Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?Claude-Michel Schönberg, “Finale”, Les Misérables: The Musical
On the fifth of June 1832, a state funeral was held in Paris. After the speeches, a figure appeared, riding a black stallion and carrying a red flag emblazoned with the words Liberty or Death. Stones were thrown at government troops, church bells were rung, and the infamous cry of “to the barricades!” was heard. The June Rebellion had begun.
This wasn’t a significant insurrection. No kings were toppled; no prisons were stormed. It does, however, hold a curious place in history. Although the June Rebellion was a minor event, it has widespread renown due to its role in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The barricades of June are featured prominently in the novel’s climax and fall nearly every night on the West End stage. As a result, the Rebellion is ever present in our culture, despite its lack of success.
It began as a demonstration at the state funeral of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque; a distinguished figure of Napoleon’s First Empire, and later, an outspoken critic of the July Monarchy. Crucially, he was a unifying figure for several political factions. The Republicans, who sought to abolish monarchical rule in France, saw Lamarque as a well-regarded symbol of opposition towards the state. The Bonapartists admired him due to their nostalgic view of Napoleon’s rule, and the Legitimists were keen to support any cause that might depose the current king, Louis Phillipe, and restore his predecessors, the House of Bourbon. Lamarque’s death was thus an opportunity for these groups to demonstrate their strength.
Lamarque had been a victim of a cholera outbreak that claimed 18,402 lives in Paris. The disease was particularly felt in the poorer neighbourhoods, which led to a rumour spreading that the government was poisoning the wells. This mistrust of the state is unsurprising, as France was plagued by vast wealth inequalities during this period. Paris’ population had boomed, leading to issues such as overcrowding and severe poverty. Rather than provide aid, the government followed the principle of laissez-faire, which effectively left individuals to fend for themselves. This was a devastating policy during times of economic crisis, such as during 1825-32. Wages were cut, workers were left unemployed, and there was additional turmoil in the form of harvest failures and food shortages. It became clear that something must be done.
The Société des Amis du Peuple, a republican group, decided upon Lamarque’s funeral to make a statement. They lined the procession route, ready to act in case of any incident. They were joined by medical and law students, as well as a group from the École Polytechnique. Many demonstrators openly carried weapons, and there were numerous skirmishes with officers along the route. Around 3:30p.m, the procession was stopped for a series of speeches. Afterwards, the provocative figure with the red flag appeared, and stones were thrown at a troop of dragoons as they moved to protect Lamarque’s coffin. A second troop came to their aid and also came under fire, with six men killed. In the confusion, they charged into a group of innocent civilians, resulting in some members of the National Guard switching sides.
Barricades were quickly erected. Insurgents used tree saplings, paving stones, and planks and beams scavenged from construction sites in order to create the structures. Some took only 15 minutes to build. Between 5:00p.m and 6:30p.m, barricades had been established on both sides of the River Seine, and the centre of Paris was under the control of the rebels. However, only half of the initial demonstrators were prepared to fight, and the Rebellion failed to gain popular support, despite the funeral’s attendance numbering in the tens of thousands.
The government responded swiftly to the uprising. Within hours, the police and Municipal Guard had secured the Left Bank, and the National Guard was soon out in force. Significantly, the military was prepared to use cannons and, by midnight, only a few barricades were left standing. The early hours of the sixth of June saw troops moving in to clear out the last of the resistance.
It has been suggested that the government had nearly 60,000 troops at its disposal. Without the public’s support, the insurgents were vastly outnumbered. Their last stand took place at the Eglise Saint-Merry. This barricade was several-sided, and finally fell to an artillery barrage. Soldiers entered the buildings in which the insurgents had retreated and killed those who defended themselves, thus bringing the Rebellion to a close. 70 members of the government forces were killed, and it has been estimated that the insurgents suffered around 80-100 deaths.
At no point was the state ever truly threatened. The failure of the insurgents to win popular support consigned their uprising to failure, as they were overwhelmed by the government’s forces. Martial law was declared in Paris, and military courts were utilised. 82 people were convicted by juries. 7 were sentenced to death, but this punishment was commuted to deportation instead.
King of the barricades of July, pardon the barricades of June.Adolphe Crémieux, pleading for clemency for his defendant.
In late October, those who had been captured at the final barricade were placed on trial. Nearly all of the 22 pleaded innocence on account that they had been at the barricade by mistake. However, one defendant, Charles Jeanne, acknowledged his actions and emphasised the honour of his fellow insurgents. He had been a member of the National Guard, but switched sides upon witnessing the actions of the dragoons. Jeanne was sentenced to deportation, and 15 of the 22 were acquitted. Republicanism was driven underground.
However, despite its failure, the June Rebellion has become synonymous with revolution. Immortalised by Victor Hugo, it has transcended its historical grounding. Although we view it as an unremarkable insurrection, the June Rebellion has provided a cultural touchstone for the revolutionary spirit of the nineteenth century. That, in itself, is something of a victory.
- Elton, Godfrey, 1st Baron Elton. 1931. The Revolutionary Idea in France 1789-1871. 2nd ed.
- Harsin, Jill. 2015. Barricades : The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris 1830-1848. Harsin, J. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Lough, John, and Muriel Lough. 1978. An Introduction to Nineteenth Century France /. Longman.
- Traugott, Mark. 2010. The Insurgent Barricade. Traugott, Mark. University of California Press.