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French Revolution
French Revolution

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3.4 Monarchy and the Revolution – the flight to Varennes, 1791

The task of the moderates was further complicated by the ambiguous attitude of the royal family. From the first there were royalists who refused to compromise with the Revolution, including Louis XVI's younger brothers, the comte de Provence (later Louis XVIII) and the comte d'Artois (later Charles X), who left France as émigrés and fomented counter-revolution from abroad. By 1791 half the noble officers in the French army had resigned their commissions. Weak, shifty and out of his depth, Louis XVI remained suspicious of the Revolution and hostile to the constitution. As a practising Catholic, he was profoundly disturbed by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Still more antagonistic was the queen, Marie-Antoinette, whose brother was the Habsburg emperor. Marie-Antoinette opposed any compromise with the Revolution. ‘Only armed force’, she wrote, ‘can put things right’ (Hampson, 1975, p. 98). In June 1791 the royal family attempted to flee to a place of safety on the eastern frontier of France, from where Louis, with the implicit threat of armed foreign assistance, proposed to renegotiate terms with the Assembly. They were caught at Varennes (the episode is known as the flight to Varennes) and were returned to Paris under guard. Once more they were virtually prisoners.

‘The flight to Varennes opened up the second great schism of the Revolution’ (Doyle, 2001, p. 47). The king's loyalty to the Revolution and his credibility as a constitutional monarch were fatally compromised. So was the cause of moderate, liberal constitutionalism in France. In July 1791 an anti-royalist demonstration took place in the Champ-de-Mars in Paris. It was put down by the National Guard under Lafayette, and some 50 demonstrators were killed. What later became known as the massacre of the Champ-de-Mars further polarised opinion.

For the moderates of 1789, the Revolution had gone far enough. Confidence in constitutional monarchy would be restored, they hoped, by the king's formal assent to the new constitution in September 1791. From the spring of 1792 onwards, however, the cause of moderation was under continual challenge: on the one hand, from the king's unreliability and the threat of foreign intervention and counter-revolution, and, on the other, from the sans-culottes, militant agitators and radical intellectuals in and outside the Assembly.