Article written by Robert Neblett, Les Misérables Dramaturg
One of the central historical events of the novel and the musical of Les Misérables is the 1832 street battle of the barricades. Many people mistake this rebellion as part of the French Revolution, which actually occurred more than 30 years prior.
Marius, Enjolras, Grantaire, and the other student revolutionaries of the ABC (abaissé) Café are fictional characters invented by Hugo. The Paris Uprising of June 5-6, 1832, also known as the June Rebellion, is historical fact. Hugo’s 1862 novel looks back in time 30 years to a period of social and political turmoil that pitted rich against poor, royalist versus republican, and inexperienced students versus the national guard.
Many catalysts set in motion the events that would erupt in this battle in the streets of Paris. Having never truly recovered from the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror which followed, food shortages and disease had spread through the slums of Paris after the decline of the Bonaparte Empire, which widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Several claims to the French throne sparked public debate over the legitimacy of the monarchy of King Louis-Phillipe.
However, the spark that set off the powder keg of public outrage was when General Jean Maximilien Lamarque died on June 1, 1932. Lamarque had been sympathetic to the poor and working classes, but the royalists attempted to hijack his funeral for their own political agenda. Groups of students and workers saw Lamarque’s death as a call to arms and his funeral as a perfect opportunity to make a public statement. Protestors seized his funeral carriage and diverted the funeral procession into the Place de la Bastille.
National guardsman shot into the crowd, causing a riot, during which barricades of furniture and crates and wagons were constructed to protect the protestors from the gunfire of the military. In the end, the 3,000 revolutionaries were no match for the 40,000 militia and army soldiers. 93 insurrectionists were killed, and the June Rebellion became a potent symbol for the growing republican cause, which ultimately resulted in the overthrow of the king in 1848.