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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

Inspirations - The Hands of the People

To begin, the kernel of this story is the claque, organised professional applauders in French theatre, circa the 1820s. I have used creative license to have someone with a similar job 30 years before, near the start of the French Revolution. The claque was ritualised, and here Jean-Léon's role is looser, to reflect that the formalised claque has not begun yet - this is just a retired actor engaged to hype the crowd, the same way a modern social media influencer might be hired to talk up a product.

I've been promising a French Revolution story since this podcast began, and if you've listened to or read this story you can no doubt tell it's a topic I'm passionate about. Broadly, France's institutions collapsed, and the revolutionaries set out to "remake their world on the basis of the principles of popular sovereignty, national unity, and civic equality," as Australian historian Peter McPhee puts it in his excellent, detailed book Liberty or Death.

This story is set during the September massacres of 1791. On August 10 1791, leftist leaders and working class revolutionaries in Paris ousted the King and forced the Legislative Assembly to hold elections for a new National Convention, to create a monarch-free constitution with wider suffrage. In the early days of September, spontaneous bands began executing prisoners, in wonky mock trials.

Historians still debate whether any of the revolutionary leaders planned the massacres. The bloodthirsty journalist Marat did call for the execution of prisoners, so he has some culpability. Some moderate Girondins made ineffectual efforts to stop them. Robespierre likely wasn't involved - as much as we associate Robespierre with the Reign of Terror, he immediately denounced this violence. I personally do not think Danton plotted them - he seems capable of ruthless realpolitik, but historians haven't found a smoking gun for him to undertake a plot that would have risked his authority, to little appreciable gain.

I believe the massacres were spontaneous, and that there was little the people who had just taken charge could have done to stop them - the National Guard would not have been willing to use force to stop these popular uprisings, and representatives of the newly established insurrectionary Paris Commune participated in the massacres in an ineffectual attempt to moderate them.

So why did they happen? As I go into in the story, it was a perfect storm - a foreign army marching on Paris, the French army disorganised and its generals fleeing or resigning, the threats of invading General Brunswick, distrust of the royals since Louis XVI's failed attempt to flee Paris, proof of genuine aristocratic conspiracies, cynical politicians waiting for the revolution to fail - and a genuine belief in a vast prison conspiracy. A diverse group of people did what they thought was necessary, and the people of the city let them do it. And so, mock courts like the one in my story were set up at several places in Paris, likely executing far more innocent than guilty.

Combining my professional applauder with these massacres, this story is about the destabilising intersection of politics and the audience, a major factor in the French Revolution, and relevant today in the role of social media in spreading political misinformation. Politicians influence the mob, and the mob influences politicians, and these feedback loops can take governments in bizarre directions.

One element of my story that is unrealistic, is how the mob frees a prostitute. The revolution was often spectacularly misogynistic, and I think in real life these mock trials would have been far more likely to execute her, as they did many other ordinary criminals.

One thing I held back on... The playwright Beaumarchais, author of the Figaro plays, was in fact arrested in August 1791, but released just a few days before the massacres took place. While this story links politics and theatre, including him in the story would have been too much of a stunt... and anyway, I had already put Diderot in my Beauty and the Beast story, just as a treat.

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