Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Second Republic

The group of moderates who formed the provisional government was acclaimed by the crowd at the Hôtel de Ville on 24 February. Alphonese de Lamartine became the Foreign Minister, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin Minister of the Interior. As a gesture to radicals, Louis Blanc was included. By midnight the two factions were able to produce the statement: ‘The Provisional Government gives its vote to the Republic, subject to ratification by the People, who will be consulted forthwith’.

The Second Republic had come into being almost by accident and at a time of collapsing businesses and food shortages. Under pressure from the radicals inside the government and from the Parisian crowds, the government introduced some hasty reforms: it reduced the daily working hours to ten in Paris and eleven in the provinces, recognized the ‘right to work’ and set up ‘National Workshops’ to provide work and poor relief. This was an expensive measure, and to fund it, taxes had to be raised by 45%.

 On 5 March the government decreed that in elections to a National Constituent Assembly to be held in April, every Frenchman over the age of 21 should be entitled to vote; this increased the electorate from 200,000 to 9 million, the great majority of whom were conservatively-minded peasants.

On 23 April 84% of the electorate voted, and the result was a disaster for the radicals and socialists. The majority of the new Assembly were royalists, either Legitimists (supporters of the Bourbons), Orleanists (supporters of Louis-Philippe), or moderate Liberals and Republicans. The Assembly set up an Executive that included Lamartine but excluded Louis Blanc.

On 15 May, following three days of demonstrations, crowds invaded the Assembly in scenes reminiscent of the French Revolution, but they were held off by the National Guard. The socialist societies were disbanded and Louis Blanc fled.

The June Days

On 21 June the government issued a decree abolishing the national workshops. On 23 June barricades sprang up in a spontaneous popular uprising. On 24 and 25 June pitched battles took place between the insurgents, the National Guard and the new Mobile Guards under the command of General Cavaignac. The guns were trained on the barricades and the workers were mercilessly massacred. When the fighting was over many insurgents were summarily executed and thousands were imprisoned or sent as forced immigrants to Algeria. Victor Hugo said of the June Days that civilization had defended itself with methods of barbarism.

After the June Days the Army held power in France. Cavaignac took the place of the discredited Executive Commission and appointed a moderate republican ministry to hold office until November, when the constitution was drawn up. This entrusted executive power to a president to be directly elected by the people, in spite of the reservations of those who feared that it would pave the way to dictatorship. In December out of seven and a half million votes, five and a half million went to Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, with Lamartine gaining less than 21,000. With another Bonaparte now at the head of government, would France once more become a military dictatorship?