The economic crisis hit France with particular severity. Railroad construction almost ceased, throwing more than half a million out of work; coal mines and iron foundries, in turn, laid off workers.
Unemployment increased the discontent of French workers already embittered by their low wages and by the still lower esteem in which they were held by the government of Louis Philippe. Under the July Monarchy, French agriculture experienced a golden age at the same time that industrialization was beginning to develop. The government, however, appeared to be indifferent to the social misery that accompanied the new prosperity.
The main beneficiaries of the July Monarchy were the social and economic elite who had the right to vote. The government banned labor organizations and harshly repressed the workers of Paris and Lyons who demonstrated in the early 1830s to demand a republic and higher wages.
Opposition to the July Monarchy grew during the next decade. Heading what might be termed the official opposition was Adolphe Thiers, who continued to support the principle of constitutional monarchy. The republicans formed a second opposition group, which increased in numbers with the growing political awareness and literacy of the working classes. The third, and smallest, group took in the exponents of various doctrines of socialism, who gained recruits from the economic depression of the late 1840s. Potentially more formidable than any of these, but as yet representing only a vague, unorganized sentiment, were the Bonapartists. The return of the emperor’s remains from St. Helena to Paris in 1840 revived the legend of a glorious and warlike Napoleon, so different from the uninspiring Louis Philippe.
In the summer of 1847 constitutional monarchists of the Thiers faction joined with republicans to stage a series of political banquets throughout France calling for an extension of the suffrage and the resignation of chief minister Guizot. This campaign appeared harmless until a huge banquet was announced for February 22, 1848, to be held in Paris.
When the Guizot ministry forbade the banquet, the Parisians substituted a large demonstration. On February 23, Louis Philippe dismissed Guizot and prepared to summon Thiers to the ministry. But his concessions came too late. Supported by workers, students, and the more radical republican leaders, the demonstration of February 22 turned into a riot on February 23, in which more than fifty of the rioters were killed or wounded. The number of casualties intensified the revolutionary atmosphere.
On February 24, Louis Philippe abdicated, and the Chamber set up a provisional government headed by an eloquent, cautious advocate of a republic, the romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869). Popular unrest, mounting along with unemployment, obliged the provisional government to take in a few socialists. Notable among these was Louis Blanc (1811-1882), an advocate of social workshops which the workers themselves would own and run with the financial assistance of the state.
As a gesture toward the “right to work,” and also as a measure to restore calm in Paris, the provisional government authorized the establishment of national workshops in the capital. These national workshops, however, were not a genuine attempt to implement the blueprint of Louis Blanc but a relief project organized along semimilitary lines and enrolling more than 100,000 unemployed persons from Paris and the provinces.
The future shape of France now hinged on the outcome of the elections of April 23, 1848, when all adult males would be qualified to vote for the National Assembly, which would draw up a constitution for the Second Republic. (The first Republic had lasted officially from September 1792 until Napoleon’s coronation in 1804.) In this election 8 million, 84 percent of the potential electorate, went to the polls. The conservative peasants, who still made up the bulk of the population, approved the fall of the July Monarchy but dreaded anything resembling an attack by the socialists on the private property they had recently acquired. Of the almost nine hundred deputies elected, therefore, most were either monarchists or conservative republicans.
The Paris radicals refused to accept the results. Demonstrators invaded the National Assembly and proposed the formation of a new provisional government; alarmed moderates arrested the radical leaders and decided that the national workshops threatened law and order. The Assembly decreed the orderly closing of the workshops; their workers could either enlist in the army or accept work in the provinces. The poorer districts of the capital responded by revolting from June 23 to June 26, 1848, when they were subdued by the troops brought in from the conservative rural areas by General Louis Eugene Cavaignac (1802-1857), the energetic minister of war.
These June Days were a landmark in modern history, the first large-scale outbreak with clear overtones of class warfare. Most of the insurgents seem to have come from the unemployed who had tried vainly to enroll in the workshops and were now desperate. Among them were workers of the new industrial age—mechanics, railroad men, dockworkers—as well as winesellers, masons, locksmiths, cabinetmakers, and other artisans of the type who had been prominent in the capture of the Bastille in 1789.
The prospect of a social revolution terrified the propertied classes; peasants, shopkeepers, landowners, and nobles were all poured into Paris on the new railroads to quell the uprising. About ten thousand were killed or wounded, and about the same number were subsequently deported, chiefly to Algeria. All socialist clubs and newspapers were padlocked, and Louis Blanc fled to England. France became a virtual military dictatorship under General Cavaignac.
The fears of the middle-class moderates were evident in the constitution of the Second Republic, which the National Assembly completed in November 1848. The Assembly declared property inviolable and refused to include the right to work among the fundamental rights of French citizens. The president was to be chosen by popular election every four years, and the single-chamber legislature was to be elected every three years.
Circumstances did not favor the success of the Second Republic. In the presidential election of December 1848 the presidency of the republic went to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873). This nephew of the great Napoleon was not an impressive figure. Yet he bore the magical name of Bonaparte and could tap the glamor
of the Napoleonic legend.
In 1848 he staged a clever campaign to identify himself with the cause of order, stability, and democracy. In domestic politics he would subvert the constitution of the Second Republic in a coup d’état late in 1851 and proclaim himself Emperor Napoleon III a year later. The French Revolution of 1848, like that of 1789, had established a republic that ended in a Napoleonic empire.