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The French Revolution: Human Rights

Who benefits from human rights?

“Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”. This is a slogan that flutters like a red-white-blue flag in a village party. It’s as beautiful like an antique. It is even a safe bet that a number of deputies are sincerely moved by the declaration put to the vote on August 26th. But do not let this legitimate impulse of emotion overshadow the question that kills: who are these “men free and equal in rights” exactly? Everybody? No, not quite.

Already “men” does not include blacks sold as slaves. These are part of another principle, the principle of “property”, which we will have the opportunity to see how much it is dear this to the hearts of the authors of the declaration of human rights. This does not prevent this story of freedom and equality, by the way, from scaring the wits out of the 33,000 French settlers in Santo Domingo who live from the work of 300,000 slaves. All men free and equal in rights? How so, all men? Including blacks? Panic on board! As soon as the text arrived on the island, the settlers hurried 21 deputies to Paris to try to stop this madness. The piquant side of the story is that to arrive at the figure of 21, they include slaves in the population they are supposed to represent. In other words, they use black slaves to inflate the number of deputies charged with keeping blacks in slavery, which is thought to be not bad. The Assembly will not work: it reduces the number of deputies to 6. In any case there was no danger in the residence because it has never had the slightest intention to abolish slavery.

One may ask: do “men” include women? There is a certain disinformation about this that is essential for certain feminist currents (especially American) who claim that the Revolution only sanctioned a patriarchal domination that lasted for centuries. The works of the historian Florence Gauthier on the rights of use or on the composition of the primary assemblies tend to show that it is a tendentious and erroneous vision and that in reality the place of men and women is almost equivalent in the West since the Middle Ages.

It is however not enough equivalent in the eyes of a certain Mrs. Aubry, daughter of a butcher of Montauban, born Marie Gouze and better known under the name of Olympe de Gouge. This woman, whose heart leans more on the side of the bourgeoisie than on the side of the common people, still has the merit of being a true feminist at a time when it should not be so easy to be one. Finding that women are too absent from political debates and societal debates, she writes a Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Citizen where she writes, for example: “Women have the right to go up on the scaffold; she must also have the right to go to the Tribune”. She tries to submit her text for the approval of the Assembly but without success. There is one point that is difficult to prove wrong, it is the right to vote. Women are deprived of it, as are comedians and Jews.

More generally, one thing is clear: in 1789, the expression “men free and equal in rights” excludes the totality of the common people, whether white or black, men or women. These 24.5 million people whose only wealth is their work force, the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie is doing everything it can to erase it from the political landscape. The proof of this methodical and systematic work on excluding the people is so numerous that we cannot name them all but we can give a brief overview.

Let’s start with the elections to the Estates General: Necker categorically refuses to let non-possessors vote. All those who are not written down in the registers of contributions will be excluded automatically, which still represents three or four million French people. To further refine the selection, a three-level system was setup. First level: to have the right to elect the electors, it is necessary to pay a sum equivalent to several days of work. It is the municipalities that decide how many days to pay. In Paris, it will be 6 days. It excludes two-thirds of the population. Second level: To be a voter and to elect deputies, one has to pay 10 days of work. Third level: to be a member of parliament, one has to pay 50 days of work. With this three-tiered system, no less than 21 million French people are excluded from politics.

In June 1791, the Le Chapelier law banned any form of workers’ coalition. In the words of the preamble to the law, “no one is allowed to inspire citizens with an intermediary interest, to separate them from public affairs by a spirit of cooperation”. It is forbidden for the workers to establish “any kind of police between themselves” and “to interfere directly or indirectly in discussions that may take place between the owners of the said manufactories and the workmen who are attached to them; to assemble, for this purpose, to divert the said workers, either orally or in writing, from the work with which they are charged”. In other words, the workers are forbidden to assemble and agree among themselves to defend their interests. Anything that has the flavour or smell of a union is illegal. It goes without saying that a strike is totally forbidden.

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In July 1791, the electoral law was hardened a little bit: to be a member of Parliament it is not enough to pay the equivalent of 50 days of work, you must also be a landowner.

In November 1792, a typical representative of the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie, Brissot, will send the people back to their transcendental nullity with a confusing frankness: “The people are made to serve the Revolution, but when it is accomplished, they must return home and let those who have more brains than them go to the trouble of leading them”. He could almost have added: for the Revolution that they must serve is not theirs, but ours.

In summary, although Article 6 of the Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “the law is the expression of the general will”, there comes a moment when we end up wondering if this famous “general will” is indeed the will of everyone.

The question is: why did the deputies take the trouble to vote for these “human and citizens’ rights” if they themselves do not believe in them and if they are determined to do not apply them? There are very specific reasons for that. Another sentence of the same article 6 gives us a little idea:

“All citizens being equal in his eyes are equally eligible for all dignities, places and public offices, according to their capacity, and without distinction other than that of their virtues and talents.”

Equality, yes, but especially in the sense that, in the name of this sacrosanct equality, it becomes unacceptable that a large number of jobs, offices, and functions continue to be reserved for the aristocracy and forbidden to the bourgeoisie. It becomes unacceptable that all political power remains in the hands of the nobility. This is the basis of the claim that breaks through in the declaration of human rights. The “revolutionary” bourgeoisie does not want to establish parity, man – woman, it does not wish to liberate the slaves who bring in a lot of money, nor does it intend to give the people the right to vote. What it wants is its piece of the cake. What counts is not so much that all men are declared equal among themselves, it is that the common people are proclaimed equal to the nobility.

Another reason that pushed the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie to vote for “human rights” is that it intends to protect property. Here is for example the list of “natural and imprescriptible rights of Man” as the declaration enumerates in Article 2: “freedom, property, security, and resistance to oppression”. In this order. Let’s go back to the list:

  • No. 1: freedom. Essentially the freedom to trade, to speculate, to pay our employees the price we want and to make our slaves work for free.
  • No. 2: property.
  • No. 3: security, in other words the right to defend property.
  • No. 4: resistance to oppression, in other words the right to do a bras d’honneur to parasites who would like to live on the back of the owners.

Article 17 of the declaration of human rights is even more explicit:

“Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of it, except when public necessity, legally established, obviously demands it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity.”

Property is therefore not only an “inviolable” right, but it is a “sacred” right. Infringing on property is worse than a crime, it is sacrilege.

The story of the fête of the Law makes it possible to understand how central this question of property is. In 1792, the price of basic necessities flared up. On March 3rd, a group of armed men arrived at Étampes and demanded that the mayor ask the producers and traders of his commune to lower the price of wheat. The mayor, Jacques Guillaume Simonneau, is a small industrialist who runs a tannery. Since he wants to defend those producers and traders who were his constituents and who he felt close to, he flatly refuses. The men insist. He stands firm, arguing that it would be against the law. One of the men then gives the unfortunate Simonneau a violent baton blow on the head, another points his rifle, fires, and kills him.

Three months later, a big celebration is organised in Paris. We start by looking for a name for the event. Simonneau died in the name of the Law? Well, we’ll call it the fête of the Law. What is interesting is the slogan that flourishes everywhere on the shields, signs, and walls of the city: the motto “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity” has given way to another motto: “Freedom, Equality, Property”. Fraternity is very good, but it’s a bit misty. We can put the thing into the trash without great harm. Property, on the other hand, is concrete, that’s solid. This is much more appropriate to pay homage to the martyr of the Law.

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What “law” is it exactly? A law that prohibits limiting the price of raw materials, even if prices soar, even if workers paid 20 cents a day must pay 14 cents for a loaf of bread. The profit margin of producers and traders is a non-negotiable prerogative, it overrides any other consideration. In a letter to the Convention dated November 18th 1792 concerning the popular unrest linked to the so-called “maximum” demand (including the fixing of a maximum price for bread), the Interior Minister Roland (an economist by training), writes this:

“The only thing that the Assembly can afford to do about subsistence is to pronounce that it must do nothing, that it should remove all obstacles, that it declares the most complete liberty on the circulation of commodities, that it does not determine any action, but that it deploys a great one against anyone who would attack this freedom.”

In other words, to do well is to leave things to their own devices. Let the market regulate everything by itself. This is the very definition of liberalism (1).

The following year, March 18th 1793 (2), the Girondin Convention passed an extravagant law that punished with death “whoever would propose an agrarian law or any other subversive of territorial, commercial, and industrial properties”. The “revolutionary” bourgeois took matters very far: for them, threatening property, even if only in a speech in front of deputies, becomes a crime of opinion that is so serious that it deserves only death.

It is only Robespierre who fights this madness. He opposes an idea inspired by ​​Rousseau: the right to existence. He thinks of course about slaves, but also about access to land for small farmers. On May 10th 1793, he made a speech in which he castigated the slave trade in incendiary terms. A deputy of the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie answers him. This member is called Vergniaud and he is not just anyone: he is one of the founders of the Girondins movement. As he is rather on the side of the business bourgeoisie, he takes great care to avoid the thorny problem of slavery and to treat the theme of property from a much more philosophical point of view:

“On the pain of dissolving the social body itself, protection is necessary, complete protection of property. The first object of the social union is the maintenance of properties. To touch property is to make intelligent energy subject to foolishness, activity subject to laziness, economic virtues subject to the emptiness of dissipation, it is to establish on the laborious, intelligent and economical man the tyranny of idleness, ignorance, debauchery.”

I draw your attention to Vergniaud’s rather hallucinatory reasoning. He could have said: all the virtues are on the side of work and all the vices on the other side (after all, it is said that idleness is the mother of all vices), but this is not at all what he says. He says almost the opposite: all the virtues are on the side of property and all the vices on the other side. On the property side: intelligent energy, activity, good management and economic knowledge. On the other side: foolishness, laziness, dissipation, idleness, ignorance, and debauchery. And yet who is there on the other side of the property? Those who do not have access to it, those who have nothing but their labour power, those whose only choice is to serve the wealthy. Of course, when you think about it for five seconds, the rant of Vergniaud is silly. It implies that the work of non-proprietors is not activity but laziness and idleness, which does not really mean anything (not to mention the debauchery, the relation of which with sauerkraut is hardly visible, but it will become a recurring theme of the reactionary propaganda: let go of the bridle a little bit to the worker and you will end up drunk in the bottom of a mess). Yet, silly as it is, the tirade of Vergniaud speaks volumes. It crushes the ceiling of Article 17 squarely: not only is property sacred, but it also sanctifies those who own it. Not only is it sanctified, but it is sanctifying.

Now I have to explain myself on one point: why these quotation marks when I speak of “revolutionary” bourgeois? Are they really revolutionary, yes or no? In a sense, yes, they are, because they want to overthrow the established order, but they are not in the sense that we usually hear it. They do not wish to lead a popular revolution at all, they only seek to recover for themselves the political power that the aristocracy and the high clergy have monopolised. They never question the necessity of an oligarchy as advocated by Voltaire, they simply want to go from one oligarchy to another. The people use it as a means or as a weapon to achieve their ends, but they intend to continue to exploit it in their own way.

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Does this mean that all the actors of the French Revolution are wealthy, cynical, and hypocritical people who despise and instrumentalise the people? Not at all. This is the moment to recall the existence of the two great political currents of the French Revolution: the Girondins and the Montagnards. The Girondins are these famous “revolutionary” bourgeois. The Montagnards are much more radical. They do not defend like the Girondins the 200,000 richest of the Third Estate, they defend the remaining 24.5 million. At school, we were introduced to the Girondins as reasonable and moderate people (so kind) and the Montagnards as hysterics thirsty for blood (such bad guys). Obviously we can not stop at this crude caricature. If we had to make a rough comparison with the current political landscape, let us say that the privileged classes would be the conservative right of Sarkozy or Fillon (each defends their meadow), the Girondins would be comparable to the Socialist Party of Hollande (the words of the left to enjoin the people but a practice of the right focused on property and the enrichment of the favoured classes) and the Montagnards would be comparable to the extreme-left of Mélenchon or Besancenot (one destroys the established order and one replaces it by a just order for everyone).

The difficulty that we immediately come up against is that on the Montagnard side as well as on the Gironde side, a certain number of schemers and scavengers see in the murky waters of the Revolution only an opportunity to do some good fishing. On the Girondin side, we have already spoken about Mirabeau. He is a master of the genre but he is not the only one of his kind. On the Montagnard side, there are also grim characters.

Many historians cite Hébert, pamphleteer and owner of the newspaper “Le Père Duchesne”, as the typical example of disgusting Montagnards. People as opposed as leftist historian Henri Guillemin and right-wing historian Marion Sigaut agree on at least one point: they both regard Hébert to be a veritable concentrate of baseness and vulgarity. An anecdote seems to prove them right: to condemn the queen to death, he does not hesitate to accuse her of having taught her eight-year-old son to masturbate. This accusation being based on a statement that the kid was made to sign after having drunk and forcibly had a false confession dragged out of him, there is probably not a word of truth in this story. It is true that the process is downright abject, but perhaps it is necessary to distinguish between certain ignoble behaviour of a fellow and the contents of his newspaper. The prose of “Le Père Duchesne” appalled Marion Sigaut to the highest point because it is riddled with “fuck!” and other obscenities. Certainly, Charlie Hebdo did worse. Antoine de Baeque has a point of view much less clearcut. He describes “Le Père Duchesne” as “a loudmouth […] wielding an original and popular verb, raised, lively, sometimes obscene, a sort of Parisian slang adorned with funny and pictorial expressions”. He concludes that “this corpus of more than 3000 pages is one of the most exciting and complex of the French Revolution” (3).

The worst of the band are probably a small clique of corrupt Montagnards who let themselves be bribed by the counter-revolution and spend most of their time in apartment buildings built by the Duke of Orleans around the gardens of the Palais-Royal, a poorly-known place full of gambling dens, brothels, where a press has been set up to make false assignats, etc.

In short, there are black sheep in both camps. But from this marshland of doubtful revolutionists emerge some great Montagnard figures, honest men like Marat or Robespierre, who are much more sincerely concerned than the Girondins with the question of the equality of all citizens, including women, slaves, and proletarians.


(1) The Constituent Assembly is not the first to attempt to establish a liberal policy. Turgot had already made it very clear that, in his opinion, the administration should never deal in commerce. In 1774 he tried to apply this principle by publishing an edict decreeing the liberalisation of the grain trade, but the idea had been abandoned after the ensuing food riot (the so-called “flour war” that we have already spoken about and which resulted in the hanging of a 28-year-old wig-maker and a 16-year-old friend gas worker at Place de Greve).

(2) In his book Traité du domaine de propriété, p.236 in the 1841 edition, Proudhon dates this law of May 10th 1793, but it seems that he was mistaken with the date. See for example the article by Florence Gauthier.

(3) Antoine de Baeque, La France et la Révolution, at Taillandier. The reader can make up his own mind about “Le Père Duchesne” because the complete issues published during the revolution can be consulted here.


Jean-Philippe Gaborieau

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One Comment

  1. A A 9th August 2019

    Acts 16:31, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, 1 Peter 1:17-21, Revelation 22:18-19

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