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“He was neither the only great revolutionary, nor a big bastard”

The figure of the revolutionary Maximilien de Robespierre continues to fracture French political life, 228 years after his death. This Thursday, July 28, three deputies from La France Insoumise (LFI) are going to Arras (Pas-de-Calais), to “pay homage” at the Incorruptible in his hometown. A visit to celebrate their “Common France: without slaves, without war, without religious discrimination, where education is free and subsistence guaranteed”, writes on Twitter the deputy Hadrien Clouet, who will make the trip with Ugo Bernalicis and Antoine Léaument. The tribute of the Insoumis raises many criticisms, in particular from the Minister of Transport Clément Beaune who on the same social network speaks of “political stupidity” and D’“historical ignorance”.

Revolutionary hero for some, bloodthirsty dictator for others, the figure of Robespierre divides. This excessive focus on Robespierre is however a mistake to explain the Revolution, according to the historian specialist of the Revolution Jean-Clément Martin, author of Robespierre: the making of a monster (Paris, Perrin, 2016, 367 p). ” He was neither the most democratic revolutionary, nor the one who called for the destruction of the enemies of the Revolution.insists the historian who denounces the manufacture of a “black legend” of the Incorruptible. Maintenance.

Marianne : Two visions of Robespierre continue to clash, 228 years after his execution in Paris. One makes him the main person responsible for the excesses of violence of the Revolution, the other highlights some of his positions, to make him a revolutionary and democratic hero. Why is it causing so much contention?

Jean-Clement Martin : We only remember Robespierre from the Revolution, and we forget those who did more democratic or more terrible things. It bothers everyone to think that Robespierre participated in extremely complicated political games that make him neither the very great revolutionary that some would like to see, nor the big bastard that others imagine. He thus supported the sans-culottes in the summer of 1793 before eliminating them in March 1794. He got lost in these dangerous games, which means that he is accused of the worst ignominies and the best resolutions taken.

READ ALSO: Between monster and monument, for or against Robespierre?

Robespierre was not the most democratic revolutionary. For example, he defended the abolition of slavery only once. Some, like Jacques Pierre Brissot, asked for much more. But neither was Robespierre the one who called for the destruction of the enemies of the Revolution. In this matter, Marat broke all records and certain representatives on mission in the provinces were much more dangerous people. In reality, Robespierre became a hero or antihero when his enemies created a black legend for him at the time of his death.

How was this “black legend” built? ?

From June 1794, his adversaries began to organize conspiracies in the prisons. They send carts full of the condemned to the scaffold, saying that it is Robespierre who organizes this. On the day of his execution, July 28, there was to be a big party in Paris bringing together 200,000 to 300,000 people for the entry into the Pantheon of two dead revolutionaries. The deputies feared that Robespierre would use the party to imprison people who opposed him. We must see his fall as a preventive counter-coup, while some of his opponents risked being guillotined.

READ ALSO: “Robespierre was a very human person even in his neuroses”

Robespierre was eliminated by the double opposition of his right and his left. The latter was particularly hostile to him because he had participated in the elimination of the Enrages, the most determined sans-culottes. They agreed to make him solely responsible for everything that happened until July 1794, which was called the Terror. Those who said so were moreover those who, like Barras or Fouché, took extremist and dangerous positions alone and against Robespierre, by massacring in Lyons, Marseilles or Nantes.

So should the idea that Robespierre be primarily responsible for the Terror be put into perspective?

Remember that Robespierre had a very clear and marked opposition to the system of Terror. We must also put into perspective the influence he could have on the whole territory, even when he held all the powers in Paris at the beginning of 1794. The worst atrocities were committed at the end of 1793 in the provinces , in Lyon or Nantes in particular, under the influence of certain characters like Fouché.

READ ALSO: Interview with Marcel Gauchet: making peace with Robespierre?

However, Robespierre and others have a responsibility. At first, they let things happen, before banning these repressive policies, and notably recalling Fouché to Paris. It should also be remembered that the Terror was never officially instituted, there was no law or organization as such. The Terror was played out at very specific times, sometimes over a day.

Contrary to the very radical image associated with him, some historians have described Robespierre as occupying “the extreme center” in the Committee of Public Safety. Is that the case ?

I would rather say that Robespierre wanted to embody a moralizing, spiritual revolution. He clashed with part of the extreme left by imposing freedom of worship or by passing a decree on the immortality of the soul. He considered that a political regime could not be built solely on political speeches or on economic agreements. Robespierre was steeped in a Christian morality, in all its rigour, where sinners are punished. This offended some sans-culottes, of an absolute secularism, who saw him as someone dangerous.

READ ALSO: The death of Robespierre or the momentum of equality broken

Some also felt that Robespierre was stealing their ideas without wanting to go as far as them in social equality, and in particular in equality between men and women, to which he seemed very hostile. Robespierre was also in favor of free trade and the centralization of power. But he was also denounced by his right, by people more favorable to a freer economy.

Is there a comeback of the mythical figure of Robespierre and why?

Surely. This myth reappears in our period which personalizes power a lot and where we see people appearing who say “I am going to do that”. This leads to reviews. There has always been a focus on Robespierre, but it’s starting to scare me as we risk falling back into a form of Caesarism again. Summarizing the Revolution to speeches is nonsense: it is first of all political quarrels, political struggles, and eliminations between people who know each other well. If we do not want to understand this, we miss the reality of the facts.

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