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Listen to the People.

History shows that when the citizens start to pry up the cobblestones the ruling elites should act with great caution

Gaston slipped the blade of his knife between the stones. Gradually, he loosened the compacted dirt. As he worked he thought about what had brought him here. Why was he on his knees in a Paris street trying to pry loose a cobblestone?

It was the inequality of it all, Gaston reasoned. He worked from dawn to dusk and could scarcely feed his family. The Queen (he and his friends called her Madame Deficit) lived a life of incredible extravagance. He had no heat in his miserable home and every year the rent got higher. The king and queen lived in the palace at Versailles; a lavishly decorated place that took 30,000 people more than a decade to build. They have more than 3,000 horses and 217 carriages.

Gaston had heard that the king in one year spent almost 70 million livres; had he been able to make the calculation, Gaston would have found that to be about 210,000 times greater than his annual income. Worse than that, he thought, I have to pay taxes and the king doesn't.

The king and queen squander money on banquets and frivolous entertainment for their courtiers. The leftovers from one of their feasts would feed my family for more than a year, thought Gaston. Meanwhile, the price of bread keeps going up.

And, what happens when we complain? Gaston remembers joining the rioters at the Reveillon factory. They were there because of a fear their wages were about to be cut. They couldn't find Monsieur Reveillon so they attacked his house. Soldiers were called out and more man 200 people were killed.

Gaston had now freed the cobblestone. With one stone loose, the others came easily. Gaston and his friends were well enough armed now to take on a small platoon of soldiers. Once knocked senseless under a barrage of cobblestones, the soldiers' weapons could be stolen. When armed, an angry mob of people with nothing to lose can be very dangerous.

This is how the French Revolution started in 1789.

Is it going over the top to suggest there are a lot of similarities between Gaston and the protesters who now dog every meeting of world economic institutions? You decide.


One of the people who condemned the inequality of French society in the 18th century was himself a nobleman. The Marquis de Mirabeau inherited a comfortable estate and lived handsomely, but he hated the excesses and corruption of the royal household. He wrote extensively about the need to improve the living conditions of the poor. In the preface to one of his books he published an open letter to the king.

The peasants are "the most productive class of all," wrote the Marquis, "those who see beneath them nothing but their nurse and yours -- Mother Earth; who stoop unceasingly beneath the weight of the most toilsome labours; who bless you every day, and ask nothing from you but peace and protection. It is with their sweat and (you know it not?) their very blood that you gratify the heap of useless people who are ever telling you that the greatness of a prince consists in the value and number ... of favours that he divides among his courtiers. I have seen a tax-gathering bailiff cut off the hand of a poor woman who clung to her saucepan, the last utensil of the household, which she was defending from being seized. What would you have said, great prince?"
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Title Annotation:learning from the French Revolution
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Previous Article:Dust To Dust.
Next Article:The Rising Tide.

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