Saturday, January 15, 2011

Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite

Rick told us that if we could only see one palace, we should see Versailles. Well, we’ve seen plenty more than one but it seemed we’d better see the big one. Versailles is the palace that all the kings wanted. It made the rest of the kings green with envy. In the 1700’s, France was THE place to live and all because of one man: Louis XIV.

Louis XIV was the IT man of the times. He was handsome, athletic, accomplished and charismatic. He was already king when he was just a little guy but had spent his younger years being ignored and shunned by the court at the Louvre. As he grew older, he came into his own and decided he would never again be shuffled off to the side. He moved the whole court from Paris to Versailles. He had the palace built in such gargantuan proportions that whole new industries started up just for the purpose of palace building. He was the equivalent of Ramses II in Egypt. He was blessed with the qualities of leadership and lived long enough to make his name felt.

Versailles was built in order to “get away” from it all…except Louis took it with him. At any one time there could be upwards of 5000 nobles living at Versailles. He entertained lavishly and set up government so that the nobles had nothing to do but par-tay. It is interesting to contemplate the reasons Louis may have done this. He was an unhappy child so possibly he was working to be accepted by the people who had snubbed him in his youth. The upshot of the whole thing of course, was that the nobles gave up their power to rule. Louis took over it all. Seemingly this was a generous gesture but possibly it was the hand of a micro-manager, or even more manipulative, the work of a man bent on revenge by usurping the power of the court by making them irrelevant. While they played all day, he played God, making all the decisions for his rather large country of about 18 million subjects. He even made up a little rhyme about it: “L’etat, c’est moi” meaning, “The state, that’s me”. Doesn’t rhyme so well in English. The thing was, he was rather good at doing it all. He had a knack for being a good listener and any one of the 18 million could come to him at any time with a problem. Where did the man find the time, I ask you?

Louis XIV ruled for 72 years. That is a very long time. He outlived his wife and some of his children. It was his great grandson who took over the throne when Louis died. This is when things started to go bad. Louis XV wasn’t interested in doing it all by himself. He didn’t have the same charisma or strength of purpose that his great grandfather had. He enjoyed the good life and relied on others to take over tasks his grandfather had previously handled. In behind Versailles, way back in the gardens (it is a 40 minute walk from the palace) is the Grand Trianon. Louis XIV built it earlier as an escape from Versailles (which was an escape from Paris). Louis XV spent more time out here and became more disconnected from his people. This sowed the seeds of discontent.

By the time Louis XVI took over the throne, things were brewing. The country needed a strong leader but they got a shy intellectual instead. Louis XVI married a nice Austrian girl named Marie Antoinette. They made a fine pair. Both had been raised in a world completely disconnected from that of the average human of the time. Neither was a bad person but rather a bit naïve. They spent even more time out at the Grand Trianon and had a summer house and Petit Trianon built to escape the escape that was the escape for the first escape. Each of them was so engrossed in their own egocentric world that they failed to notice not everyone was happy with the status quo. While the people of France starved and the gap between the rich and the poor widened ever further, Marie Antoinette built a little hamlet in order to pretend she was a peasant. She gave herself the largest cottage in the picturesque little grouping so she could oversee the running of the small farm. There was a dairy, a miller and several farm animals. She never actually tended the animals but she did like the sheep as she had them fluffed and perfumed.

In 1792, the revolutionaries stormed into the palace. This was perhaps easier than it might have been. It was always open to anyone who followed the dress code. Anyone could be in the gardens, the palace corridors or even the King’s bedroom. In fact, in the days of Louis XIV, there was a gate around the bed because nobles would frequently be present while the king retired or when he arose. I’m not sure they hadn’t tightened up security a bit since then, especially given that those holding the reigns knew what was going on outside the palace gates. I’m also pretty sure the revolutionaries didn’t adhere to the strict dress code but regardless, they did get into the king’s quarters and arrested both the king and the queen and hauled them off to the Conciergerie in Paris.

The revolutionaries wanted a new system where people were equal regardless of birth and the leader was chosen by the people instead of just stepping into the role because of birthright. This new idea came from across the Atlantic Ocean in the fledgling country of the United States of America. It worked there. Why not here? In order to help it along, however, it was decided the ruling class had to go. Those with the wealth and power had to relinquish these titles in order to create space in the government. They congratulated themselves on devising a humane way to dispose of these people. They called it the guillotine. They set it up in a central location in Place de la Concorde, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Conciergerie. They got so good at it that they could do 30 people in one day.

Naturally, the king and queen had to go as well, though if you look for their names on the wall in the Conciergerie, you won’t find them under King and Queen. They were written as Louis Capet and the widow, Marie-Antoinette Capet; just your average citizens. With all the bloodshed, this time became known as “The Terror” and for just over a year, the people lived in fear they would be found too noble. Over 2,700 people died during The Terror, including some of the revolutionaries themselves. George Danton, the man who was instrumental in leading the revolution in the early days, eventually spoke out against the numbers being executed and found his own neck on the guillotine block. Apparently, his last words were, “my turn”. He was a fairly charismatic man, after all. The man who condemned him to death was Maximilian Robespierre, another of the leaders. He had attained a fanatical level before the tables finally turned and he was executed, bringing the reign of terror to an end.

The next four or so years were uneventful with a deliberately weak government. Enter the leader the French had been waiting for: a young general with charisma oozing out his pores by the name of Napolean Bonaparte.

What really irks me about Napolean is that he crowned himself emperor. I mean, he was a brilliant general and was so charismatic in the field that his mere presence could mean victory. When he was in exile on Elba he founded hospitals, created roadways and set up systems to improve community. He made a difference in a good way to the lifestyle of the people of France. So, after all the political-speak about equality and so on, he is given the power by the people and he turns around and calls himself the emperor. Is that not the most hypocritical thing you’ve ever heard? He wouldn’t even let the pope crown him. I guess he didn’t think the pope was important enough? And his tomb! Talk about megalomaniacs. The man’s tomb is HUGE!

So why emperor? He was dubbed “the upstart” by the surrounding monarchs and he was. He could have given France the democracy it was crying for but he set them right back into the monarch age by claiming the throne for himself. Basically, he believed that absolute power was fine…as long as it was his. Did the people truly want democracy or did they just want a bigger piece of the pie for themselves? France waffled back and forth for another century between monarchs and republics and France was only one example of the struggle. It is almost as if Europe couldn’t let go of its monarchist ways and so slid into facism with dictators as an in-between step. During the 20th century Europe was overflowing with the nasty little tyrants and look what happened then!


maryanncart said...

Great pictures and write up. Very interesting. I particularly like the picture of the two tyrants on the black/white floor...last picture. And speaking of plans are getting bigger with reading about what you've seen. Love Mom