The Réveillon riots

reveillon riots
A depiction of the Reveillon riots of April 1789

In April 1789, a fortnight before the opening of the Estates General, a Paris wallpaper manufacturer named Réveillon made some comments about economic conditions in the city. His remarks were wildly misconstrued by the city’s workers. Beginning on April 26th, small mobs of Parisians gathered at several points around the city to march and protest, about Réveillon’s comments specifically and high food prices generally. Driven by rumour and a conspiracy theory that wages were being intentionally held down, these demonstrations became fully fledged riots. Mobs responded by marching on Réveillon’s home, then his factory, and attempted to destroy them. The Réveillon riots, as they became known, caused the deaths of around 25 people and a significant amount of property damage. Many historians consider these riots the first example of revolutionary violence in Paris.

The incidents of late April 1789 centred around a Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, a Paris factory owner who manufactured expensive wallpaper for nobles, wealthy bourgeoisie and minor royals. Réveillon’s factory was located in Saint-Antoine in the city’s eastern quarter, not far from the Bastille, and employed about 300 workers. On April 23rd 1789 Réveillon spoke before his local electoral committee and lamented the rising costs of production, particularly increasing wages. He harked back to times when his workers were able to live well enough on 15 sous a day. This sentiment was echoed by Dominique Henriot, a local saltpetre manufacturer. Réveillon’s remarks were a comment on rising food prices rather than wage levels – but when taken out of context, they sounded like the moaning of a capitalist, yearning to push down wages. Jean-Baptiste Réveillon was actually a more considerate employer than most. He paid his workers well and did not lay them off when business dwindled in the winter. Later reports suggested that Réveillon’s own workers did not participate in the riots against his factory.

In a revolution, however, rumour carries further than reality – especially in times of economic suffering and political ferment. The winter of 1789 had been a miserable one for Paris’ working classes. The poor harvests of 1788 had pushed the price of bread to new highs. In the weeks before the Réveillon incident, city officials fixed the price of a loaf of bread at 14.5 sous – almost a full day’s pay for an unskilled factory worker. Elections for the Estates General and the drawing up of the cahiers had also unsettled the working classes. By late April the workers of Paris were acutely sensitive about wages and prices and in search of a scapegoat for their economic suffering. They found it in Jean-Baptiste Réveillon and the malicious rumours that he had demanded a reduction in workers’ wages.

reveillon riots
Wallpaper produced by the Réveillon factory shortly before 1789

On April 27th a group of disgruntled workers gathered near the Bastille, where they hanged straw effigies of Réveillon and Henriot. They then turned their attention Réveillon’s mansion on the Rue de Montreuil, which was protected by a small contingent of police. Fearing for their lives, Réveillon and his family escaped over a garden wall and took refuge in a nearby house. Out front, the crowd pelted the police with stones, tiles and other projectiles.Some rioters gained access to the house and caused considerable damage, though their attentions were diverted by Réveillon’s 2000-bottle wine cellar. The situation worsened with the arrival of a company of French Guard, the city’s military garrison. After being pelted with projectiles the French Guard responded with gunfire, hitting several dozen rioters. According to official reports 25 people were killed, though the actual figure was probably in excess of 100.

The state response was swift and uncompromising. Attempts to reignite the riots were quickly crushed by the French Guard, whose numbers were reinforced. Both the king and the municipal government issued statements condemning the violence and warning against future riots. Two ringleaders captured by the French Guard were hauled before the Paris parlement and swiftly sentenced to death. At another time in Paris’ history this would have been enough to discourage further riots, however the following day an even larger crowd massed outside Réveillon’s home. They pelted the guardsmen with bricks, roof tiles and other projectiles, killing and injuring several soldiers, according to some reports. They eventually gained access to Réveillon’s house and ransacked it again, before moving on to his factory. There they destroyed much of Réveillon’s stock and machinery, effectively wiping out his business.

“The so-called Réveillon riots are often presented as a curtain raiser to the French Revolution and an early example of class conflict between the working classes and wealthy manufacturers… The crowd was attempting, as in the classic bread riot, to reimpose community values by punishing two individuals who had infringed them. In this case it was the principle of a fair wage Réveillon and Henriot reportedly attacked… Rather than a conflict of classes, it was two cultures that collided here.”
David Garrioch, historian

Historians have formed different conclusions about the significance of the Réveillon riots. Some consider it a minor incident, sparked only by rumour and misunderstanding. Others have declared it a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the larger and more meaningful Paris insurrection of July 1789. The Réveillon violence was not just a food riot but a wilful act of defiance against the state. Olivier Bernier, for example, points to how quickly the rioters of April 1789 “progressed from the sacking of a house to murder”. Contemporary accounts, particularly those from the upper classes, expressed great concern about the revolutionary nature of the riots. According to one eyewitness, the Marquis de Ferrieres, the riots were supposedly about food prices and wages – but Ferrieres believes other factors may have been at work:

“The pretext is the high price of bread but this is less dear in Paris than it is in the provinces. The Estates-General will be stormy. There is great ill feeling between the orders. A great many people have been arrested. Yesterday the king issued an edict bringing guilty persons within the jurisdiction of police courts. The parlement behaved as it always does: slackly. A few unfortunate rioters were found dead in Reveillon’s cellars… they had drunk varnish and raw alcohol, thinking it to be brandy.”

reveillon riots

1. The Réveillon riots were a wave of public demonstrations, property damage and violence that broke out in eastern Paris in late April 1789.
2. Jean-Baptiste Réveillon was a wallpaper manufacturer who employed around 300 people. According to rumours picked up by the crowd, Réveillon had complained about production costs and called for wage cuts.
3. Though this interpretation of Réveillon’s remarks was probably wrong, it triggered an angry response from the Paris working class, who assembled and marched on Réveillon’s home.
4. The mob ransacked his house and factory. When confronted with armed soldiers they responded defiantly, pelting the soldiers with bricks and tiles. The soldiers responded with gunfire and dozens were killed.
5. Some historians consider the Réveillon riots to be fairly insignificant, while others consider them the first popular uprising of the French Revolution.

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