French lose their heads over TV documentary about Robespierre


It’s not that France has no shortage of current concerns. The country is at war, the economy is flatlining and a plan to introduce gay marriage has proved more contentious than any social debate in decades.

But wars come to an end, economies recover and laws get enacted. The debate on the French Revolution never ends. If proof were needed that the events of 200 years ago can still arouse the passion and indignation of France’s political class like few other topics, it came yesterday from the radical left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

In a furious open letter to Rémy Pflimlin, the president of public service broadcaster France Télévisions, Mélenchon took issue with a documentary aired last week on the revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre.

Mélenchon said the programme, entitled Robespierre: The Executioner of the Vendée, was a “scandalous” and “absurd” portrayal of the 1789 revolution, “riddled with errors and dangerously oriented towards a banalisation of the idea of genocide.”

Robespierre was the guiding figure behind the Terror, the period of violence between rival political factions that was marked by mass executions of “enemies of the revolution”. The war in the Vendée, a region in western France, was a royalist rebellion between 1793 and 1794 that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands on both sides. The nature of the Vendée uprising has been disputed on the right since the 19th century, and last month the far-right National Front joined the UMP, formerly led by Nicolas Sarkozy, in sponsoring a Bill that would classify the repression of the revolt as “genocide”.

In his letter, Mélenchon criticised the documentary for using the term and said it was “striking” that it was broadcast in the same week that the UMP and the National Front tabled their proposal.

The historian Franck Ferrand, who presents the documentary, declined to comment, saying Mélenchon’s criticisms did not refer to specific errors.