It was an anti-monarchist insurrection on the streets of Paris in the early summer of 1832, crushed within less than 2 days of its instigation, and to be honest it might have been almost completely forgotten by history, at least outside of France, if it hadn't been for one very important eyewitness. Instead, exactly 30 years later, it became the centrepiece of one of the most well-known French novels of all time, which in turn gave birth to the world's longest-running musical well over a century later, and now a hugely successful film, so the story of the 93 students who gave up their lives over the course of those 48 hours have ended up becoming an incredibly well-known part of French history, their cause made heroic and tragic in equal measure. It was yet another upheaval in the incredibly messy century which followed France's first Revolution, an uprising against yet another unpopular monarchy and a resurgence of Republican sentiment in a country which had seemingly thrown that idea away. History is written by the winners but in this particular case Victor Hugo rewrote it, ensuring their story would never be forgotten.

The French Revolution which began in 1789 would overthrow the monarchy but it would not be the last France would see of the Bourbons. In 1814, Napoleon's final defeat saw him abdicate and Louis XVIII was recalled to power as the closest living descendant to the previous King. That King, Louis XVI, had of course been executed and his young son Louis XVII had since died in prison, and so his younger brother Louis was presumptive heir to the abolished throne. He had spent the duration of the Revolution and Napoleon's reign in exile but was invited back as King, though he would be ousted again the following year when Napoleon sensationally escaped and usurped him. Napoleon himself would then be turfed out again 111 days later by a European coalition and infamous defeat at Waterloo, Louis XVIII returning again, this time for just under a decade. When he died, childless, the throne passed to his brother Charles X, who ruled for 6 years before being elbowed out in the July Revolution of 1830, planting the seeds for the story we will be telling today.

I told you it was a mess. 

Louis and Charles had returned France to something it had thought itself rid of: rule by hereditary right. A defeated France though had been at the whims of the great European monarchies (the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria and Prussia) in 1814 who had thought France better ruled by monarchs after the costly wars waged by their Republican successors. So the French were lumped with a Bourbon Restoration they didn't really want, rewinding the tape to 1789 both in terms of rule and territory, all of Napoleon's gains dissolved. Louis had understood that he wasn't all that popular and his authority shaky, immediately giving up many of his powers in "La Charte", a constitution which guaranteed certain rights to his people and kept republican fervour significantly dampened. Charles was not to be so liberal though and many instantly began to see him as an enemy of La Charte, with public sentiment rising up against him through the late 1820's, a situation he tried to combat with press censorship, predictably decreasing his already waning popularity even further. In early 1830 a motion of no confidence was made against the King and Charles retaliated by dissolving Parliament and the National Guard. Then, in late July, Charles made his final error, announcing he himself would govern by ordinances while suspending the liberty of the press. The people of France were utterly disgusted, journalists gathered in Paris in protest and over the course of 3 dramatic days, Charles was overthrown, forced to abdicate in favour of his grandson, the 9-year-old Henri. Louis Philippe, the powerful Duke of Orleans, ignored this and installed himself as monarch instead, becoming King Louis Philippe I. The Bourbons fled to England in disguise, their days ruling France finally over.

After all this, the French were still left with a monarch they didn't really want, though this one had at least promised to find a "juste milieu" (just middle) between the "excesses of popular power and the abuses of royal power". France was in some degree of chaos though, beset by economic problems and food shortages which hit the poor and an increase in property prices which hit the rich. In the spring of 1832 there was a European-wide outbreak of cholera which thumped Paris particularly hard, killing over 18,000 of its citizens, most of them poor, spurring a hysteria which convinced many the government were trying to poison them. On 2nd June, the cholera would kill General Jean Maximilien Lamarque and this, as the novel and musical both make clear, was the final catalyst for the building of the barricades. Lamarque was an ageing French war hero from the Napoleonic campaigns who had later become a sympathetic voice for the poor within the French Parliament, a known opponent of the "ancien regime" the Bourbons had personified, and an icon for the leftist cause. Whether his death really did cause the Rebellion or not is ripe for historical debate (despite Hugo's insistence that it was) though it was certainly, at the very least, used as an excuse for an eruption in the rising tensions.

The Republicans would begin the insurrection, joined in short time by discontented working men and youngsters who helped them build the barricades and then joined in the fight. It was actually quite well organised, with groups of 20 assembling across the capital as small armies, and for the night of 5th June they were in command of the city's eastern section. 25,000 soldiers and the National Guard forced them back and surrounded them at Porte Saint-Martin, resulting in the climactic Battle of Cloitre Saint-Mercy where they was finally crushed, with 166 killed and 635 wounded on both sides during the course of the struggle. Their defeat would practically end the revolutionary movement in France for another 16 years, though they would all remain martyrs to the cause. Victor Hugo heard the gunfire from the insurrection at the Tuilieries Gardens where he was writing, so he followed the sounds despite the great danger afoot in a city which had at that point been half taken over by an angry mob. He saw the barricades at Les Halles and at one point was caught in the crossfire of bullets between the two sections, his experiences that night becoming the germ of an idea for one of the great works of French literature, the intervening years having brought yet more conflict and upheaval.

Indeed, in 1848 much of Europe was beset by Revolution, though France would again be the trigger and really the events were just a sorry sequel to the 1830 crisis, the same old problems recycled yet again into discontent and drama. This time the monarchy was completely overthrown and a republic again declared, with Napoleon's nephew Louis-Napoleon installed as President, though within 4 years he would declare himself Emperor and France would be back to monarchy yet again. It was his reign in which "Les Miserables" would be published, the so-called "Second Empire", and certainly there was some consternation that the great writer and poet had seemingly glorified the revolutionary sentiment which had been tearing the nation apart for over 60 years. It was a huge commercial success though, right across Europe and even as far away as North America, who were after all right in the middle of their own major conflict. It is still popular today, revitalised by the musical which is based on it and which has been continuously running in London's West End for over 27 years. This past winter also saw the release of a major film based on the musical, which yet again reframed the story of this day in 1832 and brought the sacrifices of those involved to  light for an even bigger global audience.


Twitter @PadrinoMatt

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