For France’s Left, Robespierre’s Democratic Radicalism Is as Necessary as Ever

Antoine Léaument

The French monarchy was abolished this day in 1792. Left-wing MP Antoine Léaument explains why the values of the French Revolution can still be an inspiration for the Republic — and why Maximilien Robespierre has been wrongly cast as a violent monster.

Anonyme, Portrait de Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794), homme politique. (Nom d'usage), 1758. Huile sur toile. Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris.

Interview by
David Broder

On September 21, 1792, France’s National Convention abolished the monarchy. The creation of the First Republic was a watershed in French history, with the next day soon designated “Day One of Year One” of the revolutionary calendar. The changing of the times was matched by a challenge to the established social order, notably in the constitution passed on June 24, 1793. Alongside its democratic spirit, its opposition to racial discrimination, and its economic radicalism, the document proclaimed France the “friend and ally of free nations.”

The document was never implemented — and today, its transformative spirit is not celebrated across all the political spectrum. Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre is more often invoked by liberals as a Stalin-like tyrant, whose utopian vision and Terror against opponents supposedly sowed the seats of later totalitarianisms. Some figures in left-wing movement La France Insoumise have tried to reclaim Robespierre’s legacy, and resisted attempts to cast him as a “monster.” Yet, this has in turn been used to paint the picture of an authoritarian left that, like the far right, doesn’t truly belong to the Republic.

Antoine Léaument, an MP for La France Insoumise, is an active defender of Robespierre’s legacy. This July, Léaument staged a tribute to the revolutionary leader in his Arras hometown, upon the anniversary of his execution in 1794. Léaument insisted on the relevance of Robespierre’s political ideas in the present, from the motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité” to his thinking on the redistribution of wealth and the “right to life.” In an interview with Jacobin’s David Broder, Léaument explains why the French Revolution should still inspire the international left — and why the Republic still needs to fulfill its foundational principles.

David Broder

On July 28, you organized a tribute to Maximilien Robespierre, which caused some debate in France. Why did you take this initiative?

Antoine Léaument

Because Robespierre is one of the French Revolution’s most controversial figures — one who gets people talking in the same way as Napoleon Bonaparte.

For me, Robespierre made one major mistake in the Revolution, in not addressing the issue of women’s right to vote. He’s often cast as the architect of the Terror. But historians, especially Jean-Clément Martin, have shown how far the Terror was in fact invented after Robespierre’s death by those who killed him.

When we look at his real policies and his interventions, Robespierre was someone who promoted anti-racism, who fought for the abolition of slavery, who battled for voting rights for Jews. He advanced several points about the “Social” Republic, saying that no one has the right to hoard heaps of wheat while his fellow man is starving. I think there’s something powerful in his words when you compare them to today’s financialized capitalism, when some people are accumulating vast riches while others are dying in the streets.

It was also Robespierre who invented the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité, which we today see on town halls and schools. In another magnificent speech on the National Guard, he highlighted a problem we still have: that of an armed body that draws its authority from the executive — today meaning the police. He concluded that the people should be armed, to face this body. We draw the opposite conclusion, which is that we need to disarm the police as much as possible, so it can’t trample the French people’s rights.

Bonaparte ended the Republic and reestablished slavery, yet is widely upheld as a fantastic figure, including in history classes. If you ask the French if they like Napoleon, most will say yes. If you ask the same question about Robespierre, most will say no. I think there’s more to it, in both cases. Bonaparte was initially close to Robespierre and especially a friend of his brother Augustin. So, I think it’s interesting to draw on Robespierre, also to critique some of Napoleon’s principles.

David Broder

It might surprise some of our readers abroad that there is such a negative myth around Robespierre in France. Or indeed, that your use of this history could be used to attack the Left today . . .

Antoine Léaument

It’s true — talking about Robespierre can open us up to attack. But I accept it, because I know that historians who’ve seriously studied the subject agree with me.

It’s probably no accident, though, that your magazine is called Jacobin, and Robespierre is undoubtedly the central figure of the Jacobin movement. I think that outside France, the Revolution is often perceived in all-encompassing terms, looking at what it meant back then for the universal history of humanity. Robespierre is somehow the focal point of this history. By citing him you can talk about everything else. I draw on Robespierre because it allows me to talk about the distribution of wealth, it allows me to talk about anti-racism, and even the French anti-fascist tradition.

Robespierre was part of a revolutionary government that worked as a collective and reported every month to the National Assembly. In fact, just before his death, Robespierre was absent for some weeks. So, this was quite an odd “dictator” — one who disappeared and allowed others to rule.

David Broder

So, not the “little Stalin” he gets painted as?

Antoine Léaument

Not at all. What is called “the Terror” refers to the policy of the court that sentenced people to being beheaded. But it didn’t end with Robespierre’s death. The Revolutionary Tribunal and the beheadings continued until 1795, and even after, in different forms. So, it wasn’t just Robespierre who ran the Revolutionary Tribunal.

There was a clear awareness that, if Robespierre was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal, it would provoke the Revolution. When Robespierre was arrested, the people who were supposed to put him in prison refused. Someone whose jailers refuse to incarcerate him is quite an odd “dictator.”

So, that’s the story that needs explaining, because it’s not necessarily taught like that in schools. But all this has a political purpose: to take the questions raised by Robespierre’s life and bring them into the present by saying, “But you see, everything was already there in the Revolution. Why don’t we take inspiration from our ancestors?”

David Broder

Looking at how the Revolution is commemorated. A key turning point was the bicentenary in 1989. Robespierre was largely ignored, but that year also saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, and many said the triumph of liberal capitalism marked the end of this revolutionary history that began two centuries before. It seems many liberals or people who call themselves social democrats pay lip service to the values of the Revolution, but also detach them from the event itself, and the social conflict that’s behind it.

Antoine Léaument

It’s a way for the bourgeoisie to recover elements of the Revolution it considers useful, in order to expel others from the account. That’s why it’s interesting to look back to 1793, and the building of the First Republic. At the moment, there’s this debate about France Insoumise not belonging to the Republic. But why? Because we defend an extensive version of republicanism, in which no Republic is possible without popular sovereignty, without the Rights of Man. For us, the Republic is, by necessity, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-fascist. Maybe I’m exaggerating — but I’m doing it on purpose, to make clear what we’re trying to do.

The bourgeoisie can’t stand republicanism also including the question of the distribution of wealth. But that was the issue raised in 1794, as some argued that property meant slavery, for example. I’m on the side of those who say no, property must have a limit, for the sake of the existence of a free, equal humanity. I’d also include the right to an existence. That’s what Robespierre stood for: in a civilized society, not a single person should die in the street, and if that’s happening while people at the other end of society are accumulating wealth, then a moral, philosophical, political, and social problem is posed. So, we can demand the limitation of private property for some, to guarantee other people’s right to exist.

There’s also important elements in the 1793 Constitution, notably on the right to demonstrate: article seven of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen states that, basically, to forbid the right to assemble peacefully would be to return to the despotism of recent memory. So, those who ban demonstrations are doing what the Constitution of the First Republic called “despotism.”

The 1793 Constitution also guarantees the right to insurrection: it tells us that “When the government violates the people’s rights, insurrection is the most indispensable of the people’s duties.” That’s what permanent popular intervention is all about. That’s what the bourgeoisie rejects. In fact, from the outset, the Girondins and the Jacobins were of two minds. The Girondins favored a powerful executive and a delegation of power to representatives. The Jacobins favored a powerful legislative branch and as little delegation of power as possible — with representatives subject to binding mandates. In other words, you’re given a mission to fulfill, which you’re accountable for. It’s these two conceptions of the Republic that are at stake in this battle we have now with the Macronites and the far right.

David Broder

I had the misfortune of reading Nicolas Sarkozy’s new volume of memoirs, where he says that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) is a republican party, basically because it takes part in elections. But beyond this purely formal vision of allegiance to the national institutions, it has also tried to adopt republican symbolism. Why isn’t the RN a republican party?

Antoine Léaument

Because the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which is the preamble to the Constitution of the First Republic, tells us that human beings are equal by nature and before the law. By nature means that there is no biological difference between us, and that we are totally equal at a human level. This does not allow for racist discrimination. The 1793 Constitution gave voting rights to any foreigner, one year after they arrived on the Republic’s territory. Basically, if they settled down, married someone, worked etc., they became French after one year. During the Revolution, signs were put up at the border that read, “Welcome to the Land of Liberty.” In other words, the French had no problem with people coming to their country to become French by defending the rights of man and the citizen, in other words, by defending the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité.

The RN, however, sees the flag as something that divides the people. They’re trying to say — this is our flag. And that some people aren’t part of the nation, especially Muslims, by which they mean those who aren’t white. But the French flag resulted from an opposite logic. Its history is linked to the tricolor cockade presented to Louis XVI on July 17, 1789. But most importantly, there was a strike in September 1790, as the monarchy wanted to send sailors to put down the Haitian revolts against slavery. These sailors refused to leave, and ended up discussing what the flag on their ship should be. This subject reached the National Assembly. Mirabeau had this magnificent formulation: he said that the flag of glory by war must be replaced by the flag of the sacred brotherhood between peoples, the flag that would be the terror of conspirators and tyrants. The National Assembly decided to use a red, white and blue flag. So, the flag has a meaning of love. But the RN thinks that loving one’s own means hating others.

David Broder

Our magazine is called Jacobin also in reference to the Haitian revolt, which anticipated the great emancipation struggles of the twentieth century. But that’s also because, even if French republicanism is itself a political program, the French Republic that actually exists is not the one imagined in 1793 . . .

Antoine Léaument

Absolutely not. And that allows me to clarify one point, which is that the tricolor flag and the Republic were also forces of colonialism. It didn’t begin with the Republic; but the Republic, and in particular the Third Republic, continued colonization, along with an intensely racist discourse. That’s a betrayal of the republican ideal, and of the 1793 Constitution, which states that France won’t wage war against foreign countries, that we are the friends of free nations, and we will welcome all those who try to liberate themselves.

It’s clear that a colonizing discourse is incompatible with this. Moreover, when slavery was finally abolished, it wasn’t just decreed; it came because people in Haiti fought for their freedom and won it. Everyone became a French citizen, to the point where Jean-Baptiste Belley and Jean-Baptiste Mills became the Republic’s first black MPs in 1793, without their skin color becoming a barrier to that.

So, we have to condemn all that was done in the Republic’s name but betrayed republican principles. To use the tricolor to represent something other than the values of the Republic — anti-racism, the sharing of wealth, etc. — is a betrayal of that flag and of this country. For me, those who are French are those who defend these values, those who defend human equality. It isn’t French to refuse to allow people French citizenship even though they’d be entitled to it based on the principles I’m talking about. We can and should condemn colonization and the Vichy regime on a republican basis. The 1793 Constitution says the Republic doesn’t make peace as long as its territory is occupied, and so Vichy isn’t admissible according to the principles of 1793 either. Moreover, if you have a problem with Jews, then you aren’t a republican.

Socialists, communists, anti-fascism, anti-capitalism — all these things can come together in French republicanism, so long as we maintain a coherent way of talking about the Republic. Unfortunately, there are those who try and use elements like secularism to promote civil war, when it is instead about finding social peace.

David Broder

Today’s Fifth Republic can even serve as a negative model — Giorgia Meloni talks of Italy adopting its presidentialist, hierarchical form of state, which resulted from the military coup in 1958. France Insoumise talks about a Sixth Republic. What alternative model is that, and what could it mean internationally?

Antoine Léaument

I’m sometimes criticized on the grounds that, if it’s all very well to defend the tricolor and the Marseillaise, we end up becoming nationalists rather than internationalists. For me, the nation only makes sense in the context of internationalism. We don’t want there to be differences between the French and other peoples, precisely because what republican principles say is that we are brothers with other peoples, and that we need to find ways of working together democratically. Ultimately, the objective remains the same: to abolish capitalist society. I haven’t abandoned that in order to defend the tricolor flag. So, we have to stand together, collectively, across borders, to put an end to this system and create a solidarity that doesn’t exclude my fellow man just because he’s on the other side of a border.

The 1793 Constitution says no generation has the right to enslave future generations, and that each generation has the right to revise its constitution. As you said, the 1958 Constitution came from a coup d’état. We want to revise it, because it is a quasi-monarchical document, with articles like 49.3 that allow the government to pass legislation without a parliamentary vote. We want a truly republican constitution that puts popular sovereignty first, and the brotherhood of peoples I mentioned earlier, in Mirabeau’s words.

Again, there’s ways of looking to French history to find elements that can express this. I discovered in one of your articles that, at the end of the Second International’s congress held on July 14, 1889 to mark the centenary of the French Revolution, they went to sing the Marseillaise in front of the graves of the Communards. For me that sums up what French history is all about. Similarly, during the Paris Commune in 1871, the Communards sang the Marseillaise, because it was a revolutionary song of freedom that had been banned by Napoleon III as a “factious” anthem.

So, there’s a strong link between the great history of French revolutionary and internationalist socialism and the more strictly national symbols of the French Republic. I believe that this is also the way to build a real international policy, based on our own history. Who we are and what we’ve done in the narrow territory of metropolitan France, and in the much wider space of the overseas territories — even with all the questions this raises about the way in which it was built there. But at the same time, we want to emphasize the part of this national history that speaks to the world, and the part of the world that speaks to us. This French history is part of a global history and a progressive sense of history that now seems to be heading in the other direction. But by promoting these values, by reminding people that they used to have more rights than they do now, we can also speak to the world in a way that’s better than what Emmanuel Macron is doing — particularly when you look at how he disdainfully talks down to African heads of state.

In any case, I’m happy that an American magazine bears the name of a French revolutionary movement, which is also linked to US history, since revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic worked together. There were cultural exchanges, so to speak, between the American and French Revolutions. I believe that it is by building on these foundations that we can respond to today’s democratic, social, and ecological issues. They are necessarily international in nature, and will have to be resolved through internationalist solutions.