France has Seen its Share of Political Vicissitudes

Maximilien Robespierre’s signature was offered at a December 2008 Heritage auction.

“The world’s cemeteries are filled with indispensable men.” – Attributed to Charles de Gaulle (among others)

By Jim O’Neal

When our managers would occasionally identify a particularly valuable individual, I would often borrow this insight and suggest a simple test for people believed to be irreplaceable: “Have them stick a finger in a glass of water and watch the hole it leaves when they take it out.”

No one ever passed the test.

At several points following its revolution in 1789, France has gone through a number of surprising political vicissitudes. When lawyer and politician Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) introduced the guillotine during the “Reign of Terror,” even revolutionary sympathizers soon longed for the earlier authoritarianism, conservatism and piety or devotion to sanity. Even as Robespierre’s power increased, his popularity waned to the point that on July 28, 1794, he was sent to the guillotine with Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Georges Couthon and 19 others.

Charles X, whose dogmatism brought on the July Revolution of 1830, believed that France’s finances should be reformed, but without overthrowing the monarchy. “It is a time for repair, not demolition.” He spent lavishly and accumulated enormous debts. Critics called him a “weak character with an empty mind.” He was the last of the rulers from the House of Bourbon.

The “Citizen King” Louis Philippe, simple and physically courageous, was an enthusiast for democracy. Upon his accession, he assumed the title King of the French, linking the monarchy to a people rather than a territory. The France of his era (1830-1848) was creative, with its inventions spreading around the world: the stethoscope, braille, the sewing machine. But, in the end, he was forced to abdicate by the French Revolution of 1848.

Napoleon III was elected by a direct popular vote in 1848 and made emperor through a plebiscite. He was the first head of state to hold the title of president and youngest until Emmanuel Macron was elected this year. He remains the longest-serving French head of state (1852-1870) since the Revolution. Napoleon rather foolishly entered the Franco-Prussian War without any allies, was soundly defeated and forced into exile.

Finally, there was Charles de Gaulle, the most successful leader France has had in 200-plus years. Oddly, Philippe Pétain, who led the French government that collaborated with the Nazi’s in WWII, made an official statement for de Gaulle’s obituary that was glowing in admiration. What made it odd was that it appeared in 1916 when de Gaulle was believed to be among the dead at the Battle of Verdun. By the time de Gaulle actually died in 1970, Pétain had been dead for decades and infamous for the dishonorable peace he concluded with Nazi Germany.

France now appears to be at another great crossroads in history. Amid economic stagnation, France must assimilate millions of Muslims descended primarily from North African immigrants. ISIS-affiliated terrorists have slaughtered hundreds through targeted assassinations, nightclub shootings, music hall hostage-taking, and truck hijackings to barrel through crowds. France’s top general recently resigned over a dispute with President Macron.

One almost expects another descendant of Napoleon to appear on a white stallion and rescue Paris … “The City of a Thousand Lights” and my personal favorite city on the planet.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Bastille Day Reminds Us That Freedom Vital to Civilized World

This 20½-inch high French carved-ivory figure of Louis XVI from the 19th century realized $19,120 at an October 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

It’s Bastille Day.

On July 14, 1789, an enraged Parisian mob, seeking weapons to defend their city from a rumored royal attack, stormed the crumbling fortress known as the Bastille and murdered its governor and guards. This violent defiance of royal power has become the symbol of the French Revolution, a movement that not only engulfed France, but also reverberated around the world. The ideas articulated in the revolution spelled the end of Europe’s absolute monarchies and inspired their eventual replacement by more democratic governments.

The indecisive French King Louis XVI was hardly the person to confront any crisis, especially one as serious as that facing France in 1789. In the previous century, his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, the Sun King, had established France as an absolute monarchy with all power concentrated in the king’s hands. His palace at Versailles was the most sophisticated court in Europe and a bastion of aristocratic privilege.

In October 1789, events suddenly accelerated when a vast crowd, outraged by a lack of bread in Paris, descended upon Versailles and forcibly removed the royal family to Paris, ransacking the palace for good measure. In what would become an unnerving foretaste of the violence to come, the severed heads of the guards at Versailles were paraded on stakes as Louis and his family were escorted to the capital.

By September, a kind of hysteria gripped the city. A mob stormed the Tuileries, where the royal family was held, slaughtering the Swiss Guards. Louis XVI was put on trial as a traitor and executed on the guillotine in January 1793. Eventually, order was restored by the end of 1795.

Whatever the importance of the French Revolution, it remains the subject of intense historical debate. Its goals of ending repressive monarchy and championing universal rights were confused and often violent. Furthermore, by 1804 Napoleon had effectively swapped one form of absolutism for his own, albeit more effective than any had known since Louis XIV.

Still, it remains a pivotal moment in the belief that freedom should underpin the civilized world … a principle we still embrace with every ounce of energy.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ was Battle Cry of the French Revolution

This note signed by Marie Antoinette realized $7,170 at an October 2006 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1788, France was ruled by a monarchy, aristocracy and clergy who lived in luxury, while many of the commoners starved. The Storming of the Bastille is now celebrated as the heroic uprising that started the French Revolution.

It occurred on July 14, 1789, and symbolizes the liberation from the French Crown’s oppressive reign of poverty and crushing taxes. When the mob broke through the gates of the infamous jail, the garrison capitulated. But the prison was almost empty. Unknown to the attackers, the government had scheduled the building to be demolished and only six prisoners were left in its cells.

Four of the prisoners were forgers and the other two insane.

Earlier, when King Louis XVI had assumed the crown (1794), the country was in a major economic crisis, with a staggering national debt and a tax base that was in decline. The Catholic Church (which owned 10 percent of all land) and the nobility took advantage of tax loopholes, leaving the tax burden to poor urban workers. Apparently, economic inequality is not a new situation.

The incident that sparked the Storming was the dismissal of Finance Minister Jacques Necker, who sympathized with the commoners. At dawn on July 14, they broke into Hôtel des Invalides and captured 28,000 muskets and 10 cannons, but the ammunition had been moved to the Bastille … all 20,000 rounds.

Thus, the Bastille was not only a target for ammunition, it represented a symbol of long-standing autocratic political power and social systems. At 2 p.m., someone opened fire and the mob started pouring in.

Later, as the French Revolution went careening out of control, thousands of nobels were executed on any pretext and eventually King Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie (“Let them eat cake”) Antoinette, were executed. This set off shock waves all over Europe and nearby nations feared these wildly progressive ideas would spread like wildfire.

During the next decade, France would be radically transformed as widespread mob violence ruled. This “Reign of Terror” would forever tarnish the ideals of the French Revolution. But yet today, Bastille Day is celebrated annually as the day the French people won their freedom.

Vive la France!

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].