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  • James Houser

June 5, 1832 - The Paris Students' Revolution

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

June 5, 1832. Paris, France. At the funeral procession of General Jean Lamarque, a cadre of republican revolutionaries takes charge and steers it towards the Bastille, birthplace of the French Revolution. The June Rebellion – or the “Students’ Rebellion” – is ignited, but there probably wasn’t a lot of singing. You wouldn’t know that from “Les Miserables.” It’s time to separate the history from the myth, the musical, and Anne Hathaway’s Best Supporting Actress award.

Which “French Revolution” IS this exactly? Sorry for the confusion, but there have been a few. The French Revolution of 1789, the one with the Bastille and the guillotines and Marie Antoinette, is the big one, but *this* revolution is 43 years later. This revolution occurs after Napoleon, Waterloo, and steam power have all had their moments. In the USA, Andrew Jackson is President and the pioneers are heading West and Poe is writing his famous poems, just to help place you in time.

In 1815, Napoleon had finally been defeated (for the second time – coming up this month!) and the Bourbon Dynasty, with its endless promenade of men named Louis, had been restored to the throne of France for the first time since their overthrow in 1792. The new King Louis XVIII, though, realized that he could only dial back the clock so much. He couldn’t make things nice and quaint like they’d been in 1789; the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rule had thoroughly modernized and nationalized France, so he allowed a lot of the revolutionary changes to remain in effect, including the rights of the people.

This changed, though, when Louis died in 1824 and his younger brother Charles X came to the throne. Charles was the leader of the Ultras, a radically conservative political faction that wanted to restore the “good old” France of the 1700s, when Kings ruled by right of God and the people did what they were told. He opposed the concession of civil liberties and the movements of the liberals, and immediately became deeply unpopular by increasing the power of the nobility and the Catholic Church, and for reimposing capital punishment for insults to the Church. He also started a war of conquest in Algeria to make himself popular again – because starting a crappy guerrilla war in some Arab country has NEVER backfired.

Well, it did. In 1830, Charles’s faction was defeated in the elections, so he immediately proclaimed a new series of laws disbanding the legislature, imposing press censorship, and removing the right to vote from most of the French people. Within a week, massive riots spread across France, particularly in Paris. THIS Revolution was the “July Revolution” of 1830, which resulted in Charles abdicating and fleeing Paris.

Still not 1832. Still not the “Les Mis” revolution.

After Charles abdicated, the reconvened Chamber of Deputies decided in 1830 to elect Louis Philippe, a distant cousin of Charles, as the new King. Louis Philippe was part of a Bourbon offshoot known as the House of Orleans, and had an altogether friendly reputation. He was a milquetoast liberal who had sided against his Bourbon relatives with the opposition in the legislature: basically a kinder, gentler King. Unlike his cousin Charles, who wanted to be an absolute monarch, Louis Philippe was happy to be a constitutional one. With his rise to the throne, France seemed to be taking a turn for the better.

Well, sort of. At least in the minds of the middle class – the business owners, the urban professionals, the white-collar workers – Louis Philippe was the man. There were three groups of folks, though, who were NOT happy with friendly old Louis Philippe:

1. The LEGITIMISTS. These guys were ultra-conservatives who wanted Daddy Charles X back.

2. The BONAPARTISTS. This is what it sounds like: they wanted Napoleon’s family back in power.

3. The REPUBLICANS. What it sounds like: they said, “Why have a King when you can have a republic?” To the Republicans, the July Revolution had been betrayed by the middle classes and the bourgeoisie; they had risen up for a revolution, but gotten a slightly less crappy overlord.

So of all these groups, the Legitimists were the most likely to start a rural uprising, the Bonapartists were most likely to start a coup within the Army (which still adored Napoleon), and the Republicans would be the most likely to start a new urban uprising. All three of these were a threat to the new King, but the Republicans were the ones who would start the Revolution of 1832.

France had been in a poor economic state for the last few years due to food shortages and increases in the cost of living. Louis Philippe had only been in power for two years by June 1832, so it was a little bit unfair to expect him to fix things completely. He had come to power with a great deal of popularity and in 1832 was still known as the “Citizen King.”

The crisis deepened in spring 1832 with a huge cholera epidemic across France that hit Paris especially hard. 100,000 people died across France, with 18,000 in Paris alone, especially hitting the poorer districts. Widespread conspiracy theories claimed that the government had poisoned the wells, along with other typical anti-royalist propaganda.

The epidemic soon claimed two well-known figures. The first was Louis Philippe’s Prime Minister, Casimir Perier. The second was Napoleonic War hero Jean Maximilian Lamarque, who died on June 1, 1832.

Lamarque was an odd figure for the Republicans to get their knickers in a twist over. He was popular on the radical left because he had crushed Legitimist uprisings in the western French region of the Vendee in 1815. Only problem was that he had been working for Napoleon and trying to eradicate Bourbon-centered resistance to Napoleon’s rule, soooooo…not exactly a Republican. Nevertheless, Lamarque had been a popular hero to the people of the Paris streets, who had always been big fans of Napoleon, and many of the idealistic Republican students saw an opportunity to capitalize on Lamarque’s death.

It’s important to note that what was about to happen was not an isolated event. There had been two major threats to Louis Philippe’s regime in 1831 and 1832. In December 1831, a workers’ uprising in the city of Lyon sputtered out after the National Guard went over to the rebels – apparently the uprising had Bonapartist sympathies, because once Napoleon’s old Marshal Soult arrived the uprising stopped without bloodshed. In February 1832, the Legitimists had attempted to kidnap Louis Philippe and his family, but this fizzled out as well.

If bad things come in threes, by June 1832 it was the Republicans’ turn.

As the funeral procession of General Lamarque wound its way through the Paris streets on June 5, 1832, several Republican secret societies emerged from the crowd and seized control of the cortege. These groups had been organized for a long time; the biggest one was the “Society of the Rights of Man,” whose leaders were mostly young idealistic students from the universities. They forced the procession to detour to the site of the Bastille.

When Lamarque’s coffin had reached the center, a large crowd assembled as the revolutionaries harangued the mob with speeches about liberty and rights. This strange little interlude had been devoid of violence so far as the troops watched curiously, but when the revolutionaries unveiled a red flag bearing the words “Liberty or Death,” things got out of hand. The crowd broke into violence and soon shots were flying back and forth with government troops.

This, of course, is the scene made famous in Les Miserables with the song “Do You Hear the People Sing.” It wasn’t quite so clean as all that, though.

The Marquis de Lafayette, veteran of the American and French Revolutions and one of the chief instigators of the July Revolution of 1830, had helped lead Lamarque’s procession and given a speech over his body. He called for calm, but no one listened. No one ever listened to poor Lafayette.

The insurgents had hoped and expected that the people of Paris would flock to the banner of revolution, and began busily building barricades throughout eastern and central Paris to prepare for the flood of idealists who would soon join them. The only trouble was…no one came. The college students and the idealist revolutionaries who had started the 1832 Revolution had failed to grasp the true state of the city of Paris. The mob would not come out to help them. They had only had a revolution two years ago, Louis Philippe hadn’t done anything to make them angry lately, and they saw no point in joining what already looked like a disastrous stand.

In the Tuileries Gardens, the young Republican Victor Hugo was working on a play when he heard gunfire in Paris. Trying to find his way to the scene of action out of morbid curiosity, he found himself behind the barricades by accident. Hugo would spend the next 24 hours within the barricades and witness the 1832 Revolution, which would move him to finish his great novel “Les Miserables” 30 years later.

The key problem was that the leaders of the 1832 Revolution were not “the people,” even though they thought to speak for “the people.” They represented a small minority, and the bulk of Paris’s population viewed them as a menace rather than as liberators. When the barricades went up, only about 3,000 people were behind them, compared to a total Paris population of almost 800,000. This was not a mass uprising or anything like it. The Revolution had drastically misfired.

These 3,000 insurgents waited out the night, trading potshots with the National Guard and singing songs and drinking. This might have all been very romantic, but it was not going to work out against the 20,000 part-time National Guard militia or the 40,000 regular troops deploying into the city. Louis-Philippe, in marked contrast to his cousin Charles X, appeared in the streets to encourage his troops and rally his people; he received cries of “Long Live the King” wherever he rode and faced no danger from any lingering insurgents. If anything proved the revolution’s failure, it was the popularity that Louis-Philippe still had in the city.

On the morning of June 6, the King’s troops moved in, and the glorious revolution crumbled like bread in soup. Their last stand in the Faubourg Saint-Martin came to the cries of “Long Live the King,” not something you want to hear as a revolutionary. Minutes after the rebellion had been put down, Louis-Philippe rode through the Faubourg to the applause of his troops and his people.

So that was the Revolution of 1832 – the “June Revolution,” or the “Student’s Revolution,” as it’s known. I am not exaggerating when I say that literally no one would care about this event if not for “Les Miserables”; not every poorly planned, ill-timed, naïve and almost sad failed uprising had a great novelist working to make it into a romantic epic.

Victor Hugo, of course, made it into one of the great novels of human history, which became an equally great musical and a not-so-great movie with a truly excellent performance by Anne Hathaway. The Revolution of 1832, then, had a cultural impact exponentially larger than its actual impact on history. Hugo was absolutely a Republican, and unquestionably favors the Republicans in his work – though he’s still pretty sympathetic towards Louis Philippe and he notably idealizes Napoleon. In short, “Les Miserables” offers a VERY romanticized and idealistic portrayal of the 1832 Revolution.

Things we have to keep in mind: Louis Philippe WAS a better king than Charles and was widely beloved, at least in 1832. Louis Philippe had just as much to fear from a conservative coup as he did from a liberal one – hell, the Legitimists almost kidnapped his family. Louis had to walk a tightrope that prevented him from going too far left OR right. The Revolutionaries DID try to hijack a general’s funeral to start an uprising that most of Paris just did not *want.*

Finally, it wasn’t really much of a bloodbath. The insurgents lost 93 killed and 291 wounded, the government troops 73 killed and 344 wounded. Multiple revolutionaries were put on trial for the uprising, and some were even given death sentences, but none of these executions were actually carried out, all commuted to terms of imprisonment through the King’s pardon. No one was ever executed for the Revolution of 1832, even though the men on trial tried to give speeches and defend their actions at their trials.

Unfortunately for France, Louis Philippe’s regime turned rightward after the Revolution, probably once it realized that the Republicans weren’t nearly as much of a threat as they seemed. The famous Eugene Delacroix painting “Liberty Leading the People”, commissioned to celebrate the 1830 Revolution that swept Louis Philippe into power, was removed after 1832 as the administration tried to distance itself from its revolutionary past.

Louis Philippe, though, created his own monster. After his rightward turn, he would eventually lose his glow of popularity due to both circumstances and his own mistakes. In 1848, like so many other monarchs across Europe in that year of revolution, Louis Philippe would have his rule shaken at its foundations – and this time he would not come out unscathed. 16 years later, the failed Revolutionaries of 1832 would finally have their revenge.

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