Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVIII: land and history - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XVIII: land and history - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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land and history
Among the countries in which popular government prevails, France is in two respects unique. She adopted democracy by a swift and sudden stroke, without the long and gradual preparation through which the United States and Switzerland and England passed, springing almost at one bound out of absolute monarchy into the complete political equality of all citizens. And France did this not merely because the rule of the people was deemed the completest remedy for pressing evils, nor because other kinds of government had been tried and found wanting, but also in deference to General abstract principles which were taken for self-evident truths. Frenchmen have always shown, along with their gift for generalizing, an enjoyment of and a faith in general theories beyond that of the other free peoples. Thus the philosophical student of human institutions who desires to test political principles by their results finds a peculiar interest in examining the politics of France, for it is there, even more than in America, that the doctrines on which democracy is founded have told most upon the national mind, and been most frequently pushed to their logical conclusions. The history of the three Republics that have successively arisen since 1792 covers only sixty years in all. But within that space of time France has passed through many phases and tried many experiments. There has been much brilliant oratory, and endless political ingenuity. No period in history throws more light not only on the contrasts of theory with practice, but upon the tendencies which move and direct human society.
As the student of the contemporary politics of a country must everywhere try to understand the conditions, natural and historical, amid which the form of government was established and is being now worked, so nowhere is such knowledge more essential than when one comes to speak of France. We shall see that Nature has given her many things favourable to material prosperity and to immunity from external attack, while the course of her history has produced economic and social conditions which have profoundly influenced her political development.
Let us begin by glancing briefly at the physical features of the country, and then examine more at length the historical antecedents which still affect the State and its government.
France is naturally the richest of European countries, with everything needed to secure the well-being of an industrious people.1 Nearly all the soil is available for cultivation, or for pasture, or for the growth of timber. There is plenty of coal and iron, chiefly in the north-east, fisheries on the coasts, a climate eminently fitted for cereals in the north and centre, and for vines in the centre and south, as well as for fruits and other less important agricultural products. The country is washed by three seas, giving admirable facilities for commerce, and is guarded on the south and south-east by lofty mountains difficult to traverse. Only the north-eastern land frontier is exposed to attack and has most frequently suffered from it. The compactness of its territory, traversed by no ranges high enough to interfere with free communication, made Gaul appear to be one country even in the days of Julius Caesar, and has enabled its people to attain, despite differences of racial origin which survive in differences of language, a more complete national unity than exists in Germany or Italy or Spain.2
The wealth derived from the soil and from the industrious habits of the people gave France in the Middle Ages a place in commercial development hardly second to that of Italy. Prosperity brought in its train comforts and luxuries beyond those of her Teutonic neighbours to the north and east. She rivalled Lombardy and Tuscany in the skill and taste of her artificers, qualities which have been so well maintained that she continues to be the purveyor for the whole world of articles of beauty. The arable and vine or fruitgrowing regions, well suited for petite culture, are very largely in the hands of small landowners, and both these and the tenant farmers have formed habits of thrift by which the pecuniary resources of the nation have been increased and pauperism kept within narrow limits. Though a large manufacturing population has sprung up in the mining districts and great cities, the bulk of the nation is still agricultural, with the solid qualities and conservative instincts which everywhere belong to that class. A larger proportion of the total wealth of the country is to be found in the hands of men with small incomes than in any other great European or American country.
Long as France has obeyed one government, there are marked differences between the races that compose the nation — Teutonic Flemings in the north-east with other Teutons on the eastern border, a strong infusion of Norse blood in Normandy, pure Celts still speaking a Celtic tongue in Brittany, Iberian and possibly Ligurian elements in the south. These differences, however, which are as marked as those between the races that inhabit the British Isles, cause no political dissensions, serving rather to give variety, and the richness that comes from the presence of diverse elements, to the people as a whole. This variety, noteworthy in the literature of France, is no less evident in French politics. Her statesmen show several types of character, two of which are especially conspicuous, the man of the north or east, and the man of the south — the former more measured and cautious, the latter more impulsive and brilliant. These differences, however conspicuous in their extreme forms, are less significant than the intellectual character and habits of feeling and acting which have now come to belong to the nation as a whole: quickness of intelligence, a gift for oratory and a sense of style, together with a susceptibility to emotion not incompatible with shrewdness and a conservative prudence in affairs. It was the French love of knowledge and aptness for speculation that made the schools of Paris foremost among the great universities of the Middle Ages, and led mediaeval writers to place in France the local home of Learning (Studium), as they assigned Priesthood (Sacerdotium) to the Italians and Imperium to the Germans.1
In outlining the events and conditions that led up to the Revolution of 1789, when France made her first plunge into democracy, we need go no further back than the days of Louis the Fourteenth. Before the end of his reign France, already long conscious of her national unity, was thoroughly consolidated, and had become the most powerful as well as the most intellectually polished country in Europe, with by far the most brilliant court. Religious uniformity had been secured by the persecution or expulsion of the Calvinist Huguenots. Representative institutions had died out, for the ancient States-General had not met since 1614. As Louis himself said, the King was the State. No one talked of Liberty.
The seventy years that followed brought no changes in the constitution, but a complete change in opinion and sentiment. Protestantism did not revive, but scepticism spread widely among the educated classes, and affected even the clergy. The despotic system of government began to be freely criticized, especially after Montesquieu had pointed to English institutions as fit to be imitated. It was ultimately discredited, first by the scandals of the court of Louis XV. And the careers of his successive ministers, then by the growing disorder of the finances. Liberal opinions became fashionable. After the influence of the American Revolution, to which France lent her aid in 1778, had begun to tell on Europe, they spread further and found fuller literary expression. The ancient monarchy, supported by the old noblesse, seemed to stand much as it had stood some centuries before, when feudalism was still a reality, but three changes of the utmost importance had in fact come to pass. One was the loss by the nobles of their local administrative powers and functions. These had been absorbed by the Crown, which ruled the country by a King's Council in Versailles, the most important member whereof was the Comptroller in whose hands all financial affairs lay, and by Intendants, officials administering the provinces under the royal direction. The great landowners, having lost political power and administrative functions, retained over the peasantry feudal rights, which exposed them to the hatred of that class, a large part of which, though still liable to the old imposts and exactions, were even then owners of the soil they tilled. There was in the rural districts little of a middle class between nobles and peasants. The bourgeoisie were socially separated from the nobility, but less sharply from the classes below them, though the richer sort looked down upon the peasants whom they sometimes exploited, and who repaid them with suspicious dislike. It was the upper bourgeoisie, and especially the professional class among them, that supplied to the Crown its civil officials (other, of course, than the Court officials), so they managed to acquire plenty of real power and relieved their class from a good deal of taxation. Being by their attainments, their intellectual activity, and their education fully equal to the nobles, they felt their social disparagement all the more acutely. Thus in 1789 three political facts of the greatest moment had come into existence: (1) the centralization of all administrative as well as legislative authority in the King and his ministers, with a complete control of provincial as well as national affairs; (2) the arbitrary power of the Administration over the individual subject, who had no constitutional guarantees against its exercise; and (3) the antagonism of the richer and the poorer classes — contempt of the nobles for the bourgeois, contempt of the bourgeois for the peasantry, a dislike of the peasant and the workman for all who stood above them in the social scale. There was little local self-government either to draw the inhabitants of a district together into common work, or to accustom them to the exercise of a limited and subordinate executive power.
Then came the First Revolution, the great and terrible, yet beneficent, revolution. It swept away the feudal rights of the nobles, never to reappear. It overthrew, and for a time proscribed, the Church, abolished all titles and other distinctions of rank, and divided France into new administrative areas — the modern departments — cutting across and extinguishing the local life, enfeebled as it was, which had belonged to the old provinces.
In the seven turbulent years that succeeded the fall of the monarchy in 1792 there were, along with much destruction, some efforts, hasty and crude, to remodel the old or create new institutions. Systematic reconstruction came with Bonaparte, under whose strong hand a well-planned administration was erected on the foundations of the old régime, the centralization of power being retained and rendered more efficient, while the arbitrary power of the Crown, or its servants, was replaced by a law simplified and reduced to uniformity which, though it emanated from an autocracy, recognized rights substantially the same for all subjects. The old Conseil du Roi became the Conseil d'État, the old provincial Intendant was turned into the Prefect of the department, taking his orders from the central government and carrying them out with the same free hand as before.
When the Bourbon dynasty was re-established in 1814, the centralized administration and its arbitrary powers remained, and these have continued, though latterly somewhat reduced, down to the present day. This limited and quasi-constitutional monarchy of the Restoration was overthrown in July 1830 by the Second Revolution, the work of Paris rather than of France, which set up the monarchy of the House of Orleans, more constitutionally liberal than its predecessor, but on a narrow electoral basis. Its overthrow in 1848 by another Parisian insurrection — the Third Revolution — brought in the Second Republic, which proclaimed universal suffrage, but itself perished at the hands of its President, who had been elected in December 1848 by an enormous popular vote, before there had been time either to create local self-government or to provide guarantees for the freedom of the citizens. That President, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who by the “plebiscite” of 1851 got his Presidential power prolonged for ten years, succeeded by a second popular vote in turning it into the Second Bonapartean Empire, which was to be hereditary in his family. After he had been taken prisoner by the German army at Sedan in the war of 1870, a Republic, the Third, was hastily proclaimed by the legislative body then in existence. This fourth revolution expressed the feelings of Paris, but it was not made by the French people. In the following year a new Assembly, elected by universal suffrage in order to conclude peace, named Adolphe Thiers as “Chief of the Executive Power of the French Republic.” 1
Through these three monarchies, from 1814 to 1870, the centralized administration, as reconstructed by Napoleon, continued to exist, with the same autocratic powers. But the spirit of the First Revolution (1789–99) persisted in large sections of the urban population, and after 1830 its tendencies became more socialistic and aggressive. They burst into flame in the insurrection of the Commune of Paris in 1871, just after the Germans had evacuated the city.2
The nomination of Thiers was, and was understood to be, a purely provisional arrangement, and it hardly ceased to be so when the Assembly shortly afterwards elected him to be “President of the Republic.” He did what he could, against the resistance of the monarchical majority in the Assembly, to secure the establishment of a republican form of government, and was aided by the successes of the Republicans at the elections that took place from time to time to fill vacancies in the Assembly. But the majority was still Monarchist, and its displeasure at his policy led them to overthrow him in 1873. He was replaced by Marshal MacMahon, a Bonapartist soldier who had joined the supporters of the ancient Bourbon dynasty. Every one felt that a permanent constitution ought to be enacted, but the divisions of opinion offered great obstacles. Among the Monarchists there were three parties. The Legitimists, adherents of the Count de Chambord (grandson of King Charles X.), who represented the elder branch of the House of Bourbon, were supported by the Church. The Orleanists pressed the claims of the Count of Paris, the grandson of King Louis Philippe, who, having in 1830 received the crown by a vote of the Assembly, had not asserted a title to rule by hereditary right. The Bonapartists sought to revive the Second Empire in the person of Louis Napoleon's son. These three sections, constituting the majority of the Chamber, had combined to displace Thiers. But, apart from the personal jealousies that divided both them and the claimants they strove for, they represented different schools of political doctrine and purpose. The Orleanists were less reactionary and clerical than the Legitimists, the Bonapartists held to the Napoleonic tradition. Each pursued its own aims. A reconciliation was at last effected between the Count de Chambord, who was childless, and the Count of Paris, the latter waiving his claim since he became next in succession, but the former's subsequent refusal to accept the tricolor as the national flag, and his accompanying declaration of his extreme Divine Right principles, destroyed the chance of a Restoration. As was said at the time, “he lost the Crown of France for the sake of a bit of calico.” 1
Accordingly the Republicans prevailed through the dissensions of their adversaries. A republican Constitution was adopted in 1875, the decisive vote being carried by a majority of one, on an amendment to give to the head of the executive the title of “President of the Republic.” The Monarchist parties did not, however, abandon hope. President MacMahon, who had accepted in March 1876 a Moderate Republican (Left Centre) Ministry, was induced in 1877 to dismiss it and summon some of the leading reactionaries to form another. These bold men dissolved the Chamber, and ejected a large part of the administrative staff throughout the country, substituting their own partisans, but though prefects imposed restrictions on the press, putting more than the usual official pressure upon the electors, a large Republican majority was nevertheless returned. The President, an honest man and loyal to the Constitution, refused to attempt a coup d'état, and after an attempt to hold on with a new Monarchist Ministry, called back the Moderate Republicans to form an administration. Fourteen months later the elections to the Senate having given a Republican majority in that body, he resigned office, and an eminent lawyer and politician, Jules Grévy, was chosen by the Chambers to fill his place.
Since the Constitution of 1875 was established, there has been no attempt to upset it by force. The Royalists, partly owing to their own divisions, partly through their bhmdering tactics, and partly also because the children of the Count of Paris were not attractive figures, lost ground in the country and in both Chambers. The death of Louis Napoleon's son (in the Zulu War of 1879) destroyed the hopes of the Bonapartists.
Twice, however, has the republican form of government been threatened. At the elections of 1885 several causes had been tending to weaken the advanced Republican party, whose leaders formed the Ministry then in power. Grambetta, their strongest man, had died in 1882. They were broken into two sections, and lost seats in consequence. President Grévy, discredited by the corrupt practices of his son-in-law Wilson, resigned the presidency in 1887. A party of discontent, not professedly Monarchist but aided by Monarchist funds, had grown up, and was advocating a revision of the Constitution for the purpose of strengthening the executive power. It attached itself to a showy but essentially mediocre personality, General Boulanger, who had obtained some notoriety as Minister of War. Originally put forward by the Radical Republicans, he gained the support of the Clericals and of all who for various reasons disliked the parliamentary system, and during a few months was a public danger, for his adherents had, by carrying him as a candidate for the Chamber at a succession of by-elections in the more conservative parts of the country, made him seem a popular favourite. He even captured a seat in Paris.1 Ultimately, however, a vigorous Minister got rid of him by procuring his arraignment before the Senate sitting as a High Court of Justice. Knowing that it would condemn him, he fled to Belgium, and shortly afterwards killed himself. But it was a narrow escape for the Republic, since he seems, hoping for the support of the army, to have contemplated a coup d'état.
A few years later (1899—1902) the nation appeared to be drifting towards civil war. There had been for some time a notable revival of clerical activity, especially on the part of the religious Orders, for most of the parish clergy remained quiet. Pilgrimages were in fashion. A violent anti-Semitic agitation which had been originally directed against the great financial interests presently passed into politics. The Panama scandals, in which some Jewish financiers had played a part and some Republican deputies were involved, had shaken public confidence in the Chamber.
In 1894 a Jewish officer, Captain Dreyfus, was sentenced by court-martial to imprisonment for life on a charge of espionage and sent to Cayenne. In 1896 the question of his innocence was raised, and after a time became a political issue which convulsed France, the church and the army holding Dreyfus to be guilty, while the Republicans, though many at first hesitated, ultimately espoused his cause. He was pardoned by the President in 1899, and subsequently acquitted by the highest court after a civil trial. Excitement had by this time subsided. Though there had been no armed conflict, a bitterness of feeling had been disclosed afresh which seemed to imperil the stability of the Republic. In reviving the so-called “Nationalist” antagonism to the Parliamentary system, and in exasperating the anti-clerical Republicans, it led to the legislation disestablishing the Roman Catholic Church which, passed in 1902–5, was put into effect in 1906–7, encountering less resistance and creating less disorder than had been feared.
From the time when the restoration of the old monarchy ceased, because it had become hopeless, to be a real political issue, the relations of the Church to the State were the chief source of discord in France and made that discord passionate. The Church, which was exerting all its strength against the Republican party when Gambetta in 1877 uttered his famous phrase “Clericalism is the foe,” continued monarchist at heart, and the more extreme Republicans regarded counterattacks as the most effective form of defence. Education was the chief battle-ground, till the law of 1882, which made it compulsory, entrusted the elementary schools to lay teachers. Subsequently the Teaching Orders were dissolved by law. The course of the conflict was affected by the policy of the Vatican. Pope Leo XIII., fearing for the fortunes of the Church, counselled a conciliatory attitude as early as 1885, and in 1892 directed good Catholics to support the existing régime, observing that “on any theory the civil power is of God.” Many Monarchists obeyed, but anti-Semitism and the Dreyfus troubles accentuated the antagonism, and it has continued to persist.1
In another way also religion and the Church told upon politics. When the risk of a monarchical restoration had disappeared, the Republican groups who had been united to oppose it began to fall apart. The more conservative section, described as the Left Centre, disapproving, some from religious feeling, some from policy, of the campaign against the Church, drew off from the larger and more advanced division of the party. Their numbers continued to dwindle as time went on, while opinions of a socialistic type more and more prevailed in the urban electorate. Divisions among the Republicans continued to increase as the chances of a monarchical restoration diminished, yet fear of the clergy sufficed to make the dominant sections hold together against the Church upon the main issues.
In the evolution of opinion towards more advanced views, and also as a result of the growth of manufacturing industry and consequent increase of a working-class population, a new school of thought and a new political party arose which became a significant factor, especially after the defeat of the Clericals left it more free to play for its own hand against the Republican parties which it had been supporting. Theories of the reconstruction of society on a communistic basis were scarcely heard of in the First Revolution, nearly all of whose leaders came from the bourgeoisie, and did not question the rights of property.2 But at the Revolution of 1830 a Socialist party appeared among the working people, not definitely separating itself from other Republicans, but seeking to use a democratic republic as an engine for economic change.
In 1848, when the Third Revolution overthrew the Orleans monarchy, doctrines of this type had spread widely, and the subsequent Parisian insurrection of June in that year was largely the work of Socialists. The same element appeared again in the revolt of the Parisian Commune against the Assembly of 1871, though the direct aim of the Communards was not so much economic as the setting up of a practically independent local authority for Paris. Thereafter Socialist opinions continued to grow, and although the party was frequently rent by disputes, its sections often drew together again, and came to constitute a body powerful not only by its numbers but by its disciplined cohesion. They have succeeded in obtaining from the Chambers much of the legislation they desire. Though their voting strength comes from the wage-earning masses, most of their leaders belong to the bourgeois class and are highly educated men. They would constitute an even stronger force in politics but for the fact that the agricultural peasantry compose the majority of the French electorate, own the land, and have every motive for maintaining the right of private property.
The General course of French political development from 1789 till 1900 cannot be more tersely stated than in the words following, which I quote from the valuable book of M. Seignobos1 (vol. i. of English translation, p. 224):
The political development of the nineteenth century has been a series of ebbs and flows, but the tendency has been towards Republicanism. By repeated seizures of the government and an agitation more and more effective, the democratic Republicans have finally conquered France.
But the revolutions have been directed only to the structure of the central government and the possession of power. The social organization and the administrative mechanism have been preserved without serious change.
The democratic social organization, free from clerical control, established by the Revolution, was acceptable to the Republicans, and sufficiently popular to escape attack. The monarchical governments tried indirectly to revive the influence of the great landowners, the middle class, and the clergy, but they did not touch any of the social institutions — peasant proprietorship, equal division of inheritances, civil equality, eligibility for public office without distinctions of birth, exclusion of clerical control: France has steadily preserved the social system of the Revolution.
The centralized and bureaucratic administrative system has also remained nearly intact. All the parties, when in opposition, have declared it to be oppressive, but, on attaining office, have preserved it as an instrument of power. Of the older Imperial régime France still retains:
(a) The central administration with its ministers, the departmental administration with its prefects and sub-prefects, and its control over the communes;
(b) The judicial organization with its body of court counsellors and its permanent judges, with its Ministry of Justice composed of advocates and prosecuting attorneys, with its antiquated and formal civil procedure and its secret inquisitorial criminal procedure, with the Napoleonic code almost unchanged (the granting of divorce is only a return to an institution taken away in 1815).
The survey I have given (necessarily brief and imperfect) of the conditions under which democracy was born in France, amid which it developed, and from which it has taken its colour, brings us to the point at which we may attempt to summarize the salient economic facts and the most potent intellectual and moral influences that were affecting the political life of the nation when the storm of war broke suddenly upon it in 1914. These conditions were:
(a) In the economic sphere:
In most parts of the country the land was in the hands of peasants who owned the soil they were tilling, who were intensely attached to its possession, and who shared with most (though not all) of the bourgeoisie an almost timorous conservatism.
Over against these conservative classes stood an industrial element, greatly increased during the last two generations, both in cities and in mining areas, which was largely permeated by socialistic ideas.
(b) In the governmental sphere:
Executive power remained highly centralized. The hand of the administration in Paris was felt everywhere. Local authorities had far narrower functions than in Britain or the United States, and the old provincial feeling which had given a certain local political and social life to the ancient divisions of the country, had, except in a few regions, almost disappeared, not having transferred itself to the Departments, artificial creations of the First Revolution.
(c) In the social sphere:
The influence of the old territorial aristocracy had vanished, except in the West, and over most of the country the poorer classes were permeated by jealousy and suspicion towards the landowners.
The old antagonism to the bourgeoisie of the poorer class, and especially of the town workers, continued, and had in many places become stronger with the growth of Socialism.
The tradition of the First Revolution remained strong in a section of the bourgeoisie as well as in a much larger section of the masses, and was ready to break out when passion ran high, but the habit of resorting to force had declined as the practice of constitutional government became familiar, for there was now a prospect of winning by peaceful means what in the older generation had been sought by street émeutes and barricades. Paris, always the mother of revolutions, lost its predominance, and could no longer force the pace for the nation. Few of those who had fought for the Commune in 1871 remained to revive the angry memories of that day. A new danger was, however, revealed in the more frequent resort to strikes on a large scale, accompanied by maltreatment of non-strikers and the destruction of property. The disposition to obey public authority was still strong in the population generally. The coexistence of this submissiveness with a proneness to violence, which, if noticeable chiefly in the less-educated class, is not confined to them, remains one of the curious phenomena of French character.1
Religious bitterness is intense. It is as strong in the enemies as in the friends of the Church, and is prone to express itself in petty persecutions which perpetuate themselves by creating fresh resentments.
Through all these changes of government and various forms of strife the French nation has remained intensely patriotic, united, when everything else tended to divide it, by its pride in France and its love of the sacred soil. It clung to the hope of recovering the provinces lost in 1871, and with scarcely a murmur accepted heavy taxation for military and naval purposes. It had become more pacific in sentiment towards the end of last century, and less was being heard of Alsace and Lorraine, when the aggressive attitude of its mighty eastern neighbour revived its martial spirit. Self-confidence had returned before the fateful day when that spirit came to be tested.
We may now proceed to examine the Constitution and government of the country, which have altered little in form, though considerably in methods, since 1875.
Russia has, of course, with her vast stretches of fertile land, a greater productive capacity, but less variety of products and a less genial climate.
Breton is spoken in the north-west corner of Brittany and Basque in a still smaller area in the Western Pyrenees, as well as German in parts of Alsace.
In respect of the possession of the Papacy by Italy and of the Holy Roman Empire by the German kings.
It would seem that the Assembly, in which there was a Monarchist majority, acquiesced in the use of the word “Republic,” because they feared that if they proclaimed a monarchy forthwith, the monarch would have to bear the odium of signing the harsh treaty of peace which victorious Germany was imposing. See ch. i. of the France contemporaire of M. Gabriel Hanotaux.
The outline of events which occupies the next few pages seems needed to explain the parties that now exist in France and determine the character of its government.
There was a story current that Pope Pius IX., when he learnt of the failure of his hopes for monarchy in France (the Count of Chatnbord having insisted on the white flag of his House), remarked, “Et tout cela pour une serviette.”
The scrutm de liste system of election which had been introduced in 1885 enabled him to stand for a whole Department. It was abolished in February 1889 in order to check this device, but has now been restored (see p. 241).
Anti-religious reaction has been strongest in those countries of Europe and America where ecclesiastical power had been most fully dominant It was a political misfortune for France when the Huguenots were crushed by Louis XIV. Many of them were educated and thoughtful men, imbued with a liberalism which France could ill spare.
Babóuf had proclaimed communistic doctrines during the First Revolution, but found little support for them. The National Assembly of 1789 in its declaration of the Rights of Man recognizes Property as a primordial right, along with Liberty, Security, and Self-Defence.
Histoire politique de I'Europe contemporaine, 1814-1896.
Something similar has been observed in other peoples of Celtic stock.