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French Peasants in Revolt

French Peasants in Revolt: The Insurrection of 1851

Ted W. Margadant
Copyright Date: 1979
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    French Peasants in Revolt
    Book Description:

    The triumphant rise of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte over his Republican opponents has been the central theme of most narrative accounts of mid-nineteenth-century France, while resistance to the coup d'état generally has been neglected. By placing the insurrection of December 1851 in a broad perspective of socioeconomic and political development, Ted Margadant displays its full significance as a turning point in modern French history. He argues that, as the first expression of a new form of political participation on the part of the peasants, resistance to the coup was of greater importance than previously supposed. Furthermore, it provides and appropriate testing ground for more general theories of peasant movements and popular revolts.

    Using manuscript materials in French national and departmental archives that cover all the major areas of revolt, the author examines the insurrection in depth on a national scale. After a brief discussion of the main characteristics of the insurrection, he analyzes its economic and social foundations; the dialectic of repression and conspiracy that fostered the political crisis; and the armed mobilizations, violence, and massive arrests that exploded as the result. A final chapter considers the implications of the insurrection for larger issues in the social and political history of modern France.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2032-0
    Subjects: History, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Preface
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-2)

    The French Second Republic began in Paris and ended in the provinces. Its first heroes were workers in the nation’s capital, whose street barricades brought ruin upon the monarchy in February 1848; its last defenders were peasants and artisans in two dozen departments of the center and south, whose armed columns tried to oppose Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’etat of December 2, 1851. The classic dialectic of modern French politics—urban revolutionaries versus rural conservatives—had somehow been reversed. In less than four years, the left-wing cause of a Democratic and Social Republic had gravitated from its Parisian epicenter to...

    (pp. 3-39)

    At ten o’clock on the evening of December 3, 1851 a stranger entered the village of Boujan (Hérault) with a written message from the nearby town of Béziers: “The Commission at Béziers requests all the Montagnards to come at daybreak in arms, tomorrow, Thursday, December 4, to Béziers in order to hold a demonstration. The meeting place is the Old Cemetery.” He gave the note, which bore several signatures, to a young vineyard laborer named Jean Baptiste Thibeyranc and vanished into the night.

    Within four hours news of the impending demonstration had spread throughout the community, and dozens of men...

    (pp. 40-60)

    From the perspective of modern French history, the insurrection of 1851 seems paradoxically avant-garde in its political orientation and backward in its economic and social setting. However much Republicanism eventually acquired a rural following during the Third Republic, it is a commonplace of French historiography that left-wing opposition to the successive authoritarian regimes in nineteenth-century France was strongest in the cities and weakest in the countryside. Yet in 1851 the cities were generally calm, while small towns and rural communities in obscure corners of the land raised the standard of revolt. How can this curious localization of resistance to the...

    (pp. 61-78)

    Most rebel districts were actively engaged in market production, but their local economies varied widely from area to area, depending on natural resources and industrial aptitudes. In southeastern France, for example, silk, was the specialty of insurgent districts in the Drôme, the Ardèche, and the Gard; wine, olive oil, and cork stimulated exchange relationships in the insurrectionary zone of the Var; andeau de vieand wool textiles dominated the rebel economy in the Hérault. To the southwest, insurgent communities of the Gers tended to specialize in the production of wine andeau de vie,while those in the Lot-et-Garonne...

    (pp. 79-103)

    Production for the market implies exposure to price fluctuations. If most rebel districts of the nation benefited from the economic growth of the July Monarchy, did they suffer from contracting markets and falling prices during the Second Republic? On theoretical grounds, some political scientists would find ample cause for revolutionary discontent in such a combination of long-term expansion and short-term depression. During a phase of economic growth, people acquire higher expectations of well-being; during a phase of depression, these expectations persist in the face of declining living standards. The result is a widening discrepancy between economic expectations and achievements—a...

    (pp. 104-120)

    The insurrection of 1851 was a crisis in the political modernization rather than the economic development of nineteenth-century France. This is the fundamental proposition that explains the geographical and social localization of the revolt, its internal dynamics, and its historical fate. Concretely, insurgency was the outcome of a prolonged struggle between agents of the central bureaucracy and well-organized Republican militants, both claiming to support a vital element of political modernity. The bureaucrats stood for the rationalization of authority and the maintenance of national norms of social control; the Republicans stood for the democratization of authority and the creation of local...

    (pp. 121-137)

    “I swear on this iron to arm myself against all political and religious tyrannies, to combat them everywhere and always. I swear it, I swear it, I swear it.” On the night of March 12, 1851, several young men from the bourg of Roujan (Hérault) were ordered to repeat this solemn oath. They knelt on the ground with their eyes blindfolded, their left hands on their chests, and their right hands on a dagger. Someone struck them three times on the head while a voice announced, “In the name of the sovereign people, by virtue of the rights which have...

    (pp. 138-161)

    Why did so many Frenchmen adhere to the Republican underground? This problem of popular motivation can be envisaged from three points of view. To begin with, peasants and craftsmen were attracted by the Montagnard program of socioeconomic reform. Leaders adapted their propaganda to the concrete grievances of local populations, and they promised that a “Democratic and Social Republic” would improve living standards. At a more subtle level, this propaganda acquired such popular resonance because it merged with preexisting political loyalties. Montagnards were the militant wing of the Republican movement, and they derived strength from historical traditions of loyalty to the...

    (pp. 162-186)

    If Montagnard societies drew upon preexisting loyalties and aspirations in order to recruit members, they also imparted new elements of organizational dynamism to the Republican cause. Their initiation ceremonials and paramilitary hierarchies provided a democratic framework of political leadership. As a result, the Montagnards redirected popular loyalties away from upper-class politicians and official positions of power (e.g. mayors) toward party militants recruited from the mass of the population. Furthermore, in creating formal links and informal contacts between urban and rural societies, conspirators developed regional as well as local loyalties. Peasant recruits became devoted to their “brothers and friends” in the...

    (pp. 187-227)

    Administrative fears of political dissent became a self-fulfilling prophecy once Montagnard societies began spreading into the countryside. Prefects and public prosecutors were already beginning to view Republican associations as conspiratorial fronts and nonviolent protests as intolerable disorders. Now they faced a genuine threat of subversion and revolt. Yet their apparatus of coercive control was so poor that they failed almost entirely to halt the drift toward conspiracy. Most high-ranking leaders and nearly all the cadres of the Montagnards escaped detection, let alone arrest, in the months before the coup d’état. Efforts to improve the quality of political intelligence proved unavailing,...

    (pp. 228-264)

    In the early morning hours of Tuesday, December 2, troops loyal to President Louis Napoleon occupied the premises of the National Assembly; police squads arrested over one hundred politicians in their homes; and agents of the Prefecture of Police posted a series of decrees and proclamations on the walls of Paris. The people of the city awoke to discover that the National Assembly had been dissolved, universal suffrage reestablished, the French people convoked to electoral bureaus in mid-December, and the state of siege decreed throughout the first military division. Thirty thousand troops were placed on alert to enforce this presidential...

    (pp. 265-301)

    At two o’clock on Saturday afternoon, December 6, the gendarmes of Clamecy saw a crowd of men, women, and children advancing up the hill toward their barracks in the center of town. A makeshift column of 200 armed men led the march, shouting “Long live the Republic!” Spokesmen soon arrived at the door to demand the disarmament of the gendarmes. Inside the barracks, a few dozen government supporters, including the subprefect, had also taken refuge after gunfire had driven them from the town hall the previous evening. A gendarme and a rebel had died in that earlier fray, and now...

    (pp. 302-335)

    Military failure brought political disaster and personal ruin to the Montagnards. The very haste with which they fled from the army only stimulated the repressive zeal of military commanders, who treated the rebel zones as conquered territories. Armed with the powers of the state of siege, which the government extended to thirty-two departments, generals used mobile columns to terrorize the populations and to arrest large numbers of suspects. Magistrates helped direct their operations by interrogating captives and by questioning men whom the rebels had disarmed or forcibly recruited. Instead of anonymous denunciations or fragmentary rumors of conspiracy, judicial investigators now...

    (pp. 336-344)

    The insurrection of December 1851 is an anomaly in standard interpretations of nineteenth-century France. Its left-wing political orientation seems baffling in the context of its timing, its social base of support, and its outcome. The year 1851 would scarcely seem propitious for the extreme left. Parisian revolutionaries had been decisively crushed three years earlier during the June Days, and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was about to establish the Second Empire with overwhelming voter support. How could Republicans hope to reverse the tide of history? All the more unlikely was their mobilization of peasant manpower against the coup d’état. Surely peasants had...

    (pp. 345-370)
  22. Index
    (pp. 371-380)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 381-381)