Nicolas Sarkozy led Bastille Day celebrations yesterday in Paris for the first time. The new French president stood in the back of a military jeep which led the procession and circled the Arc de Triomphe before continuing down the Champs-Elysees. He descended from the vehicle briefly to talk with spectators. Bastille Day marks storming of the Bastille prison in Paris by angry crowds. The 14 July 1789 storming was the keystone symbolic event started the revolution that rid France of its monarchy.
The French revolution remains one of the seminal events of Western civilisation in the last 500 years. When Henry Kissinger asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai what he thought of the French Revolution, Zhou allegedly replied “it's too early to tell”. As well as sweeping away the French monarchy, it laid the seeds for the democratic movement across Europe and created the modern political meanings of the terms left and right. The revolution also had a profound effect on the press.
University of Kentucky history professor Jeremy Popkin discusses the impact of the revolutionary press in “Journals: the New Face of News”. Prior to 1789, the ancien regime had only one royalist daily newspaper, the Journal de Paris which covered cultural rather than political issues. Political periodicals had to be published abroad and imported illegally into the country. Once the regime was discredited and its complex system of censorship, privilege, and manipulation of the foreign press was destroyed, writers and publishers rushed to fill the void created by the events around the first Bastille Day. One of the early newspapers announced in its first edition “we hope our readers will be tolerant of the mistakes that are bound to be committed at the outset of an enterprise as complicated as ours”.
While the new media were colourful and diverse, they failed to last. They were defeated by constraints such as poor levels of literacy and the dependence on wooden hand presses. Nonetheless they formed a useful counterpoint to the new legislative assemblies and were the printed form by which the revolutionary struggle sought political legitimacy. Newspapers would play a central role in the revolutionary process. Key among those who understood the power of the press was journalist and politician J. P. Brissot. Brissot realised that the press was the only means of instituting popular sovereignty in a large country. Only newspapers could permit the conduct of public debate on a national scale. They could allow intellectual leaders to enlighten voters and provide feedback of public opinions to their elected representatives. Through the press, said Brissot, “one can teach the same truth at the same moment to millions of men”.
Once the revolution started, there was an insatiable appetite for news. The Parisian printing industry was transformed and new enterprises ignored guild restrictions and began to produce their own periodicals. Workers left their old jobs to join the growing new and chaotic industry. But there was no security as newcomers continually entered the field, sometimes using the same style and even the same title as established ventures. Two versions of “Ami du roi” defended the honour of the king while there were no less than six differing “Père Duchesnes” based on Jacques Hébert’s radical original.
Freedom of speech remained precarious in the new era. Despite the 1789 Declaration of Rights, each successive revolutionary government harassed those journalists that didn’t support them. Newspapers were forced to live from day to day which gave publishers little time to adopt new technological innovations in the way more secure operations like The Times of London could. The hand-driven presses could not produce in large numbers and subscription remained expensive. Nonetheless Paris boasted 184 periodicals in 1789 which rose to 335 a year later. Many barely lasted one or two issues, but readers could choose from over a hundred publications at any one time.
While radical in content, the new papers were conservative in format. They resisted English innovations such as headlines and illustrations and contained few advertisements. The two column formats resembled pre-revolutionary encyclopaedias rather than contemporary newspapers. But there was wide variance in coverage of political events. Some slavishly transcribed the words of politicians in the National Assembly and saw their role as reporting events with fidelity. Others provided their own interpretation of events while others still merely reported the results of the debate. The Journal logographique captured the chaos of the times by portraying the assembly warts and all as a confusing, tumultuous entity that all but made the process unintelligible to its readers.
Brissot’s own Patriote François was considered one the best pro-revolutionary newspapers. Brissot took a partisan position and addressed his comments not only to his readers but to the Assembly deputies themselves. It was devoted to defending “the rights of the people” and often led the agenda on issues. Its clear confident tone and its assurance to readers that deputies also needed advice was an effective approach to presenting ideas without seeming patronising or insulting the public.
Jean-Paul Marat’s agitational pamphlet “Ami du people” was the most celebrated radical paper of the Revolution. His biased view of Assembly proceedings was secondary to his outspoken criticism of its deputies. He often denounced those he disliked in the strongest manner. He was fond of exhorting the people against the Assembly’s “criminal faction”. His emotional reactions were designed to evoke anger against deputies’ treasonable intentions. The Royalist press that flourished in the first years of the Revolution, also shared Marat’s angry rejection of the Assembly but for greatly different reasons. The abbe Royou’s “Ami du roi” described it as a criminal conspiracy that oppressed both the people and the king.
As the power of the press grew, the Assembly became increasing caricatured as disorderly, strife-ridden, anti-democratic and idiotic. Revolutionary deputy J. B. Louvet (himself a journalist) angrily denounced “the eternal domination of writers” over magistrates, representatives and public officials. He warned that the press was a perpetual fomenter of revolution that could destabilise any government if not controlled. France was beginning to understand the paradox of press freedom. The people may choose the government, but also may prefer the press’s view of the government over its own version. While Napoleon resolved the immediate issue by taking firm control of both the government and the media, the problem posed by the role of the free press in a democracy remains with us today. Vive la France.