This week President Obama replied to a man who told the president that he is hard-pressed to buy gasoline for his van that he ought to trade it in for a new car with better mileage. Obama assured him he’d probably get a great deal these days—from GM, Ford, or Chrysler, he added. The Associated Press first reported this incident and then scrubbed it from its story; most of the media did not care about it at all, because Obama is awesome.
Some might be tempted to shrug this off as an anecdote about a clueless ruler and his palace-guard press, unsympathetic to people clinging to their vans and religion. But we all occasionally say silly things—we’re only human, not sort of a deity—and it would be unfair to equate the president’s response with Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” remark, because Marie Antoinette did not actually say that.
The phrase is commonly misascribed to Marie Antoinette, but there is no record of her ever saying it; it may have originated in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, completed in 1769 when Marie Antoinette was only 13, attributed to a “great princess” who may have been a fictional character. The misattribution came later:
One factor that is important to understand when studying how this phrase came to be attributed to Marie Antoinette is the increasing unpopularity of the Queen in the final years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. . . . Her Austrian birth and femininity were also a major factor. . . . In fact, many anti-monarchists were so convinced (albeit incorrectly) that it was Marie Antoinette who had single-handedly ruined France’s finances that they nicknamed her Madame Déficit.
So Marie Antoinette was the victim of the tea partiers of the day, who attributed to her a remark she never made. Monsieur Le Deficit, on the other hand, actually made the remark that historians will not be able to find in the Associated Press. The video is here and the screenshot is here.