8. Riots in Paris and Its Environs
Activity in Paris — “Réveillon Affair” — First conflict between people of Paris and rich — “English gold”-Paris becomes centre of Revolution
Under such conditions it is easy to imagine that Paris could not remain quiet. Famine had set its grip upon the rural districts in the neighbourhood of the great city, as elsewhere. Provisions were as scarce in Paris as in the other large towns, and those who came in search of work could do nothing more than simply increase the multitude of the poor, especially in prospect of the great events which every one felt were on the way.
Towards the end of winter — in March and April — some hunger-riots and pillagings of corn are mentioned in the reports of the Governors of the provinces at Orléans, Cosnes, Rambouillet, Jouy, Pont-Sainte-Maxence, Bray-sur-Seine, Sens, Nangis, Viroflay, Montlhéry, &c. In other places within the region, in the forests around Paris, the peasants, as early as March, were exterminating all the rabbits and hares; even the woods belonging to the Abbey of Saint-Denis were cut down and carried away in the full view and knowledge of every one.
Paris was devouring revolutionary pamphlets, of which ten, twelve, or twenty were published every day, and passed rapidly from the hands of those who could afford to buy them into those of the poorest. People were excitedly discussing the pamphlet by Sieyès, Qu'est-ce que le tiers? Rabaud de Saint Etienne's Considerations sur les intérêts du tiers état du tiers etat, which was tinctured with Socialism, Les droits des états-généraux, by d'Entraigues, and a hundred other less famous, but often more mordant. All Paris was becoming excited against the Court and the nobles, and soon the middle-class revolutionaries went to the poorest suburbs and into the taverns on the outskirts to recruit the hands and the pikes that they needed to strike at royalty. Meanwhile, on April 28, the insurrection, known later as “The Réveillon Affair” broke out, an affair which seemed like one of the forerunners of the great days of the Revolution.
On April 27, the Electoral Assemblies met in Paris, and it seems that during the preparation of the cahiers in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine there was a disagreement between the middle classes and the working-men. The workers stated their grievances and the middle-class men replied with insults. Réveillon, a paper-manufacturer and stainer, formerly a workman himself, now by skilful exploitation come to be the employer of three hundred operatives, made himself especially prominent by the brutality of his remarks. They have been repeated many times since. “The working man can live on black bread and lentils: wheat is not for the likes of him,” &c.
Is there any truth in the connection which was made later on by the rich people, after the inquiry into “The éveillon Affair,” between the insurrection itself, and this fact mentioned by the toll-keepers, who declared that an immense multitude of suspicious-looking poor people clothed in rags had entered Paris just at that time? On this point there can only be conjectures, vain conjectures after all. Given the prevalent state of mind, with revolt simmering in the neighbourhood of Paris, was not Réveillon's attitude towards the workers quite enough in itself to explain what happened the following day?
On April 27, the people, infuriated by the opposition of the rich manufacturer and his brutal speeches, carried his effigy to the Place de la Grève for sentence and execution. At the Place Royale a rumour spread that the Third Estate had just condemned Réveillon to death. But evening came, and the crowds dispersed, spreading terror among the rich by their cries, which resounded in the streets all through the night. Finally, on the morning of the 28th, the crowds went to Reveillon's factory and compelled the workers to stop work; they then attacked the warehouse and plundered it. The troops arrived, and the people forthwith defied them by throwing stones, slates and furniture from the windows and the roof. On this the troops opened fire and for several hours the people defended themselves with great fury. The result was that twelve soldiers were killed and eighty wounded; and on the people's side there were two hundred killed and three hundred wounded. The workers took possession of their comrades' dead bodies and carried them through the streets of the suburbs. Several days after a riotous mob of five or six hundred men gathered at Villejuif, and tried to break open the doors of the Bicétre prison.
Here, then, was the first conflict between the people of Paris and the rich, a conifict which produced a deep impression. It was the first sight of the people driven to desperation, a sight which exercised a powerful influence on the elections by keeping away the reactionaries.
Needless to say that the gentlemen of the middle classes tried to prove that this outbreak was arranged beforehand by the enemies of France. Why should the good people of Paris have risen against a manufacturer?” “It was English money that incited them to revolt,” said some; “the gold of the aristocrats,” said the middle-class revolutionaries. No one was willing to admit that the people revolted simply because they suffered, and had endured enough of the arrogance of the rich, who added insults to their sufferings! From that time we see the growth of the legend which later on was to be used to reduce the Revolution to its parliamentary work, and to represent all the popular insurrections during the four years of the Revolution as accidents — the work of brigands or of agents paid either by Pitt or by the party of reaction. Still later the historians revived the legend: “Since the Court was able to use this riot as a pretext for rejecting the overtures of the States-General, therefore it must have been only the work of reactionaries.” How often have we not heard the same methods of reasoning used in our own time!
In reality the days from April 24 to 28 were merely fore-runners of the days of July II to July 14. A revolutionary spirit began to manifest itself among the people of Paris from that time onwards. Close by the Palais Royal, the revolutionary focus of the middle classes, were the faubourgs, the centres of the popular risings. Henceforth Paris became the focus of the Revolution, and the States-General, which were about to assemble at Versailles, came to rely upon Paris for the support they needed in pressing their demands and in their struggles against the Court.
^ Droz (Histoire du règne de Louis XVI.), a reactionary historian. has remarked aptly that the money found on some of the slain men may well have been the proceeds of plunder.