While a number have agued that Marie Antoinette has been unfairly maligned, it’s my rather historically-uneducated opinion that any damaging stories likely misrepresent her more in degree than in kind. After all, historical facts include her incredible luxuries and the wealth that she lavished on the gardens and palace of Versailles – wealth that had to come from somewhere – and not only Antoinette’s public campaigns for food-charity (before, after, and during les Guerres des Farines) and opposition to the new economic ideology described at the time as “laissez faire, laissez passer” and remembered today as “laissez faire economics”.
The previously dominant economic ideology of France was one that demanded royal regulation of and intervention in the markets for necessities, in particular those for flour and for finished breads. Les Gendarmes (“Les gens d’armes” or “men at arms”) of the day carried the name contemporary French police forces still use, but they were more properly understood as a civil service with broad responsibilities including, but not limited to, keeping the peace. The security of French persons was understood, quite obviously, to be as threatened by hunger as much or more than it was threatened by violence, and les gendarmes, acting on behalf of the king, had for centuries acted to make sure food was shared during famine and to prevent price gouging.
Ah, but then
the Austrian School Les Physiocrats came to the wonderful revelation that food-price stabilization creates disincentives for long-term hoarding as well as short-term disincentives for production. It didn’t matter that the obvious incentives of having sufficient food to avoid starvation creates long-term incentives for production or that hoarding led to malnutrition, starvation, and, ultimately, rioting by the desperate and dying. Nor did it matter that hoarding, combined with its inextricable partner “price gouging”, actually created the shortages that drove up costs to levels causing fatal starvation. No, les Physiocrats insisted that the government ignore traditional royal responsibilities to the security of the people and that with respect to starvation and rioting, the government must “let them happen, let them pass” because that was the only way to maximize wealth within the nation.
It is, of course, in this context that legend would have you believe Marie Antoinette said of the starving, rioting people of France during the time of Les Guerres des Farine in 1774-1775, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!”*2 She has been portrayed as having said this while in the midst of her own extravagant meal, sometimes even as having said it during her last extravagant meal while the tumbrels were rolling toward Versailles. The quote, its attribution, and its legendary context are all designed to portray a ruler completely out of touch with the conditions of common lives and the effects of rulers’ whims on those lives.
For this mythical version of Antoinette, bread lavishly enriched with butter and egg, bread so rich and so cream-sweet that it came but a small dose of sugar short of being cake, was the subject of her attention even when the actions of her government were literally killing people. The very best version of this Mythical Antoinette is an 18th century Kendall Jenner, naively sharing a
Pepsi brioche or two, convinced that this will stop widespread, systematized killing endorsed by our opinion leaders as sadly necessary for the good of the country but just a little too violent for the kind-hearted Jenner Antoinette to digest. The worst version of this Mythical Antoinette is a malevolent presence who relishes her luxuries, deserved for the mere fact of being Marie Antoinette, while she blithely ignores the deaths happening around her. She feels entitled to ignore those deaths: she isn’t killing anyone herself, is she? Doesn’t anyone believe in personal responsibility anymore?
Maybe, maybe someone could muster up some nostalgia for a wealthy woman who indulges in luxuries but at least occasionally gives a speech encouraging her wealthy friends to give a bit of grain to the peasants. Sure, the xenophobia of 18th century France (hardly extinct in 21st century France) may have led to her demonization at the pens of French writers and cartoonists of the Revolutionary era. Sure, sexism probably contributed to her taking an unfair portion of the blame for a government in which her powers were vastly limited compared to her French-born, male husband. But with all this baggage, nostalgia for Marie Antoinette? Really?
Ah, but you know where this is going, don’t you? Trump.
Trump, in an interview with Fox Business*3, was asked about his decision to kill Syrians via missile attacks carried out by the US government at his order. His answer shows which details were subject to his attention and which details were secondary:
“We had finished dinner. We’re now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it,” Trump told the Fox Business television network.
“And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded, what do you do?” Trump said. “And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way.”
“And I said, ‘Mr. President, let me explain something to you’ — this was during dessert — ‘we’ve just fired 59 missiles.’”
And, no, I haven’t truncated the quote just before Trump mentions the people killed by his attacks, though there was a little more where Trump explains how President Xi praised Trump as being a really great guy for attacking people who were so evil that they killed babies.
All-in-all, I’m really not sure that I wouldn’t prefer even the cartoonish, ahistorical version of Marie Antoinette to our current US president.
Oh, and the source of this story? Agence France-Presse.
But of course.
*1: No direct commentary by les Physiocrats, who frequently insisted on being called les Économistes despite other theories of economics existing (indeed, they were reacting to previously theories of value and of wealth-creation), seemed to address the tendency towards reduced economic productivity when killing your people, the people that do the work that creates your economy, becomes policy.
*2: Our primary written source for the quote is Rousseau from memoirs published in the 1780s. However, the relevant passages were written in the 1760s when Marie Antoinette was no more than a teen and likely during her pre-teen years. Further, Antoinette was still living in Austria, the land of her birth, when Rousseau wrote the passage including this “quote”. Finally, the passage attributes these words not to Antoinette personally, but to “une grande princesse” that Rousseau never named.
NOTE: footnote 2 was edited when colinday noted that I somehow typed 1880s instead of 1780s and 1860s instead of 1760s. Whoops. Thanks, colinday.
*3: Fox Business being distinguished from Fox how? Does Fox Business pride itself on rejecting the labor-friendly bias of Fox News?