Monday, August 9, 2010

Michelle Obama is Marie-Antoinette?

When I first saw the frail comparison of Mrs. Obama to Queen Marie-Antoinette, I thought  it too silly to take seriously. However, the silliness seems to have taken over the internet, even sites that I used to respect. Anyone who has ever studied Marie-Antoinette or read even one of the reputable biographies about her will see that there are no similarities between the two women at all, other than being wives of heads of state. Since the comparison is meant to insult the Queen as well as the First Lady, it might be helpful to look at some basic facts.

Marie-Antoinette is once again being portrayed as the Queen who was indifferent to the suffering of the people. However, Marie-Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake." It is not a mere allegation, it is not a matter of speculation. She said nothing of the kind. It was not even a rumor spread about her in her lifetime, but did not start circulating until the nineteenth century. What the Queen did say was: "It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness."

As a practicing Catholic who assisted at daily Mass, Marie-Antoinette had extensive charities. In pre-revolutionary France it was for the King and the Queen to give an example of almsgiving. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette took this duty seriously and throughout their reign did what they could to help the needy. During the fireworks celebrating the marriage of the young prince and princess in May 1770, there was a stampede in which many people were killed. Louis and Marie-Antoinette gave all of their private spending money for a year to relieve the suffering of the victims and their families. They became very popular with the common people as a result, which was reflected in the adulation with which they were received when the Dauphin took his wife to Paris on her first "official" visit in June 1773. Marie-Antoinette's reputation for sweetness and mercy became even more entrenched in 1774, when as the new Queen she asked that the people be relieved of a tax called "The Queen's belt," customary at the beginning of each reign. "Belts are no longer worn," she quipped. It was the onslaught of revolutionary propaganda that would eventually destroy her reputation.

The King and Queen were patrons of the Maison Philanthropique, a society founded by Louis XVI which helped the aged, blind and widows. The queen taught her daughter Madame Royale to wait upon peasant children, to sacrifice her Christmas gifts so as to buy fuel and blankets for the destitute, and to bring baskets of food to the sick. Marie-Antoinette started a home for unwed mothers at the royal palace. She adopted three poor children to be raised with her own, as well overseeing the upbringing of several needy children, whose education she paid for, while caring for their families. She brought several peasant families to live on her farm at Trianon, building cottages for them. There was food for the hungry distributed every day at Versailles, at the King's command. During the famine of 1787-88, the royal family sold much of their flatware to buy grain for the people, and themselves ate the cheap barley bread in order to be able to give more to the hungry.

I fail to see the connection between the First Lady's trip to Spain with anything that Marie-Antoinette ever did. For one thing, after traveling to France from Austria at age fourteen to marry the heir to the throne, Marie-Antoinette never traveled anywhere again, except for the futile escape attempt during the Revolution. Otherwise, she never left the environs of Paris and Versailles; she never in her life saw an ocean. It was considered too expensive for the royal family to travel.

As for Mrs. Obama having a European holiday while America is struggling financially, it might not be the most prudent of choices. Nevertheless, the pictures I saw of Michelle and Sasha relaxing on the beach and lunching with the King and Queen of Spain do not seem to me to be examples of extreme decadence. There are plenty of serious issues for which one might critique the Obamas but comparing Michelle to Marie-Antoinette is foolish to say the least. Share

23 comments:

Lindsay said...

I was very appalled to hear both how much the vacation to Spain cost as well as hearing the comparison to Marie Antoinette. My husband did say that Rush Limbaugh clarified that the queen was not all that she was made out to be, but he was still going with the comparison because it matched according to public perception (or something like that). Anyway, not intellectually honest, and I think that it would be much more effective a comparison to show the immense rift between the personal sacrifices of the royal family who people see as dimissive verses the first family who is painted as "friends to the poor."

elena maria vidal said...

I agree with all that you say, Lindsay. I was appalled by the cost, too, especially on behalf of those who identify themselves as being one with the People.

mpr said...

This was a most useful post.
I love your writting, i hope one day i'll manage to express myself in our language just as fine.

Compliments from Portugal,

Manuel da Ascensão

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for your kind words, mpr!

Julygirl said...

Past Presidential families who did not have their own private retreat would vacation somewhere within the country at the home of some wealthy friend, i.e., Clintons and Nixons. They realized the importance to the American public of showing financial restraint.

elena maria vidal said...

Can you imagine Bess Truman doing such a thing?

The Western Confucian said...

Well said. I thought of you when I first read that absurd comparison this morning. Great job in debunking it, and doing so both quickly and thoroughly.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Joshua!

Terry Nelson said...

I was hoping you would address this. I had a commenter from Spain mention the Marie Antoinette comparison and I said such a notion was an insult to the poor Queen. Great post!

Brantigny said...

I knew not to even bring this up. I do not agree though that the comparison was meant out of anything more that ignorance. The same reporters who spin the news to form public opinion are no different than those few who wrote pamphlets in the 18th century. The truth doesn't matter. All that matters is only something to catch the eye and gain viewers for a 14 second spot or a 10 paragraph column.

I DO think it was in bad taste, travelling alone on her husbands birthday to Spain. Mdme Brantigny would never have done that.

What is really the nexus of the problem? One who claims to be working so hard for the people is on vacation ALL the time, so much so that even the left leaning media has to report it.

Then again Marie-Antoinette is a saint.

boinky said...

The hotel room prices (one quote was 350 a night) are not especially extravagent for a first class resort hotel, and most of those complaining don't realize the expense budget is so high because it includes a lot of security personnel.

No, Bess Truman didn't need that, but remember: her husband almost died because of lack of security when terrorists shot up Blair House.

Parisienne Farmgirl said...

A-MEN! I am with Julygirl all the way. Thank you for this informative post.
Quite frankly, I've got a jar on my counter where we throw every dollar we can scrounge to go on a 3 day local vacation next week...
It's unreal how the First Family claims to be "just like us"...

Amy said...

I loved this post! The comparison is absurd on a number of levels.

Walking through the Hall of Mirrors, and coming down the halls and stairs by which she escaped Versailles are some of my most vivid memories of my trip to France. It's odd, last night a picture of my husband took of me at Versailles fell out of a little used drawer. I hadn't known any France photos were even in there.

elena maria vidal said...

Richard, you put your finger on it.

Boinky, as I said, I don't think it is extreme decadence for them to go to Spain but still imprudent given what the country is going through.

Thank you, P.F. and Amy, so glad you appreciated the post!

Matterhorn said...

Marie-Antoinette is certainly one to suffer from these false, glib comparisons. First, people liken her to Diana, then to Michelle Obama. Over and over again, the Queen's name is bandied about, in a superficial and thoughtless way, without any consideration of what she was really like, morally and spiritually.

elena maria vidal said...

"Over and over again, the Queen's name is bandied about, in a superficial and thoughtless way, without any consideration of what she was really like, morally and spiritually."

You said it, Matterhorn!!

lara77 said...

I was furious more by the derogatory comments about Queen Marie Antoinette. The propaganda of the French Revolution still reverberates down through the centuries. No one will leave that poor woman alone; let her rest in peace. Mrs. Obama seems to have fallen under the spotlight as Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton. I believe the First Lady's PR staff should have done a much better job re. this trip; possibly by making it as low key and unostentatious as possible!

Colleen Hammond said...

Tremendous!!! Blogged it. VERY important info. KUDOS!!!

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Lara, it is a real PR problem.


Thanks, Colleen!

Mistress said...

Thanks so much for posting this. One of the main problems with the trend for entertainment news is the proliferation of opinions without thought out arguments. There are lots of allegations and lots of anger but little verification sometimes to justify either. Anyway, it's important to protect our Marie and all politics aside, it's important that the history is correct.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Mistress, and what is strange is that it is all conservatives spouting this foolishness, which is basically the classic Marxist version of history.

Matterhorn said...

Well, I suppose, not all who claim to be "conservatives" necessarily are so.

elena maria vidal said...

I think it has basically become the Mensheviks vs the Bolsheviks, or the Girondins vs the Jacobins.