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Terror in Marseilles : a case study of resistance to centralization during the French revolution Duschinsky, Peter


Localism in Marseilles was rooted in the institutions of the ancien régime. As a free port, the city was politically separate from the County of Provence and enjoyed considerable economic privileges. Marseilles had a large, prosperous bourgeoisie, and as an urban commercial centre was also culturally distinct from rural Provence. In the revolutionary period Marseilles had ample opportunity to express its particularism: during the administrative disorganization of 1789-1793 newly founded municipalities, among them Marseilles, became the basic units of government in France. Marseilles, in part looking back to ancien régime particularism, and in part developing its new revolutionary localism, attempted to spread its revolutionary principles, and fulfill its regionalist ambitions by fighting all forms of counterrevolution in the region, in particular the "reactionary" authorities of the department of the Bouches-du-Rhone, established in Marseilles' historic rival, Aix-en-Provence. Marseilles commerce did not suffer during the first three years of the Revolution. With steady food supplies and prosperity there were no disturbances in the city, and Marseilles could regard itself as a politically unified, secure bastion of the Revolution surrounded by a sea of counterrevolution. In 1792, with the outbreak of war, France, including Marseilles, entered a crisis period. With political pressures and deteriorating economic conditions the revolutionary political unity of Marseilles broke up. When the Paris government attempted to impose central control on Marseilles in the spring of 1793, the Marseilles bourgeoisie revolted against the central government's representatives. They had considerable popular support, for many Marseilles sans-culottes, hurt by shortages and inflation, were ready to listen to particularist appeals. Federalism in Marseilles represents a case of local resistance to the Paris government's first attempts at centralization. The period of the Terror, following the defeat of federalism, did not witness the defeat of Marseilles localism. The Marseilles Jacobins, having been released from federalist prisons, and having assumed control of the city, pursued a locally based and regionally oriented political course. Since the central government's representatives were preoccupied with problems of procuring supplies and waging war, they allowed the Marseilles Jacobins a free hand in Marseilles. Only in December 1793 and January 1794 did Barras and Freron attack the local authorities in Marseilles. The attack was unsuccessful. Instead of establishing central government control it provoked a powerful local reaction: Marseilles municipal pride was not prepared to submit. The Committee of Public Safety repudiated Barras's and Freron's policies because they were unsuccessful, but also because they were fundamentally misguided. The Mountain intended the Terror to be used pragmatically, to aid in establishing efficient national administration. This is what the Montagnard policy of centralization meant. Well-functioning locally based authorities were not to be destroyed, but were to be integrated into the national administration. Maignet, Barras's and Freron's successor, succeeded in accomplishing this goal in Marseilles, and thus applied the Terror as intended by the two ruling committees. Maignet was an obedient, hard-working bureaucrat, the grey administrator every authoritarian government requires. That the Montagnard war dictatorship had too many supporters like Barras and Freron, and too few like Maignet, in part accounts for its failure.

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