The Reform Movement in France

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When, during the last session of the Legislative Chambers, M. E. de Girardin had brought to light those numerous and scandalous facts of corruption which he thought would overthrow the government; when, after all, the government had maintained themselves against the storm; when the celebrated Two Hundred and Twenty-Five [the majority in the Chamber of Deputies supporting the Guizot government] declared themselves “satisfied” as to the innocence of the ministry, all seemed to be over, and the Parliamentary Opposition, towards the close of the session, fell back into the same impotency and lethargy which they had manifested at the beginning. But all was not over. Though Messrs Rothschild, Fould, Foulchiron, and Co. were satisfied, the people were not, nor was a large portion of the middle classes. The majority of the French bourgeoisie, especially those of the second and third rank, could not but see that the present class of electors became more and more the obedient servants of a small number of bankers, stock-jobbers, railway-speculators, large manufacturers, landed and mining proprietors, whose interest was the only interest cared for by the government. They saw that there was no hope for them ever to regain the position in the Chambers which, since 1830, they had been losing more and more every day, unless they extended the suffrage. They knew that electoral and parliamentary Reform was a dangerous experiment for them to try; but what could they do? Seeing that the haute finance, the lords of Paris Exchange, bought up the government and both the Chambers; seeing their own interests openly trampled upon; they were obliged either to submit patiently, and await humbly and quietly the day when the encroachments of the ruling money lords would make them bankrupts, or to risk parliamentary Reform. They preferred the latter.

The opposition, of all shades, therefore, united, some four months ago, in getting up a demonstration in favour of Electoral Reform. A public dinner was arranged and took place in July, at the Château-Rouge ball-rooms, at Paris. All fractions of Reformers were represented, and the assembly was rather mixed; but the Democrats, having been the most active, evidently predominated. They had made it a condition of their assistance, that the king’s [Louis Philippe] health should not be drunk, but be replaced by a toast in favour of the sovereignty of the people; the committee knowing well that in the most democratic town of France they could not get up a decent demonstration without the Democrats, were obliged to comply. If I recollect rightly, you gave, at the time, a full account of the banquet,[1] which was in every respect more like a demonstration of the strength, both in number and intellect, of democracy at Paris, than anything else.

The Journal des Débats failed not to raise a terrible outcry about this banquet.

“What! no toast to the king? and this toast not omitted by negligence, by want of a sense of propriety — no, this omission put as a condition for their support by part of the getters-up! Why, what pretty company this calm and peaceful M. Duvergier de Hauranne — this moral-force, monarchical M. Odilon Barrot have got into! Why, this is not mere republicanism — this is revolutionism, physical-forcism, socialism, utopianism, anarchism and communism! Ah, but, gentlemen, we know you — we have had samples of your bloody deeds, we have proofs of what you are contending for! Fifty years ago, gentlemen, you called yourselves the club of the Jacobins![2]

Next day’s National replied to the fierce and furious vituperation of the furiously moderate paper by a host of quotations from Louis Philippe’s private journal, written in 1790 and 1791, where every day’s note of the then “Citizen Égalité [the name which Duke of Orleans, Louis Philippe’s father, took during the French Revolution] junior” commenced with the words:

“Today I was at the Jacobins” — “Today I took the liberty of saying a few words at the Jacobins which were warmly applauded” — “Today I was called to the office of door-keeper at the Jacobins”, etc. ["Journal du duc de Chartre” in Le National, August 12, 1847]

The central committee of the Opposition had invited their friends in the country to imitate the example given by the metropolis, in getting up everywhere similar banquets in favour of Reform. This was done accordingly, and a great number of Reform dinners were held in almost all parts of France. But not everywhere the same union of all fractions of Reformers could be made to prevail. In a great number of the smaller towns the middle-class Liberals were strong enough to carry the king’s health being drunk, by which the Democrats were excluded. In other localities they tried to make it pass in the shape of a toast: — “The constitutional king, and the sovereignty of the people.” This being not yet sufficient to the Democrats, they went on shuffling, and replaced the “constitutional king” by the “constitutional institutions”, among which royalty, of course, was tacitly comprised. The great question now agitated among the provincial Liberals is, whether they are to give up even this, and to resign all attempts at carrying the king’s health in whatever shape or disguise it be, or whether they are to separate openly from the Democrats, who, in that case, would get up separate and competing banquets. For the democratic party insist upon the original agreement, that the king be not mixed up at all with the” affair, and if in one case the National has been wavering a little, the party of the Réforme stand firmly on the side of republicanism. In all the large towns the Liberals have been forced to give way, and if in the localities of lesser importance they have carried the king’s health, it is because such banquets cost a great deal of money, and, therefore, the people are naturally excluded from them. On the occasion of the banquet of Bar-le-Duc, the Réforme says:

“Whoever would take such demonstration as a sample of the state of public opinion in France, would be very much mistaken indeed; they are got up by the middle classes only, and the people are entirely shut out from them. This agitation, if it be confined to the limits of the Bar-le-Duc banquet, will vanish like all bourgeois movements; like the Free Trade movement, which after a few hollow speeches died away very soon.” ["Banquet de Bar-le-Duc"]

The first large banquet, after that of Paris, was held at Strasburg, in the beginning of September. It was rather a democratic one, and a working man, at the close of it, proposed a toast to the organisation of labour, which term, in France, expresses that which in England the National Association of United Trades[3] are trying to carry out; viz. the freeing of labour from the oppression of capital by carrying on manufacturing, agricultural, and other purposes, for the account, either of the associated working men themselves, or of the people at large, under a democratic government.

Then came the banquets of Bar-le-Duc, a bourgeois demonstration, finished by the Mayor proposing the health of the Constitutional King (very constitutional, indeed); of Colmar, Rheinis, and Meaux, all of them entirely dominated by the bourgeoisie, who, in those secondary towns, always have it all their own way.

But the banquet of Saint-Quentin, again, was more or less democratic; and that of Orleans, in the last days of September, was, from beginning to end, a thoroughly democratic meeting. Judge of it by the toast to the working classes, responded to by M. Marie, one of the most celebrated barristers of Paris, and a democrat. He commenced his speech in the following terms:

“To the working men — to those men, always neglected and forgotten, but always faithful to the interests of their country, always ready to die for its cause, be it in defending their native land against foreign aggression, be it in guarding our institutions, when menaced by inward foes! To those, from whom we demanded the days of July, [4] and who gave them to us; terrible in their actions, generous in their triumph, resplendent With courage, probity, and disinterestedness!” [quoted from the article “Banquet réformiste du département du Loiret"]

and concluded the toast in these words: “liberty, equality, fraternity!” It is characteristic that the Orleans banquet was the only one at which we find it stated that covers were reserved for the representatives of the working people.

The banquets of Culommiers, Melun, and Cosne, again, were mere bourgeois gatherings. The “Left Centre”, the middle-class Liberals of the Constitutionnel and Siécle, amused themselves in listening to the speeches of MM. Barrot, Beaumont, Drouyn de Lhuys, and such like retailers of Reform. At Cosne, the democrats openly declared against the demonstration, because the king’s health was insisted upon. The same narrow spirit prevailed at the banquet of La Charité, on the Loire.

In return, the Reform dinner of Chartres was thoroughly democratic. No toast to the king — toasts for Electoral and Parliamentary Reform upon the largest base, for Poland and Italy, for the organisation of labour.

This week banquets will take place at Lille, Valenciennes, Avesnes, and throughout the Department of the North generally. Those of Lille and Valenciennes, at least, will probably take a decidedly democratic turn. In the South of France, at Lyons, and in the West, other demonstrations are preparing. The Reform Movement is far from being near to its close.

You see from this account that, from its very beginning, the Reform Movement of 1847 has been marked by a struggle betwixt the Liberals and the Democrats; that while the Liberals carried their ends in all the smaller localities, the Democrats were the stronger in all large towns: in Paris, Strasburg, Orleans, Chartres, and even in one smaller town, in Saint-Quentin; that the Liberals were very anxious of having the support of the Democrats; that they shuffled and made concessions, while the Democrats never retracted an iota of the condition under which they were ready to give their support, and that wherever the Democrats assisted, they had it all their own way. Thus, after all, the whole movement has been turned to the profit of democracy, for all those banquets which excited public attention in some degree, were, one and all, democratic.

The Reform movement was seconded by the Departmental Councils, who met in September, and who are entirely composed by bourgeois. The Councils of the Departments of the Côté d'Or, of Finisterre, of the Aisne, the Moselle, the Haut-Rhin, the Oise, the Vosges, the North, and others, demanded, more or less, extensive reforms, all of them, of course, confined to the limits of bourgeois Liberalism.

But what, will you ask, are the reforms demanded? There are as many different systems of reform, as there are shades of Liberals and Radicals. The least thing asked for, is the extension of the Suffrage, to what is called the capacities, or what you, in England, would call the learned professions, even if they do not pay the 200 francs of direct taxes, which make, at present, a man a voter. Then the Liberals have some other propositions, more or less in common with the Radicals. These are: —

Ist. The extension of the incompatibilities, or the declaring of certain government offices to be incompatible with the functions of a representative. The government have, at present, more than 150 of their subordinate employees in the Deputies, all of which may, at any moment, be cashiered, and are, therefore, entirely dependent upon the Ministry.

2nd. The enlargement of some electoral districts, some of which are composed of less than 150 voters, who are, therefore, entirely ruled through the influence of the government upon their local and personal interests.

3rd. The electing of all deputies of a Department in a full meeting of all the electors, assembled at its principal town, by which, means local interests are intended to be more or less submerged in the common interests of the whole Department, and thus render nugatory the corruption and influence of the government.

Then, there are proposals for lowering the amount of the voting qualification in different degrees. The most radical. of these propositions is that of the National, the paper of the Republican small tradesmen, for extending the suffrage to all men belonging to the National Guard. This would give the vote to the entire class of small tradesmen and shopkeepers, and extend the suffrage in the same degree as the Reform Bill has done in England; but the consequences of such a measure would, in France, be much more important. The small bourgeoisie in this country are so much oppressed and squeezed by the large capitalists, that they would be obliged to have recourse to direct aggressive measures against the money-lords, as soon as they get the suffrage. As I said in an article I sent you some months ago, they would be carried further and further, even against their own consent; they would be forced either to give up the positions already won, or to form an open alliance with the working classes, and that would, sooner or later, lead to the Republic a They know this in some measure. Most of them support Universal Suffrage, and so does the National, which goes for the above measure only, as far as it is considered as a preliminary step in the road of reform. Of all Parisian daily papers, there is, however, but one which will not be satisfied with anything less than Universal Suffrage, and which, by the term “Republic”, understands not merely Political Reforms, which will, after all, leave the working classes as miserable as before — but Social Reforms, and very definite ones too. This paper is the Réforme.

The Reform movement is, however, not to be considered as the totality of the agitation now going on in France. Far from it! At all these banquets be they Liberal or Democratic, the middle classes were predominating; that of Orleans was the only one in which working men took part. The movement of the working people is going on, side by side, with these banquets, silently, underground, almost invisible, for every one who does not take the trouble of looking after it. But it is going on more lively than ever. The government know this very well. They have given their permission to all these middle-class banquets; but when the typographic working men of Paris, in September, asked for the permission to hold their annual banquet, which, up to the present time, they had held every year, and which was in no manner of a political character, it was refused to them. The government are so afraid of the working people, that they do not allow them the slightest liberty. They are afraid, because the people have entirely given up all attempts at insurrection and rioting. The government desire a riot, they provoke it by every means. The police throw out small bombshells filled with incendiary papers; which, by the explosion of the shell, are spread all over the streets. A trades’ affair in the Rue S. Honoré was profited by to make the most brutal attacks upon the people, in order to provoke them to riot and violence.[5] Tens of thousands assembled every evening during a fortnight; they were treated in the most infamous manner; they were on the very brink of repelling force by force; but they held out and no pretext for more gagging laws are to be forced from them. And think, what a tacit understanding, what a common feeling of what was to be done, at the moment, must have prevailed; what an effort it must have cost to the people of Paris, to submit to such infamous treatment rather than try a hopeless insurrection. What an enormous progress this forbearance proves in those very same working men of Paris, who seldom went into the streets, without battering to pieces every thing before them; who are accustomed to insurrection, and who go into a revolution just as gaily as they go to the wineshop! But if you would draw from this the conclusion that the revolutionary ardour of the people is decreasing, you would be quite mistaken. On the contrary, the necessity of a revolution, and a revolution more thoroughgoing, more radical by far than the first one, is deeper than ever felt by the working people here. But they know from the experience of 1830, that mere fighting will not do; that the enemy once beaten, they must establish measures that will guarantee the stability of their conquest; that will destroy not only the political, but the social power of capital, that will guarantee their social welfare, along with their political strength. And, therefore, they very quietly await their opportunity, but, in the meantime, earnestly apply themselves to the study of those questions of social economy, the solution of which will show what measures alone can establish, upon a firm basis, the welfare of all. Within a month or two, six thousand copies of M. Louis Blanc’s work on “The Organisation of Labour” have been sold in the workshops of Paris, and you must consider, that five editions of this book had been 10 published before. They read likewise a number of other works upon these questions; they meet in small numbers of from ten to twenty, and discuss the different plans propounded therein. They talk not much of revolution, this being a thing admitting of no doubt, a subject upon which they one and all agree; and when the moment will have arrived, at which a collision between the people and the government will be inevitable, down they will be in the streets and squares at a moment’s notice, tearing up the pavement, laying omnibuses, carts and coaches, across the streets, barricading every alley, making every narrow lane a fortress, and advancing, in spite of all resistance, from the Bastille to the Tuileries. [6] And then, I fear, most of the reform banquet gentry will hide themselves in the darkest corner of their houses, or be scattered like dead leaves before the popular thunderstorm. Then it will be all over with Messrs Odilon Barrot, de Beaumont and other Liberal thunderers, and then the people will judge them quite as severely as they now judge the Conservative Governments.

  1. The account of the banquet at Château-Rouge was published in The Northern Star No. 508, July 17, 1847
  2. The quotation consists of extracts from the leading articles of the Journal des Débats, July 13, 15 ‘ 18, 19, and August 7, 1847
  3. The National Association of United Trades was established in England in 1845 by trade union delegates from London, Manchester, Sheffield, Norwich, Hull, Bristol, and other cities. Its activity was limited to the struggle for improved conditions of sale of labour power (“a fair wage for a fair day’s work”) and for improved factory legislation. The association existed until the early sixties, but it ceased to play any big part in the trade union movement after 1851.
  4. The reference is to the July revolution of 1830 in France which resulted in the overthrow of the Bourbon dynasty. Decisive events took place on July 27-29 in Paris.
  5. The events described here took place in Paris at the end of August and the beginning of September 1847. They were provoked by a conflict between shoe-makers at a workshop in the Rue St. Honoré and their master, who tried to defraud one of the workers of part of his pay
  6. The Tuileries Palace in Paris was the residence of the French monarchs.