In April 1789, a Paris wallpaper manufacturer named Jean-Baptiste Réveillon made comments about economic conditions in the city. Small mobs responded by gathering around the city to protest. Driven by hunger and conspiracy theories, these demonstrations became fully-fledged riots. Mobs marched 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. Many historians consider them the first example of mob violence in the French Revolution.
Jean-Baptise Réveillon was a Paris factory owner who produced and sold 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 addressed 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 taken out of their context, they sounded like the moaning of a capitalist who yearned to push down wages. Réveillon was, in fact, 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, particularly 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 suffering. They found it in Réveillon and the malicious rumours about him seeking a reduction in workers’ wages.
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 to Réveillon’s mansion on the Rue de Montreuil, now protected by a small contingent of police.
Fearing for their lives, Réveillon and his family decamped 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 were intent on destroying it – but 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 volleys of gunfire and shot dozens of rioters. Official reports suggested 25 people were killed, though the actual figure probably exceeded 100.
According to an eyewitness, the Marquis de Ferrieres, the riots were not only motivated by low wages and high prices:
“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.”
A battle ensues
The state response was swift and uncompromising. Attempts to reignite the riots were quickly crushed by the reinforced French Guard. Both King Louis XVI 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 the history of Paris, this would have been enough to discourage further riots. But 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.
Once more, the mob gained access to Réveillon’s house and ransacked it before moving on to his factory. There they destroyed much of Réveillon’s stock and machinery, effectively wiping out his business.
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 interpreted 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 willful 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.
A historian’s view:
“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.”
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.