"Let them eat cake"
That sentence is great to make someone look plain mean. Imagine if the people are dying with hunger and the evil queen says that. If we add a sadistic laugh in the end, it would be just perfect. Would it matter if it was true or not?
The story, if we want to make it short, is this. The people of Paris had no bread, no food, and were in complete misery, and was starting to rebel (and he had reasons, plenty of them). But, what is a revolution without violence? They needed to be motivated to go against the ennemy - and, in this case, Marie-Antoinette was the enemy: she was the evil Autrichienne, which means Austrian. The scandals the pamphlets, the slander and lies, they all started here. Half, or even more than half, of these things she is accused of, are lies infiltrated in History.
The odd thing in all of this is that those mean pamphlets didn't start in the people, but in the nobility. They were sick of something: the Queen was not paying the attention that was due to them. She spent her days at the Petit Trianon, an informal place calmer and relaxed than Versailles, that pleased her much more (well, informal, it depends of the point of view: no one, even the King, could enter it without the Queen's consent! Think of it like her sanctuary).
Well, the old nobility, the septagenary marquis and the old comtesse, they had all stayed in Versailles. The only thing present to talk to were the statues! Where was the Queen? In the Trianon, of course! They had to make their court! I'm sure it was no picnic for them (and, about picnics, if you're wandering where the King was, he spent his days hunting when he was not working or making locks). The plots against the Queen started in that climate. The nobility had wonderful palaces, where they retreated and printed those pamphlets, that later grew and grew and flew even in the halls of Versailles!
One of the most famous sentences was "Let Them eat cake". Supposedly, when the Queen was told that the people of Paris had no bread, she said that. Pretty mean humour, huh? And it's a sentence that caused a great hatred and agitation in everyone, go figure out why.
There are several theories about this saying:
Number 1: Marie-Antoinete said that and she was mean, mean, mean.
Number 2: Marie-Antoinette never said that, and it's just a lie like so many others.
Number 3: Marie-Antoinette said that but she meant it in a good way and not a bad way.
Number 4: Marie-Antoinette never said that, but another princess or queen of France did.
Which one to believe? Before you take any conclusions, let me tell you that I do not believe in the first one, and I'm definitely not the only one. There is absolutely no record of Marie-Antoinete saying such things, and it wouldn't be the first lie they make up about her. She was frivolous, yes, that was a truth universally acknowledgded, and so it was easy to make people of that time believe she had indeed said that. Still, it does not mean that we can not rethink those facts nowadays.
Besides, even though she was always light-hearted and never really cared about all the money she wasted, she wasn’t mean. She was absolutely not the sort of “Evil Queen” that would be cynical and ironic when faced with the conditions of the people. She basically was a person incapable of saying a sentence so brilliantly evil in such a situation. She was very concerned each time she saw poverty with her own eyes, did lots of charity works, she even took care of poor children and taught her own sons and daughters to help others. But, the truth is, she was never really aware of the real numbers: the number of money she spent, and the number of people that lived in misery.
I’m inclined to believe in the second and fourth theories. The third is… well, interesting, but I don’t think so. This is what the third theory is based on: a french law forced the bakers to sell Basic bread and more elaborated pastries at the same price, and this to avoid the likely situation of them selling only the most expensive products to have more income. Brioches is a kind of cake made of flour, butter and egs. Therefore, saying “let them eat cake” could be meant as a suggestion for a problem. Even though, I don’t think so. That is a much too elaborate interpretation, and don’t you think someone had to think a lot about that sentence to arrive to that conclusion?
As it is stated in The Phrase Finder:
“The original French is Qu'ils mangent de la brioche. It has been suggested that the speaker's intention wasn't as cynical as is generally supposed. French law required bakers to sell loaves at fixed prices and fancy loaves had to be sold at the same price as basic breads. This was aimed at preventing bakers from selling just the more profitable expensive products. The let them eat brioche (a form of cake made of flour, butter and eggs) would have been a sensible suggestion in the face of a flour shortage as it would have allowed the poor to eat what would otherwise have been unaffordable. It's rather a mouthful, so to speak, but if the phrase had been reported as 'let them buy cake at the same price as bread' we might now think better of the French nobility.”
As to the fourth theory… there are two written sources that could prove it. The first one comes from Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, Comte de Provence. In a memory he wrote in 1791, he wrote that the sentence “Que ne mangent-ils de la croûte de pâte?” (which basically means, “Why don’t they eat pastry?") was said by another Queen, Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish princess that married Louis XIV, when she was told that the people had no bread.
Rousseau also wrote once:
"Finally I recalled the worst-recourse of a great princess to whom one said that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: "Let them eat brioche..."
Same situation! However, we can not forget Rousseau was a philosopher and a fiction writer.
What could it be? Maybe some parisiens eager of stimulating the revolution had “recycled” that sentence so to make great publicity for Madame La Guillotine, but instead of puting Marie-Thérèse in the credits, they put Marie-Antoinette! Everything’s possible!
It’s still mysterious, even if not as much as before, but one thing is clear: the Queen of France who lost her head never said that!