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Propaganda of the French Revolution
How the off-color humor and lowbrow songs of working-class radicals fueled a major turning point in European history
By Courtney Suciu
When working-class radicals stormed the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, it changed the course of European history. This event is considered the beginning of the French Revolution, and the demise of a system of rule by hereditary monarchies throughout Europe.
The insurrectionists, fed up with the high price of food and the rule of the feudal aristocracy, sought to demolish the Old Regime (with as much violence as necessary) and establish a system of liberty and equality, run by and for the people.
However, many of these poor and working-class early revolutionaries were illiterate, which posed a particular problem. Unable to communicate and rouse support for their cause through newspapers and leaflets, how did they appeal to the populace and stoke the fires of revolt?
By looking at propaganda of the French Revolution we can discover the essential part political cartoons and music played in galvanizing the people’s pursuit of “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
A working-class revolution
Revolutionary-era France was inundated with pamphlets calling for a revolt. They were generally written by and for intellectuals, espousing Enlightenment philosophies of liberty and equality and calling for rebellion against the monarchy and the feudal aristocracy that ruled the nation.
“While there were many pamphlets for people to read in Paris in the summer of 1789, there was not a lot of bread for them to eat,” according to Gregory Brown, author of Cultures in Conflict: The French Revolution1. “Indeed, there was a dire shortage of food.”
“By tradition,” he explained, “when prices for necessary food items, such as bread, rose beyond what ordinary people considered a fair price, the people would hold protests.”
On July 14, a mob formed at City Hall to demand bread and arms for a militia. When these demands were denied, they flocked to an armory known as the Invalides, seized its cannons, “then marched off to demand powder at the fortress on the eastern edge of Paris known as the Bastille.”
The storming of the Bastille prison set off a chain of events which marked the start of the Revolution. “As news spread, people across France interpreted the taking of the Bastille as a sign that ordinary people, motivated by their patriotic conviction, had become involved in the political affairs of the day,” Brown wrote.
These working-class radicals called themselves the sansculottes (literally meaning “without underwear”), to differentiate themselves from the nobles and bourgeoisie who wore silken britches in the style of the day.
“Parisian workers saw themselves as patriots, the backbone of the Revolution, who sought to advance the cause of the people,” Brown continued. And, “patriots admired the sansculottes, because they were not fancy-pants lawyers or merchants but instead ordinary people with nothing personally to gain from their civic activism.”
The problem was that most of the poor and working-class masses eager to seize their nation from the control of wealthy elite were illiterate. So, satirical caricatures depicting current events and mocking the ruling classes became of vital importance for sharing news of the day, and provoking support for the revolutionary cause.
The popularity of caricatures
“During the French Revolution, a Parisian could remain informed about the meaning of a recent decree or the significance of the latest beheading by wandering into a print shop or strolling through the garden of the Palais-Royal where caricatures were sold,” according to Michael Kimmelman2 of The New York Times in his review of an exhibit dedicated to this era of political art.
The show, called “Politics and Polemics: French Caricature and the French Revolution, 1789-1799,” marked 200 years since the start of France’s revolutionary period, and featured 200 works that spanned the beginning of the Revolution though the end of the Napoleonic era, tracing how the medium evolved over the decade.
“Caricatures fueled the revolutionary struggle in a way that may be difficult for us to imagine today,” Kimmelman explained.
Leading up to the revolution, satirical, “gently demeaning scenes” poking fun at the British or the exaggerated hairstyles popular among women of the 18th aristocracy became increasingly politically pointed, he wrote.
“Sometimes the artist’s tactic was to charm,” according to Kimmelman. “[…] But more often the caricaturist’s intent was to outrage and mock, and apparently no scatological joke or humiliating alteration of a person’s features was considered inappropriate.”
“With the frankness and unabashedness that few political cartoonists today would dare to attempt, Republican [pro-revolution] caricaturists sought by all means at their disposal to break down respect for the monarchy and the clergy and to promote a heroic conception of the revolution,” he added.
In an article from American Imago, scholar Claude Gandelman3 examined the significance of the obscene in caricatures from the French Revolution. He argued “What the people saw in the profusion of these scatological images was its own language in visual form.”
“Being projected into the medium of the visual, the language of the sansculottes (previously repressed and spurned as base or shameless) became accessible to everyone: there was no need to be literate to know what was being said about power and the exponents of power.”
The propaganda of the sansculottes
In contrast to serious and formal revolutionary efforts to establish democratic republic (which had little to do with the priorities of the sansculottes), “scatology was an outlet for popular humor” and “allegorical rejoicing,” Gandelman wrote.
In other words, poop jokes can be funny, but they can also make a vivid political point – in no uncertain terms.
For example, in one caricature described by Gandelman, a figure is shown “in the process of becoming a sansculotte,” removing his fancy drawers in order to wipe his behind with a copy of a royalist newspaper, L’ami du Roi, or Friend of the King. In another, sansculottes are shown “doff[ing] their ‘cullottes’ [to] bombard the monarchs of Europe with their excrements.”
In addition to expressing the unmistakable sentiments of the working class, the indelicate imagery of these caricatures also represented the topsy-turvy priorities of the Old Regime. Often these images depicted “the ‘face’ of the enemy [as] his ‘bottom’,” Gandelman explained. Caricaturists frequently rendered King Louis XVI and the aristocrats with their faces and sphincters (as well as the functions of each) inversed.
“The presentation of the enemy as a ‘bottom-faced’ person is tantamount to an assertion that Old Regime man is an ‘upside-down man’ – just as his world was an upside-down world,” he continued.
But caricatures weren’t the only form of propaganda exploited by the sansculottes. Revolutionary songs also proved critical “for diffusing ideas and building solidarity among the largely illiterate working classes,” according to an article by C. Alexander McKinley4 in the Journal for the Study of Radicalism.
Songs like “Ça Ira” and “la Carmagnole” “became the ubiquitous sound of the revolutionary era,” he wrote, adding:
Singing became an integral part of sansculottes activism, and song culture became one of the contested grounds between those early working-class revolutionaries, who saw themselves as the principle movers of the Revolution, and their middle-class representatives in the [French National] Convention.
For the more moderate republicans of the Convention, public singing was associated with “lower base culture” and, McKinley wrote, the “sansculottes embraced it primarily for that reason.”
The enduring songs of the French Revolution
According to McKinley, considering the importance of song culture among the sansculottes “also helps to remind us that their movement was as much cultural as it was political and social.”
They understood themselves as not only having different political objectives as the middle and upper classes but also as having a different culture. Their actions reflected both their goals of direct democracy [rather than the representative democracy advocated by members of the French National Convention] and price controls as well as the celebration of working-class life and culture.
Defining this distinction was also important to moderate republican revolutionaries, including French Revolutionary Amy officer Joseph Rough de Lisle who, according to McKinley, “found the sansculottes favorites ‘Ça Ira’ and ‘la Carmagnole’ too lowbrow and unbecoming for soldiers of the republic.”
“Ça Ira,” which translates as “It Will Work Out” or “It’ll Be Fine,” originated as a cheerful folksong that predated the Revolution, and early versions, McKinley wrote, “were marked by their hopefulness”:
Ah! We will win, we will win, we will win
We rejoice for the good times will come,
The people of the marketplace, once mere nobodies
They can now sing Alleluia.
However, in the version adapted by the sansculottes, a more violent and threatening anthem emerged, including lines that called for the hanging of aristocrats. “A song of hopefulness developed into a song of subversion, a song of a revolutionary people in arms,” McKinley observed.
This was at least what in part inspired Lisle to pen words and music for “Chant de guerre pour l'armée du Rhin” in 1792. The song, later known as “La Marseillaise,” was chosen the by the French National Convention as the republic’s anthem.
“The very act of singing ‘la Marseillaise’ during the Revolution became a means to demonstrate one’s fidelity to both the Revolution and the republic,” McKinley explained, though in subsequent decades, as various political groups and rival factions struggled for control, “’la Marseillaise’ would oscillate between being a song of Republican subversion or establishment, depending on what regime held power.”
But when France’s Third Republic established a government based on parliamentary supremacy in 1879, “la Marseillaise” was again adopted – as this time for good – as the French national anthem.
A year later, 64 elected government representatives declared Bastille Day a national holiday, in honor of that turning point in the Revolution when ordinary people – with their off-color humor and lowbrow songs – rallied to demand bread and seize a better life for the French working class.
For further research
Part of the Global Issues Library, this collection includes such primary source materials pamphlets, art and caricatures from the French Revolution, as well as related videos, ebooks, scholarly articles and more. Learn more.
- Brown, G. (2003). Cultures in Conflict: The French Revolution. Available from Ebook Central.
- Kimmelman, M. (1989, Feb 03). Review/Art; With Caricatures, Doings of the French Revolution: Review. The New York Times. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
- Gandelman, C. (1996). "Patri-Arse": Revolution as Anality in the Scatological Caricatures of the Reformation and the French Revolution. American Imago, 53(1), 7. Available from Periodicals Archive Online.
- McKinley, C. A. (2007). Anarchists and the Music of the French Revolution. Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 1(2), 1-33. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu