Bread Remains Staple During French Crises, from Revolution to COVID-19

bakeries remain open in france despite lockdown

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Bakeries are essential during France’s coronavirus lockdown, NPR reported. Bread makers still face lines of hungry customers even in times of the current pandemic and encouraged social distancing. Bread was also a staple of the French Revolution.

freshly backed bread on wooden table
Boulangeries remain an essential business during the novel coronavirus pandemic, in keeping with bread’s significance throughout the history of France. Photo by Lotus_studio / Shutterstock

According to NPR, French bakeries, or boulangeries, are as busy as they were before the novel coronavirus caused much of the world to shut down non-essential businesses. “In most places, the only people going to work are those whose jobs are deemed essential,” the article said. “In the U.S., that includes supermarket employees, pharmacists, and postal workers. In France, it also includes bread bakers, or boulangers.”

The article goes on to state that France has more than 30,000 independent bakers and that the French consume more than 10 billion baguettes per year. In the late 18th century, as the French Revolution itself was rebelled against by an increasingly conservative populace, bread resurfaced over and over again as an indicator of the times.

No Bread for the Poor

One of the most popular political organizations in late 18th-century France was that of the Jacobins, who became known for their extreme egalitarianism and violence. They were met with a wide range of reactions, including finding adversaries in a conservative group called the Thermidorians, and the French National Convention made it a priority to end the Jacobin organization entirely.

“The Jacobins had created a controlled economy in the effort to win the war and feed the poor, but the Thermidorians chose to dismantle the economic controls,” said Dr. Suzanne M. Desan, the Vilas-Shinners Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They acted in the name of freeing the economy; they wanted to placate the merchants and satisfy the big peasant producers in the provinces.”

In light of this, she said, the French National Convention fired munitions workers and closed public workshops, then put an end to price controls that had set caps on retail prices of various goods. This made prices skyrocket, including that of bread, since the 1794 wheat harvest in France had been so disappointing. Only the rich had the currency to pay them. Just like that, bread became a symbol of revolution.

“Where was the dream of equality now?” Dr. Desan asked. “The year of the [Reign of] Terror and the memory of the Jacobins began to look pretty good. Some sans-culottes women were heard to whisper, ‘When the guillotine worked, we had bread.'”

Of Bread and Constitutions

Dr. Desan said that the last great uprising of the French Revolution took place on the morning of May 20, 1795.

“At around 11 o’clock in the morning, one deputy was warning the Convention about a dangerous new pamphlet that called for an uprising,” she said. “In the galleries, women were teasing the deputies and shouted the word ‘bread’ over and over. Right then, a crowd of protesters smashed through the Convention door and poured into the assembly.”

According to Dr. Desan, women led the charge into the assembly, just as they had in the “October Days” march on Versailles six years earlier. The fear of starvation and its implications of the politics of the day reached a fever pitch, led by supporters of the Constitution of 1793, which granted widespread voting powers among the French, among other things favored by the Jacobins.

“Some women had chalked a slogan on their hats or on their shirts: ‘Bread and the Constitution of 1793,'” Dr. Desan said. “Some hardcore Jacobins jumped up to support the demands of the crowds; these old Jacobins of the Mountain seconded the call for price controls and better bread rations. They, too, demanded the freeing of patriot prisoners, and above all, they called for the Constitution of 1793.”

For over 200 years, bread has been a staple of French cuisine and culture as well as a symbol in times of crisis. During the coronavirus pandemic, it may also be a sign of hope.

Dr. Suzanne M. Desan contributed to this article. Dr. Desan is the Vilas-Shinners Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She earned her B.A. in History from Princeton University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley.