Modern history


Up till now I have always avoided that particular exercise in writing known as a preface, foreword or introduction, but this time, for a subject like the French Revolution, a few explanations are necessary.

As to the reasons that impelled me to such an undertaking: this was originally intended as a short book for friends of mine, especially the younger ones, who have only a vague memory of the Revolution from school, a confusing mixture of blood and boredom. But I soon realized that a short book would not have conveyed the voices of its leading figures, or addressed the more complicated questions, in a way that might arouse such readers’ interest and hopefully their enthusiasm. Space was needed, a good deal of it.

Once I had reframed my project accordingly, however, another question arose: was an autodidact like myself capable of this larger and more ambitious work? Could I follow in the footsteps of Michelet, Jaurès or Mathiez, not to say of lesser historians, without inviting ridicule? And now that the book is finished, I still don’t know the answer.

What I have tried to do, at all events, is present a narrative of the French Revolution: the fourteen chapters follow one another chronologically without digressions, something that has not always been easy, as revolutionary time is prone to sudden accelerations when events pile up one on top of the other, and a certain amount of artifice is needed to present them in some kind of order. The narrative form is a montage that tightly links the two great revolutionary stages, that of the elected assemblies and that of the people – high eloquence and the rumbling that acts as its basso continuo, and becomes so powerful at times that nothing else is heard.

I have tried not to show the Revolution as a chiefly Parisian phenomenon. We see the people of Strasbourg storming their city hall, Marseille patriots rebelling against Parisian domination, workers of Lyon, peasants burning châteaux, requisitioning barges of grain and punishing hoarders. And even on the Paris scene, we see people from the provinces send delegations and messages to the Assembly, indicating that they understand the issues involved and share in their risks.

The book does not maintain a single focal length. I have passed quickly over the most famous episodes and slowed down on the problematic moments, without drawing conclusions or summarily judging between possible interpretations. In the case of certain events and individuals, I have paused for a time in a kind of extended parenthesis or excursus, so as to freely offer my personal interpretation.

I have avoided any reference to the twentieth century, the Bolshevik Revolution and the various ‘totalitarianisms’. The French Revolution is not the matrix of anything else, and readers are sufficiently grown-up to make the connections without every ‘t’ having to be crossed. Similarly, I have not discussed in detail the debates among historians – an interesting subject, but one for another book.

As readers will see, this work contains a large number of direct quotations. There are two reasons for this. The first is that, on consulting the sources, it turns out that the most famous speakers sometimes said something different from what is generally attributed to them. The second is that in the time of the Revolution language was a thing of great beauty, poised between irony and effusion, harshness and tears. There seemed no point in citing such speeches indirectly, when the words actually pronounced had a poetic force that’s quite rare in politics.

Finally, though I have done my utmost to remain faithful to what are called the facts, I do not claim that this book is objective. I hope on the contrary that it will stoke a flare of revolutionary enthusiasm, at a time when the prevailing tendency is more towards relativism and derision. In the words of Saint-Just: ‘Unhappy are those who live in a time when persuasion is a matter of smartness of wit.’


Thanks first of all to my scholarly friends Florence Gauthier and Yannick Bosc, who had the patience to read and comment on my manuscript. Their expert criticisms and suggestions were a great help in giving this book its final form. My daughter, Karine Parrot, read it in a ‘faux-naïve’ fashion, which helped me avoid being awkward, obscure or obvious in several places. Many thanks also to Alain Badiou and Jean-Christophe Bailly for their advice, to Sebastian Budgen for the recondite references he pointed out to me, to Patrick Charbonneau for the Hölderlin poem, and finally to Sabrina and Cléo who put up with me throughout this long work.

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