The French Revolution for Dummies (and ‘Les Misérables’ Watchers)

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The French Revolution for Dummies (and ‘Les Misérables’ Watchers)

By Andrew Carter |

The film, Les Misérables, based on the enormously successful Broadway musical, is a sprawling historical epic set against the backdrop of revolutionary France. Now, mention of the French Revolution usually conjures up images of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette recommending that hungry subjects eat cake before being led off the guillotine. But neither makes an appearance here. In fact, both those guys lost their heads by 1793, while the events of Les Miserables don’t begin until 1815. Here’s what else you might not know:

The Monarchy

The French Revolution ended the age of absolute monarchy in France, but was followed by the Reign of Terror, a violent spell in which rival factions dueled it out for power, resulting in the executions of nearly 40,000 people. What emerged from the rubble was an empire under Napoleon I. A popular general, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power after a coup d’état in 1799. He was made first consul, then consul for life in 1802, and then emperor in 1804. But Napoleon’s dynasty did not last quite as long as the monarchy that had come before it—his collapsed in 1814 after a series of military defeats, including a failed invasion of Russia. He was briefly restored the following year, after escaping from his island exile. But his restoration was brief. Following the famous defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled once more—this time to an island much further away.

But France wasn’t ready for a genuine democracy just yet. Instead the country saw the return of the Bourbon monarchy through Louis XVI’s younger brothers. First, Louis XVIII, followed by Charles X. Even then, the revolutions were far from over. After elections in May 1830 resulted in a majority unfavorable to Charles X, he responded by dissolving the Chamber of Deputies and instituting repressive ordinances, which led the people to ... revolt. During the July Revolution of 1830, Charles abdicated in favor of his young grandson. But Charles’s cousin Louis-Philippe concealed the abdication document, and the crown was offered to, what do you know, Louis-Philippe! He reigned until another revolution dethroned him in 1848.

Thus, France was still governed by a king during the most tumultuous events of the movie, even though they take place nearly 40 years after the French Revolution began.

Jean Maximilien Lamarque

Occasionally mentioned in the movie, Gen. Jean Maximilien Lamarque was a military hero of Napoleon’s era who was opposed to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy following the general’s exile. He became a popular opposition leader during the years of the Bourbon restoration. When he died of cholera in June 1832, there was much fear that the population’s physical and economic well-being was in danger.

June Rebellion of 1832

Just as it does in the film, popular resentment and fear swelled after Lamarque’s death. Opposition groups felt they had lost their hero, and many, especially supporters of the Republic, were bitter and felt that their revolution of 1830 had been “stolen” by those who had made Louis-Philippe the king. The feelings of resentment and discontent bubbled over during Lamarque’s funeral, when a crowd of over 100,000 people descended on the streets of Paris. The demonstration eventually devolved into clashes between protesters and soldiers; dozens of barricades had been erected within two hours of the initial skirmishes. But few of the marchers had actually arrived ready to fight, and few of the unprepared protesters sought to join them. Just as in the film, the small group that had armed itself was massacred.

The entire battle was over just 24 hours after it began; 800 protesters were killed or injured. The king continued to reign for another 16 years. The June revolution of 1832 accomplished little. In fact, historians believe that this event would have been largely forgotten if Victor Hugo had not chosen it to set the scene for Les Misérables.

Les Miserables - Historical Background

By Wade Bradford |
Following the exile of Napoleon, the monarchy was re-established and King Louis XVIII assumed the throne. The story of Les Miserables is set in 1815, near the beginning of the new king's reign.
"At the End of the Day":

In Les Miserables, the audience witnesses a population plagued by decades of oppression, warfare, economic strife, famine, and disease. Despite all of the revolutions and changing political parties, the lower classes still have little voice in society.

The musical reveals the harsh life of the lower class, as exemplified by the tragedy of Fantine, a young woman who is fired from her factory job after it is discovered the she bore a child (Cosette) out of wedlock. After losing her position, Fantine is forced to sell her personal belongings, her hair, and even her teeth, all so that she can send money to her daughter. Ultimately, Fantine becomes a prostitute, falling to the lowest rung of society.

The July Monarchy:

Jean Valjean promises the dying Fantine that he will protect her daughter. He adopts Cosette, paying off her greedy, cruel caretakers, Monsieur and Madame Thenadier. Fifteen years pass peacefully for Valjean and Cosette as they hide in an abbey. During the course of the next fifteen years, King Louis dies, King Charles X takes over briefly. The new king is soon exiled in 1830 during the July Revolution, also known as the Second French Revolution. Louis Philippe d'Orléans assumes the throne, beginning a reign known as the July Monarchy.
In the story of Les Miserables, Valjean's relatively tranquil existence becomes imperiled when Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young member of "Friends of the ABC," a fictional organization created by author Victor Hugo, one that mirrors many of the small revolutionary groups of the time. Valjean risks his life by joining the rebellion in order to save Marius.
The June Rebellion:
Marius and his friends represent the sentiments expressed by many free-thinkers in Paris. They wanted to reject the monarchy and return France to a republic once more. The Friends of the ABC strongly support a liberal-minded politician named Jean Lamarque. (Unlike the Friends of the ABC, Lamarque is non-fictional. He was a general under Napoleon who became a member of France's parliment. He was also sympathetic to the republican ideologies.) When Lamarque was dying of cholera, many people believed that the government had poisoned public wells, resulting in the deaths of popular political figures.

Enjolras, the leader of The Friends of the ABC, knows that Lamarque's death may serve as an important catalyst to their revolution.

The End of the Uprising:
As depicted in the novel and musical Les Miserables, the June Rebellion did not end well for the rebels. They barricaded themselves in the streets of Paris. They expected that the people would support their cause; however they soon realized that no reinforcements would be joining them.

According to historian Matt Boughton, both sides suffered casualties: "166 killed and 635 wounded on both sides during the course of the struggle." Of those 166, 93 were members of the rebellion.

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