Who is Abbé Grégoire, quoted by President Macron?



Father Gregory. An “iron head” in Revolution

by Francoise Hildesheimer

New World Editions, 412 p., €24.90.

An abbot in a presidential speech. Evoking the role of France in the world, during his inaugural speech on May 7, Emmanuel Macron quoted Abbé Grégoire (1750-1831) and endorsed his idea that the French language is “the idiom of the universal”, the language that unites.

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This is not the first time that the President of the Republic quotes the revolutionary priest, deputy to the States General in 1789, member of the Constituent Assembly and of the Convention, then bishop of Loir-et-Cher, pantheonized in 1989. On September 4, 2020, in a speech at the Panthéon celebrating the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic by Léon Gambetta, he recalled the linguistic, as well as philosophical and political legacy of the ecclesiastic. “Our language has forged our relationship to freedom and the universal: didn’t Abbé Grégoire, who rests here, say that French is “the language of freedom”? », then underlined President Macron.

A divisive historical figure

The very recent biography published by historian Françoise Hildesheimer, a specialist in the Ancien Régime, offers an excellent summary of the itinerary of this leading revolutionary figure, whose posterity, like the memory of 1789, was the subject of fierce opposition and controversy. She returns in particular to the “cultural struggle”which Abbé Grégoire launched in 1790 in the Assembly, in favor of “the universalization of the French language on a national scale”.

The deputy priest judged that ignorance of French was an aggravating factor in the social unrest that reigned in the countryside and that “the penetration of new ideas would be facilitated by this linguistic unification which would go hand in hand with a better education of the French”. Abbé Grégoire resumed this fight in 1794 in a major report “on the necessity and the means of annihilating patois and universalizing the use of the French language”linking the consolidation of the revolutionary society to the development of French.

Beyond this precise question, this rich biography offers a synthesis of the life of the revolutionary abbot which was lacking until now. Françoise Hildesheimer was passionate about a character who was himself fiery, and who aroused contradictory impulses, but while keeping a cool head. On many points of friction – his role in the condemnation of Louis XVI, his conception of languages, his view of women… – it upholds historiographical debates, but above all places Abbé Grégoire in a historical context that avoids judgments anachronistic.

Fight against despotism

The strength of his book is to give flesh and consistency to a character often reduced to a few ideas, sometimes caricatured. It recounts the awakening and the intellectual and social progress of this boy from a very modest family, born in 1750 in Vého, near Lunéville in Lorraine, a breeding ground that makes him “a man from the frontier with all that implies of curiosity and openness”.

If it was a means of social elevation, its priestly vocation was in no way superficial, but “the constant backbone of his life”, underlines the historian. Intelligent, sociable, open-minded, Abbé Grégoire acquired on his ecclesiastical lands an early experience of social questions and the certainty that sovereignty did not belong to the king or to the nobles, but to all the citizens.

Madame de Genlis, a lady “to accompany”

Ambitious, an excellent orator, a clever man, he was elected at the age of 37 as a member of the Estates General, where he worked to unite elected officials from the lower clergy and the third estate. At the Constituent Assembly and then at the Convention, he distinguished himself by his fight against despotism, voted for the end of privileges, defended the sovereignty of the people and universal male suffrage, pleaded for the rights of Jews, blacks and “blood-bloods”. mixed”, calls for the abolition of slavery…

An evangelical and revolutionary faith

“Making religion and revolution march in unison is and always will be the design of the abbotemphasizes Françoise Hildesheimer. For him, they are not only compatible but almost consubstantial. »“The Gospel is the most republican of all books”, wrote Abbé Grégoire in his Memoirs.

His hope of reconciling the Revolution and the Gospel will, however, be disappointed. The historian recalls with precision the debates which surrounded the Civil Constitution of the Clergy voted in 1790, quickly condemned as “sacrilege” and “schismatic” by Pope Pius VI. Father Grégoire was the first to take the oath, but half of the priests and all the bishops, except four, refused to do so and became refractory. Beyond the destiny of Abbé Grégoire – recounted until his death in 1831, through all the vicissitudes of regime changes – it is the complex story of Catholics in the revolutionary mutation that this work allows us to enlighten.

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