Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIV: public opinion - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XXIV: public opinion - 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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What has been said in preceding pages regarding the history of France and its political parties may serve to explain the characteristics of public opinion in France as compared with other democratic countries.
Public opinion, as we have already seen,1 is a better ruler, when its will can be ascertained, than is the ballot. But its rule works best when it is National, i.e. national in two senses of the word, as being the product of nearly the whole nation, irrespective of local divisions, and as possessing a certain unity and generality of colour and tendency which includes or overrides or mitigates the inevitable divisions of view created by the existence of social classes and political parties. Where each type of class opinion or party opinion is sharply opposed to other types, one can hardly talk of the public opinion of the country at large, so the statesman who desires to obey the national will is driven to estimate the respective strength of each type, treating them as conflicting forces, and to strike a sort of balance between them, according to their power of supporting or resisting a given policy.
France is a large country, in which, strong as is the sense of national unity, marked differences of race and temperament are still discernible. The men of the North-west are unlike those of the East and South-west, while both are unlike the passionate South-east and the more phlegmatic Northeast. The Normans are almost a distinct type, but less so than the Basques. In economic conditions also there are contrasts. Large estates remain in parts of the west and centre: in other regions the land belongs in small lots to the peasants. The population of the great manufacturing centres is as excitable as that of the quiet agricultural districts is sluggish and averse to change.
France, moreover, resembles a region where volcanic forces have been recently active. Here and there the ground is seared by explosions. Deep chasms have opened: rumblings are heard which may betoken fresh eruptions. The passions roused in three revolutions are not extinct. The bitterness of the workman against the bourgeois is exceeded by that which rages between the friends and the enemies of the Church. Thus in France public opinion is more profoundly divided than in any other great State. Even in the smaller countries, like Ireland or Australia, one finds no parallel. In Great Britain, though there have been hot conflicts between the two great parties, there have always been many questions outside the party sphere; and there have been plenty of citizens who thought and voted with independence, shifting the balance from one party to another, according to their judgment on the issues prominent at the moment. An acute and dispassionate observer could, not indeed always, yet generally, tell the direction in which the national mind was moving. This is even more true of the United States1 and of Switzerland and of Canada.
France presents another peculiar feature. In Britain and the United States, as in most free countries, it is chiefly the men who think, speak, and write that form public opinion. Though only a small minority of the population, they are not a class, but shade off imperceptibly into the general body of the nation, the bulk of which, though in very varying degrees, takes some interest in politics. And of those who do the thinking and the speaking, in the capital and all over the country, a comparatively small proportion are members of the legislature or otherwise directly occupied with political work. Still more is this the case in Switzerland, where everybody is expected to possess some sort of knowledge and show some sort of interest in public questions. Not so in France, according to the reports of most foreign observers, who declare that a large section of the population, especially in rural districts and in the smaller towns, cares little about politics unless when some question arises directly affecting their occupation,2 and that many of those who vote at a general election, because they are brought up to the polls, give so slight an attention to public matters that definite opinions cannot be attributed to them. Their local newspaper contains scarcely any political news. To them business, family affairs, and social pleasures cover the whole of life; so, though they count as possible voters, they do not count for the purpose of expressing (except almost mechanically at elections) a real popular will.
Frenchmen, however, declare that the foreign observers referred to exaggerate this apparent indifference. The peasant and the petit bourgeois does not wear his opinions upon his sleeve. Even when he has no clear and decided view on a particular question or the merits of a particular politician, he is governed by tendencies, generally persistent, as is shown by the constancy with which many electoral districts adhere from one generation to another to candidates of a particular type, be it clerical, or moderate conservative, or that of the advanced republican parties. The election of 1919 is cited as indicating the existence of a large body of opinion which, alarmed by the attitude of the Extreme (or Socialist) Left, came to the polls in unusual strength, and swung back from the Left towards the Centre or the Right. Evidently these voters had been thinking.
There is also a class important by its talents and influence rather than by its members, which eschews parliamentary politics. It consists of the men of letters and science, and includes most of the teachers in the universities and higher schools, as well as many of those who follow the learned professions. These men seem to stand more apart from the practical political life of the country, both national and local, than does the corresponding class in Britain or Switzerland or the United States. They have, however, and they deserve to have, a very real influence in the formation of opinion. They have knowledge and capacity, an admirable power of expression and a patriotic interest in the country's fortunes. But they are (except the journalists) in little direct touch with the legislators, less than Englishmen of the same type would be, so their opinion, though powerful and respected, tells comparatively little, or at any rate not directly, on the conduct of affairs from session to session.
Premising these facts, let us see what are the chief currents of political opinion in France. I have already enumerated the parties in the two Chambers, and have indicated the four main types of which the parties are subdivisions. The first of these is the Catholic Legitimist, which cherishes the traditions of the old Monarchy and the Church as they stood in the days of Louis Quatorze. Though attached in theory to the ancient dynasty, nearly the whole of this section has ceased to hope for a Restoration. It is now much more Catholic than Legitimist, three-fourths at least of its adherents having accepted the Republic. Its real principle is attachment to Catholicism; and the hostility shown by the more advanced Republicans to the clergy, even since the disestablishment effected in 1903-5, gives it grounds for holding together to defend religion. Most of its members do not seek to re-establish the Church, but would be content with a reasonable concordat, the recognition of a place for the teaching Orders in the instruction of the people, and the cessation of the present anti-Catholic intolerance. Respectable by its sincerity and by the social influence it can still put forth, it is not a force of the first order, except in some parts of the West and North,1 and in the army, chiefly among the officers.
Such authority as men of a second type of opinion exert, springs rather from the eminence than from the numbers of those in whom it is embodied. These are the moderate Republicans, whose ideal, influential in 1848—49 and again in 1870-75, of a conservative Republic, upholding the rights of property, repressing attempts at disorder, and carefully husbanding the national revenue, has lost favour in France. It has still some distinguished literary exponents and the sympathy of a large part of the cultivated bourgeoisie; but its force, scanty if we regard the votes it can command, is felt chiefly in the unseen restraint which it imposes, largely through the official class, upon projects of rash change. It has even a certain distant tenderness for the Church, less from religious sympathy than from a sense that religion exerts a steadying influence. It acquiesces in the existing Constitution, fearing that something worse might follow were that to be tampered with, hut it disapproves the methods by which deputies and ministers work the system, and recoils from some of their proposals.
No sharp line can so far as respects specific articles of political faith be drawn between these Moderates and the third main type composed of the more numerous Advanced Republicans of the Left. But there is a difference of temper and tendency. The Radical school of opinion professes more faith in the masses, and is committed to semi-socialistic experiments planned in their interest. It looks back to 1791— 93 as the Moderates look back to 1789-90, and cherishes the memories of the revolutions in which Paris overthrew four monarchies in succession. If any one type of opinion can be said to dominate the country it is this, for it is strong in the east and south and in most parts of the centre.
Finally, there is Socialist opinion. Of those who profess it, some are more, some less, attached to the doctrines of Proudhon or to those of Karl Marx, some more ready than others to resort to the general strike and even to violence. But all agree in desiring an economic reconstruction of society upon a collectivist or communistic basis. Many, probably most, of the leaders are not themselves hand-workers, but literary or professional men. Though the Socialists, being the best organized and best disciplined of all the parties, may be deemed a well-defined body, socialist opinions are not confined to that organized party, and the more advanced Radical views melt into those of the less advanced Socialists. While many Radicals are permeated by collectivist doctrine, not a few eminent Socialists have from time to time quitted the party to enrol themselves in the Radical ranks, either modifying their former views or recognizing that the time has not arrived for translating theory into practice.
Let it be noted that all the sections of the Republican Left, whatever their differences, have a bond of union in their hostility to Clericalism, and therefore to Monarchy which they associate with Church power. This is the dividing line that goes deepest.
Besides these various schools of political thought, a tendency has now and then emerged which is not so much a Doctrine or Programme as a manifestation of discontent with the existing system of government. A few sentences may serve to explain its origin.
When Louis Napoleon's coup d'état overthrew the Second Republic in 1852, he hastened to legalize his position by asking for, and obtaining, a plebiscite or popular vote of the whole nation,— for universal suffrage then already existed,— by which he was chosen President for ten years. A similar vote taken in 1852 made him Emperor, the majorities being large on both occasions. Many Frenchmen have been captivated by the notion of a popular dictatorship, a government by one man, democratic in its source, because it springs straight from universal suffrage, but uncontrolled in its exercise, because not dependent on the favour of a legislature. Despite the calamities which the Second Empire brought upon France, this idea kept alive a large party, which called itself Bonapartist, and commanded many votes in the Chamber down till the death of Louis Napoleon's son in 1879. Thereafter the party declined, there being no representative of the family whose personal merits recommended him as its standard-bearer, and for many years past candidates for the Chamber have ceased to offer themselves as Bonapartists. But the type of doctrine, the tendency which prefers not a constitutional monarchy but a popular dictatorship to the rule of a legislature, has persisted as a protest against Parliamentarism, cherishing a desire to strengthen the Executive, whether by conferring greater powers on the President or by setting up some new kind of authority through which the country, delivered from the intrigues of the Chamber, may stand stronger and more united in the face of foreign foes. It was this tendency which, suddenly developing with unsuspected force, made a hero of General Boulanger, who was supposed to have in him the makings of a dictator. It reappeared in the days of the Dreyfus conflict, when the anti-Semites and the rich and the timid clamoured for strong government. Never definitely embodied in a party, it has gained support from every quarter in which there was discontent. Monarchists favoured it: Clericals welcomed it, and so did a large section of the army, of which it frequently proclaimed itself the champion. It drew votes from a section of the Radicals, even from a section of the Socialists. Blossoming into a party, it took the name of Nationalist, but as it found no leader who could be put forward as a candidate for the Presidency, much less for an avowed dictatorship, it presently withered and subsided as an organization. Yet the tendency remains, for it is on its practical side an inevitable reaction against the faults of “Parliamentarism,” and on its theoretical side an expression of democratic faith in universal suffrage and the direct action of the people through the man of their choice. It finds vent in the proposals frequently launched for enlarging the powers of the President, so as to give him a leadership and authority independent of his ministers. It has to be reckoned with as a real, though a variable and unpredictable force. How far the experiences of the Great War will affect it remains to be seen. None of the military chiefs who won fame in that war has sought to turn his influence to any political purpose.
Through what organs do these types of opinion express themselves, and how is their respective strength to be gauged? All are represented in the two Chambers. All appeal to the public through the press, and by meetings, though these are less frequent, excite less interest, and play (except in the great cities) a smaller part in public affairs than popular gatherings do in Britain or America. It is naturally the more numerous and the more advanced parties, especially Radicals and Socialists, who make most, and the Conservative Republicans who make least use of popular demonstrations. An army moving to the attack will shout or sing: that which stands still stands silent.
All these types have their exponents in the newspaper press, of which, as being both an index and a moulder of opinion, some words must be said.
The French Press presents forms of excellence and forms of turpitude more extreme than can be found in other great countries. The worst journals live by blackmailing and other base arts. The best reach a dignity of manner not surpassed and a perfection of literary expression hardly equaled elsewhere. Their articles may not contain more knowledge and thought than did two or three of the ablest newspapers of Vienna, of Buda Pest, and of Germany, but they are better written, the French language being singularly adapted to this form of literature, for which the ablest Trench pens of the last hundred years created an admirable tradition. In these best newspapers one finds a wide outlook, a philosophic insight, a familiarity with the politics of other European countries, and a felicity of phrase which have rarely, if ever, been found combined in the press of any capital save Paris.
This is an old characteristic: two other features of the French Press are more recent. One is the business character which the newspapers of the largest circulation have assumed. They are great commercial enterprises, returning immense profits to their owners, and it is the profits that come first in the minds of their owners. Nowadays a newspaper lives by advertisements rather than by circulation, so it becomes necessary to secure advertisements. Circulation is desired because it draws the advertiser. These things being so, the owner is obliged both to propitiate that part of the business world whence advertisements come, and to avoid whatever is likely to reduce his circulation by offending any large body of readers. Hence — so it is alleged — a great journal cannot to-day show so much independence as formerly. Some one has said, “When the opinions of a journal begin to count, it ceases to have opinions.” There are other ways in which newspapers are subject to influences. They like to stand well with the powers that be in the world of commerce and finance. They desire the latest, most exact, and most secret political news from abroad. Since this is in the gift of the Government, one must be on good terms with the Government in order to have it. A tacit understanding with ministers suits both parties, for ministers, when they obtain press goodwill, have a guarantee against attack, imperfect, no doubt, yet worth something, while the journal gets what helps its circulation. It is good policy to receive the proprietor or editor when he asks an interview, and to take reporters around in the special train when the President goes on a tour. The deputies follow suit, and confide to the newspaper such news as they can impart. Even the judicial bench seeks praise from the press.
While noting the above facts, generally true as regards the influence of newspapers in the country and at normal times — so far as any times can be called normal — another fact also is to be remembered. The small circle of persons who in Paris habitually occupy themselves with politics, i.e. with ministerial intrigues and changes, with gossip about foreign affairs, and with schemes for reaping pecuniary crops on that field where business and politics meet — this small crowd of ministers and deputies, with the buzzing swarm that surrounds ministers and deputies, is much influenced by the Parisian newspapers, especially at the arrival of a ministerial crisis. A scathing article may destroy the chances of an aspirant or wreck a possible combination. The incisive skill of French journalism which inflicted such wounds on Napoleon III. in his palmiest days, shows itself at these moments with unabated force. It permits itself much licence, but without that licence many truths which need to be told might remain unspoken.
These phenomena are not confined to France. Similar causes have been producing them everywhere. More peculiar to France is the ownership of a journal by some eminent politician, who writes in it or uses it as his organ, so that it gives currency to his views and becomes identified with his plans and aspirations. This is fairer to the public than a secret league between a newspaper and a minister, who is expected to reward it (as happens in some other countries) by an appointment or the bestowal of an honour. The open advocacy of the views of a particular statesman, or group, by his or its newspaper, supplies to some extent the decline in the freedom and earnestness with which politics are handled in the most widely circulated journals, which would appear to be to-day less purely political than they were thirty or forty years ago. As financial interests have grown more powerful and financiers have thrown their tentacles over politics, those newspapers which finance can use have in losing independence lost much of their value, both as critics and as leaders.1
It must not, however, be forgotten that the influence of the Parisian press, which alone most foreigners see, great as it is in and in a circle around the capital, declines rapidly when that point in the circle is reached where it is the local newspapers that the householder reads before the day's work begins. Cities like Lyons and Nantes, Bordeaux and Marseilles, have powerful and well-written journals which escape some of the temptations that beset the capital. They follow the proceedings of the legislature closely and, like the newspapers of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Scotland, deal effectively with general as well as local issues. It is often said that both these leading provincial papers and their readers take politics more seriously than do the Parisians.
Men ask in Prance whether it is the press that guides public opinion or public opinion that guides the press. Both processes go on, but the ability of a journalist is shown, not so much in following and heightening the sentiment of the moment as in presaging the course which any sentiment is just beginning to take, and heading his ship that way before his rivals.
The type of opinion which most needs the help of the press is the Conservative Republican, because though strong in intellectual resources it is weak in numbers and organization. The stranger who admires it as literature is apt to overestimate its influence. In reality neither its organs nor those of the extreme schools already enumerated (always excepting the Socialist papers read by Socialist workmen) reach the masses of the people. But there are papers read by them, and especially those read by the rural voter, which do not make politics their main concern, since it is not for their politics that men buy them. Local affairs, agricultural affairs, conspicuous crimes, and what are called faits divers form the staple of their news. The proceedings of the Chambers, scantily reported in nearly all journals, are in these barely adverted to, so when an important speech is delivered by a Minister which the majority in the Chamber desires to bring before the people, it is printed on a broadsheet and sent down to all the communes, to be pasted up on the wall of the Mairie to be read by the good citizen. “Whether the good citizen spends much time in perusing it there may be doubted. I have never seen him so engaged. These things seem to show that the press, or at any rate the Parisian press, is no sure index to the views or probable action of the agricultural electors.
How, then, is opinion formed? Among the industrial workers of the towns largely by the Radical or Socialist press which developes, as events occur, views of the type its readers already hold. To some extent, among the upper section of the professional and commercial class, by one or more of the leading journals of the capital, and among the middle or poorer sections of the bourgeoisie generally, by talk in the cafés of the town where they live, or perhaps at their clubs (cercles), for the Trench, being a sociable people, spend more of their evenings in one another's company than do the English or the Americans, and if they care at all about politics, discuss current events eagerly. Opinion seems to be formed more than in England by talk and less by the printed page, though of course each man's paper supplies the facts, or its version of the facts, upon which the discussions of the café proceed. The power of any single newspaper over its readers may be less than it has often been in England and in Australia. But the press can probably do more than it could in those countries to disparage or discredit a politician whom it seeks to ruin, for the French public is suspicious, apt to presume some foundation for charges positively brought, while the law of libel is notoriously ineffective where politics are concerned. Able and judicious as are some of the newspapers in each of the great provincial cities, the capital has been the chief factory in which political opinion is made. Though Goethe was fond of dwelling on the immense value of Paris as the meeting-place of philosophers, writers, and artists, it might be better for the country to have independent centres of political thought such as Germany has had, and as are guaranteed to America by her vast extent. They give to opinion a greater variety, and tend to soften the asperities of conflicts waged too exclusively on the same parliamentary battlefield.
Returning to the main issue, we have to ask how far public opinion, as compared with the legislative and executive machinery of government, is fit to direct the domestic and foreign policy of France. In the United States and Switzerland public opinion rules. To a less degree it rules in England also. Does it rule in France?
France differs from these three countries in two ways. In all of them a large majority of the voters are interested in public affairs, so a statesman of insight can usually discover the general trend of their views and wishes, even when he cannot predict precisely the result of an election, for many secondary questions affect different sets of voters. Opinion is so widely diffused among the more passive sections as well as among the more active, that it can be tolerably well tested in all classes. It is in the air which men breathe. But in France a somewhat larger section of the voters have few positive opinions, but are moved rather by tendencies, grounded on habit or a vague sense of their own interests, or on a feeling for or against the Church or the chateau, or on a dislike of the bourgeoisie. Such tendencies, even when they determine their permanent attitude to a party, do not necessarily prescribe their votes on every current issue, some of which may not affect personal interests or appeal to religious proclivities.
On the other hand, that part of the French people which, holding definite views, cares for and watches public affairs, is sharply divided into different schools of thought and (less sharply) into political parties. The extreme schools differ on fundamentals, even on the form of government and the economic structure of society. Thus when we take all these schools and groups in the aggregate, we find in them no general public opinion, but rather a congeries of dissident opinions, incapable of being brought into harmony. It is an orchestra of clashing instruments. So sharp is the clashing that, whereas in America and England one can reckon on a disposition to acquiesce in the decision of the majority once that decision has been given, one cannot so reckon in France. The will which an election reveals may remain the will of the strongest factions only, not of the nation as a whole. The statesman has to keep his eye on the conflicting parties as abiding factors and calculate their present or prospective strength. He cannot make a national harmony out of the discordant notes and try to sing in tune. To this, however, there is the one exception, which I have already mentioned. On the main lines of foreign policy there has been a truly national public opinion. Differences of course there must be as to the prudence of any particular diplomatic step. Differences there were before the war as to the extent of the military precautions required; but these differences rarely weakened the Executive in its conduct of foreign relations. Pride and patriotism imposed silence on factions.
Secondary issues are, however, too much left to the Chambers and the group of political journalists who manufacture opinion in Paris. Here, as in England, the knowledge of foreign affairs and the interest felt in them have been too slender to enable the people to hold in check the schemes of adventurers pressing for the assumption of responsibilities abroad, and to exercise that control over foreign policy which is needed for the doing of justice and the maintenance of peace. The journals and coteries of Paris are in this sphere not sufficiently restrained by the opinion of the provinces.
It may help the reader to comprehend the peculiarly complicated phenomena of France if I try to present the forces and influences at work on politics in yet another form of classification, enumerating six classes or sets of citizens of most importance.
First come the peasantry, more than half of the total number of voters, knowing little, and often caring little about politics, but, shrewd in their way, thrifty almost to excess, and of a conservative temper.
Secondly, the working men in cities and other great industrial centres. Knowing more and caring more about public matters than do the peasants, but also regarding them chiefly from the side of their own interests, they are not generally revolutionists, but eager for changes that promise to better their condition.
Thirdly, the commercial sections of the middle classes, forming the great bulk of the bourgeoisie, thinking first of their business, valuing the stability of institutions, and, like their peasant neighbours, suspicious of novelties.
Fourthly, the professional classes, who while in one sense a part of the bourgeoisie, are more generally highly educated men, many of them occupied with letters or science, well qualified and disposed to take a lively interest in politics both foreign and domestic.
Fifthly. Across and through all these classes and the material interests by which each of them is moved, strikes the influence of religion and the Catholic Church, an influence whose appeal to tradition and emotion is capable, at moments, of thrusting aside or overriding all considerations of material interest — the peasant's passion for the land, the bourgeois' love of a quiet life, the intellectual detachment of the scholar or man of science. Among the workers also there are those over whose capacity for idealism socialistic doctrines can exercise a power like that of religion.
Lastly there are the plutocrats of finance and industry, insignificant in number, but strong by the influence which wealth always confers, and which it here exerts, chiefly in secret, through the press. There are, probably, among them some disinterested patriots, but, taken as a whole, they are more distinctly “out for themselves first, last, and all the time,” than any other section of the community, and this concentration of effort on a single definite end is one of the sources of the power of wealth, apparently greater in France than anywhere else in the world.
See Chapter XV. in Part I.
In the United States one must, of course except nearly all the coloured people and most of the recent immigrants, many of whom cannot speak English.
Such as was the condition of vine-growing, which produced the angry demonstrations of the “viticoles “some years ago.
An extremely interesting study of the political character of the western and north-western parts of France may be found in the book of M. André Siegfried, Tableau politique de la France, and some valuable articles on the same subject by the Count de Calan have appeared in the Revue politique de l'Ecole Libre des Sciences politiques during recent months. The persistence of political attitude since 1789 shown by constituencies in the south-west, north-west, and south-east of France is remarkable. There is more changefulness in the Central regions. It is to be wished that some British student would undertake a like local enquiry into the political proclivities of British counties and cities, and the causes thereof.
Not a few journals, even among those of importance, are believed to have succumbed to the wiles of “interests,” foreign or domestic, but the truth of these allegations is not easily ascertained.