It was supposed to signal the end of the oppression of the French masses – the peasantry – by the aristocracy.
The revolutionaries underlined their point by decapitating the king – the epitome of the old social structure – and his wife, who famously (and allegedly) said, when told people were starving for want of bread, “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” – let them eat cake.
This is the month when the French celebrate the anniversary of the start of that bloodbath, 229 years ago. There have been unsuccessful flirtations with monarchy since – starting with Napoleon – and one need only look at the Carnet du Jour in Le Figaro to see what a significant role various ducs, marquis, comtes, vicomtes and barons still play in French society.
But disturb the notions of fraternité and égalité, and all hell breaks loose – as President Macron discovered when rebuking a 15-year old lout who had the temerity to address him as “Manu” [short for Emmanuel] and not “Monsieur le Président”.
It hobbled Sarko, Manu’s predecessor but one, when he told an unfortunate who had heckled him “casse-toi, pauvre con!” – a polite translation of which, given this is a family newspaper, might be “please leave the room, you person of restricted means and intellect”. But Manu either missed that, or won’t be told, or thinks he is above learning such a lesson from the King of Bling.
Most heads of state would have taken with the rations an uncouth youth addressing them coarsely: but Manu clearly felt this act of insolence and effrontery challenged his status and authority (which, as all parents know, is what 15-year-old boys do), and had to fight back.
Arguments common to all political and social cultures are raised here.
One should respect the office even if one does not respect the man, for example; young people today are abominably brought up and lack respect; but respect must be earned and does not come as a right.
For Manu-watchers, however, this was just another indication of how ridiculously grand he has become since taking office: the ancien régime style press conferences at Versailles, for example, or the announcement just after his humiliation of the lout that he wants a new swimming pool at the Fort de Brégançon, his summer residence, which his predecessors since de Gaulle have detested.
At least it will provide work for a few of France’s three million unemployed, otherwise unimpressed by this splashing out of scarce state funds.
Similarly he has given some work to the Limoges ceramics industry, ordering an alleged €500,000 worth of Sèvres porcelain (900 dinner plates and 300 side plates, as one does).
If Manu is determined to act the aristo, then he might recall another French phrase: Noblesse oblige. Had he just ignored the silly boy, or simply nodded in response to his greeting, no damage would have been done. Instead, Manu has made himself an international laughing stock, and the boy, we are told, went into hiding because of the mockery from his school-friends.
Manu did not just tell him to learn some manners; he also told him to get a degree and feed himself before starting a revolution (the youth had caused further offence by singing a line from the Internationale, the anthem of the Socialist party to which Manu belonged before he ratted on it).
He then tried to justify his entirely de trop reaction to this boy’s ignorance by pointing to the context of the occasion: it was June 18, the 78th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s appel from London to the French people to keep resisting the Nazi invader: and the incident took place at Mont Valérien fort, scene of numerous executions of résistants.
The boy should have known better than to act up at a ceremony marking such a solemn thing, any more than an English youth should act disrespectfully at the Cenotaph; but Manu showed his lack of experience, and his underlying insecurity, in drawing attention to something that everyone would otherwise instantly have forgotten, and creating a public relations disaster.
What would the man of June 18, General de Gaulle, have done?
An icy stare at most, one suspects – but then de Gaulle, apparently unlike Manu, did not lack self-confidence.
He had a well-based idea of his own dignity, and would have regarded the joshing of the racaille as beneath his notice or his contempt.
But then de Gaulle had a genuine, and not ersatz, idea of the monarchical.
He had also served his country for decades as a soldier, fought in the Great War, started a resistance movement from nothing, re-invented France, effectively founded two republics and restored the country’s self-esteem after the most traumatic and turbulent passage in its modern history. Compared with him, Manu is hardly off the starting grid.
Following the vulgarity of Sarko and the incompetence of Flanby, Manu undermines the French presidency in a different way: by making it a vehicle for his own ego and thirst for status. He should be careful.
France already has three pretenders to its vacant throne – the Orléanistes, the Bourbons and the Bonapartistes – and so if the people decide, because of the magniloquent behaviour of their president, they would rather revert to a constitutional monarchy – an idea with which de Gaulle flirted – there are options.
Meanwhile, Manu calls opponents of his labour reforms “slackers” and complains about the social security bill. He is right on both counts, but probably shouldn’t say so: the most recent poll shows that more think he’s doing a bad job (41%) than a good one (40%).
He gives the impression of being a small step from telling them to eat cake, and we know where that ends.
Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer, who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs