover, that power acknowledged no restraint: in 1793
unity was imposed on the nation by the Terror. Europe and the world have ever since
been learning what infringements of liberty can issue from the concepts of national
sovereignty and the will of the people.
M. J. Sydenham, Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9, ©1997
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