Revolutionary News: The Press in France, 1789-1799

Revolutionary News: The Press in France, 1789-1799

by Jeremy Popkin

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The newspaper press was an essential aspect of the political culture of the French Revolution. Revolutionary News highlights the most significant features of this press in clear and vivid language. It breaks new ground in examining not only the famous journalists but the obscure publishers and the anonymous readers of the Revolutionary newspapers. Popkin examines the way press reporting affected Revolutionary crises and the way in which radical journalists like Marat and the Pere Duchene used their papers to promote democracy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397908
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 01/30/1990
Series: Bicentennial reflections on the French Revolution
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 1 MB

Read an Excerpt

Revolutionary News

The Press in France, 1789-1799

By Jeremy D. Popkin

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9790-8



The scene was the Palais-Royal, the complex of cafés, shops, and promenades that served as the center of Parisian political discussion before and during the Revolution; the time was 1788, in the midst of the crisis that would soon topple the French monarchy. Nothing was more natural for a playwright than to have one character ask another whether he would like to see the most recent newspaper. And so Isabelle de Charrière, the Dutch-born dramatist who was one of the leading female French-language writers of the time, began one of her short sketches for the stage with the following line: "Would you be interested in reading the latest Gazette de Leyde?" The well-informed gentleman in her play chose to offer his acquaintance news about France published in the Dutch city of Leiden because he knew that the newspapers published inside the country were tightly controlled by the French government and contained little news of political substance. But he also knew that these domestic newspapers were not the only journals available to those who wanted to keep up with important French events. Periodicals published outside France's borders but intended for a French audience, such as the Gazette de Leyde, were a major feature of the journalistic scene, and no self-respecting café in the Palais-Royal would have been without them.

The situation that Isabelle de Charrière dramatized in 1788 had existed in France for almost a century. Ever since the expulsion of the Huguenots under Louis XIV, the French press had been divided into two sectors: a domestic press, licensed and censored by the government, and an extraterritorial press, created by private entrepreneurs and covertly tolerated by the same authorities who controlled the domestic papers. Initially, the extraterritorial papers had been the outlets of Huguenot hostility to the regime that had expelled them, but over time they had been toned down and established a de facto right to circulate in France. Like many other features of the Old Regime in France, this seemingly illogical arrangement actually served to satisfy the needs of both the French government and of the educated and sophisticated social elite that made France the center of the European Enlightenment.

The censored domestic press, which included by 1788 not only the venerable Gazette de France, founded in 1631, but also several other national papers and about forty provincial publications, functioned in accordance with the principles of royal absolutism according to which France was theoretically governed. According to absolutist doctrines, it was up to the ruler to determine what information was fit for his subjects to have and to provide it for them. It went without saying that the news provided by such a press would be favorable to the government. By granting licenses or privilèges to selected publishers, the French government was able to leave the running of the press to private entrepreneurs but still ensure that the domestic papers were in reliable hands. A privilège was a valuable property: it not only gave the publisher permission to put out a journal, but also theoretically guaranteed him against competition. The holders of privilèges for prerevolutionary newspapers therefore had a very real stake in the Old Regime's system of press regulation. In addition to controlling the press through the granting of privilèges, the French monarchy had a censorship system that required newspaper publishers to obtain prior approval for every item they printed. This censorship system, easily flouted by the publishers of books and pamphlets, was more effective in controlling periodicals because they were dependent on the royal mails for the delivery of most of their copies and because a periodical, which depended on the regular flow of payments from its subscribers, could not easily be published without a return address, as books and pamphlets often were. The combination of licensing, censorship, and dependence on the postal system ensured that the domestic press printed only what the king's ministers wanted it to print.

Although the French domestic press was under the government's thumb, it was not as rigidly controlled as the press in modern totalitarian countries has been. As a part of a paternalistic governing apparatus meant to satisfy the needs of the French king's subjects, the press was allowed and even encouraged to provide a variety of news and information. From Versailles, French ministers reminded the king's ambassadors that their duties included sending regular reports so that the Gazette de France could provide a reasonably accurate picture of foreign affairs. In an age when the king was the one true public person in the kingdom, the Gazette's description of the royal routine and of the elaborate court ceremonies that punctuated it interested readers much as the details of the lives of presidents and celebrities appeal to them today. Eager to promote economic prosperity, French authorities patronized Parisian and provincial advertising periodicals; convinced that the development of culture and the progress of knowledge contributed to the glory and power of the state, they allowed publications devoted to literature, the sciences, and the practical arts.

Especially after 1750, any would-be journalist who was willing to promise to eschew religious and political controversies and any would-be publisher with influential connections who could argue that he had found some segment of the reading public not yet served by a periodical could usually wangle permission to launch a new title. The 252 new enterprises begun between 1751 and 1788 show the vitality of the press. There were periodicals for women, for improving landlords, for army officers, for poets, for aficionados of sensational courtroom dramas, for theatergoers, and for a host of other special-interest groups. Most of these publications were closer to modern magazines than to newspapers, but by the 1780s the Gazette de France's theoretical monopoly on the publication of foreign and political news had been broken by several competitors, such as the Journal de Bruxelles, the news supplement to the popular weekly literary journal Mercure de France, and the country's first daily newspaper, the Journal de Paris, founded in 1777. Despite licensing and censorship, the press in prerevolutionary France was anything but dull.

French readers responded enthusiastically to the variety of available journals, and the political newspapers, despite being censored, were among the most successful of all. The Gazette de France had 12,260 subscribers in 1780, when interest in the American War of Independence had boosted newspaper circulation all over Europe, and it still had almost 7,000 in 1784. None of the British newspapers of the period had a press run of over 4,500, although the total circulation of all the London papers combined was certainly greater than that of the French political press. The weekly Mercure de France with its political supplement, the Journal de Bruxelles, was even more successful, reaching a peak circulation of around 20,000 copies in the mid-1780s. This degree of success was exceptional, of course, and many French periodicals limped along with sales of a few hundred copies per issue. But the market for periodicals was sufficiently lucrative to attract numerous publishers, who found it less risky than printing books. In the 1770s and 17 80s France's leading publisher, Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, built the first modern journalistic empire, acquiring a virtual monopoly on the domestic political press and buying out numerous competitors to consolidate the success of his publications.

For all its variety, however, the French domestic press remained limited in one crucial area. It could not report honestly and openly on the country's political life. In an increasingly prosperous country in which royal decisions affected the interests of more and more subjects, it was officially forbidden to discuss the pros and cons of government policies. In a political system where day-to-day power was exercised by powerful and often contentious personalities, it was officially forbidden to discuss the rivalries of ministers. The French government, increasingly willing to allow periodicals that stimulated public discussion in every other area of life, balked at officially permitting any honest discussion of its own doings. It suppressed the news of private court intrigues and also of events known to everyone in the kingdom, such as the clashes between the ministers and the sovereign law courts, the parlements, that shook the country from 1750 to 1774.

Kept in the dark by their domestic periodicals, the French reading public turned to a variety of other forms of journalism to find out what was really going on in the king's antechambers and the bureaus of the ministers. The wealthy subscribed to manuscript newsletters, which relayed a variety of behind-the-scenes rumors. Political crises generated pamphlets, one-shot publications that were sometimes genuinely unauthorized and sometimes secretly tolerated or even encouraged by the police. Political caricatures and topical political songs could reach even those who were not literate. Newsletters, pamphlets, cartoons and songs all offered political news and opinions that never found their way into the official periodical press, but these media were not sufficient to structure a regular "public space" in which political issues could be discussed intelligently. Except for the newsletters, these media appeared only sporadically and unpredictably. Lacking continuity, they could not amplify or correct themselves, and they could not form a connection among their readers, a forum in which views could be exchanged. Well suited to evading the French government's controls, these media were less adapted to fulfilling functions such as the regular dissemination of information and the formation of public opinion that are required in any political system depending on some degree of public acquiescence to rulers' policies.

It was the foreign-based periodical press that came closest to filling this gap in the prerevolutionary French press system. The numerous newspapers and magazines published outside France's borders, but written in the French language, served as an outlet for news and thoughts that were barred from the domestic press. Newspapers published in Leiden, Cologne, Avignon, or London came to French readers bearing the promise of uncensored news: they were the complement of the Gazette de France, revealing what French subjects assumed their domestic press was bound to conceal. And indeed the columns of newspapers such as the Gazette de Leyde and the Courier du Bas-Rhin were filled with items that never appeared in the domestic French press, such as the parlements' vociferous denunciations of arbitrary authority and the details of events like the Lyon silkworkers' uprising of 1786. In the Gazette de France, the French king appeared to rule unassisted; in the foreign gazettes, his ministers were depicted as the real movers behind French government policy.

To all but the best-informed readers, the foreign gazettes appeared to be free and unrestrained sources of news. Those in the know realized that the situation was more complex. Not licensed by the French government and not subject to prior censorship, these publications were kept in line by a variety of other mechanisms. The French government could bribe these papers' editors, harass their Paris correspondents, complain to their host governments about their contents, and above all, prevent them from sending their copies through the French royal mails. After bitter experience the American revolutionary envoy and future president, John Adams, complained that "all these papers ... discover a perpetual complaisance for the French ministry, because ... if an offensive paragraph appears, the entrance and distribution of the gazette may be stopped by an order from court, by which the gazetteer loses the sale of his paper in France, which is a great pecuniary object."

Indirectly controlled by the French government, these extraterritorial papers nevertheless enjoyed considerably more freedom than the French domestic press did. It was much easier for the French government to tolerate responsible newspapers whose editors and publishers were known and could be pressured than it was to put up with completely uncontrolled pamphleteers and caricaturists. At times, as when it needed to float loans or release diplomatic trial balloons, the French government even benefited from the existence of newspapers with a reputation for independence; they could further its policies in ways that the domestic press could not. But to give the foreign gazettes credibility, the French ministry needed to let the foreign papers appear to be uncensored, and this could only be achieved by letting them publish news that was suppressed in the domestic press. Hence they were routinely allowed to print reports about opposition to the ministry from the parlements and other traditional corporatist institutions, as well as reports about popular violence in France and reports from other capitals contesting the official French view of international affairs. In this way French readers of the foreign-based press got a much broader and more realistic picture of their country's political life than they could find in the licensed domestic press, although it was still a more sober and less complete panorama than British newspaper readers could find in the uninhibited but notoriously corrupt London papers. Despite their high cost compared to the domestic press—a year's subscription to most of these papers cost thirty-six livres or more, whereas the Gazette de France cost only twelve livres in 1774 and fifteen livres in 1785—the foreign-based papers were quite successful by pre-revolutionary standards. The Gazette de Leyde had sales of over 2,500 in France during the American war, and its regular readers were said to include the king himself; the cheaper Counter d'Avignon had a circulation of about 4,000 in 1778. The foreign-based gazettes provided a middle ground between the French government's natural tendency to want to control the news completely and the French public's desire for uncensored information; their content was the measure of what it was permissible to discuss openly in France.

Although the foreign-based gazettes were considerably more informative than the censored domestic press, by the end of the Old Regime they were no longer sufficient to satisfy the French reading public. As the French monarchy staggered from one political crisis to another in the years after 1750, readers craved more than the limited but accurate news reports that the gazettes provided. They wanted commentary and behind-the-scenes stories that would help them make sense of what was happening. The traumatic crisis of 1771-74, when Louis XV's determined justice minister René Maupeou tried to crush the Parlements and make the government's claims to absolute power effective, was especially important in stimulating a thirst for new forms of political journalism that went beyond mere reporting. The Maupeou "coup" gave rise to a number of printed works that purported to offer the same completely uninhibited reporting as the manuscript newsletters, and in the more relaxed years after Maupeou's fall in 1774, multivolume works bearing titles such as the Espion anglois and the Mémoires secrets that revealed the inner workings of the Maupeou ministry and then of the court under the new king Louis XVI became best-sellers. These gossipy chronicles borrowed from the libelous techniques of the British press and anticipated some features of the French revolutionary newspapers. They never achieved regular periodical publication, however, and they came out months or years after the events they described. Although they were models of what a truly uninhibited press might look like, they were not yet real newspapers.

The Mémoires secrets and similar publications showed French readers what would happen if all restraints were taken off the publication of inside political information; the Annales politiques, civiles et littéraires du dix-buitième siècle that the former lawyer and pro-Maupeou publicist Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet launched from London in 1777 demonstrated the impact that an impassioned journalist determined to propagate his personal views could have. During a tumultuous career in the 1760s and early 1770s, Linguet had managed to make enemies of the French philosophes, the judges of the parlements, his fellow lawyers, and most of French officialdom: he then used his journal to pay them back. But he conducted his crusade in vigorous and colorful language that made his publication a tremendous public success. Readers responded to the spectacle of a journalist lambasting respectable judges, lawyers, and academicians, and Linguet managed to avoid French government retaliation thanks to the protection of the king and queen and to the fact that he made his furious attacks in the name of defending absolute authority and traditional religion. His ideas were often conservative, but Linguet's direct and violent way of expressing them and his insistence that France was on the brink of an apocalyptic crisis were revolutionary, and his style of journalism had a direct influence on many of the writers who later became famous in France during the Revolution.


Excerpted from Revolutionary News by Jeremy D. Popkin. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Editors' Introduction Introduction Chapter 1. From the Press of the Old Regime to the Press of the Revolution Chapter 2. Writers, Publishers, and Readers: The World of the Press Chapter 3. The Journalistic Texts of the Revolution Chapter 4. The Press and the Revolution Notes For Futher Reading Index

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