University of Botswana History Department

H 202: 19th C. French politics

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19th Century
French politics

Events and periods Type of government Dominant political groups
1814-30: the Bourbon Restoration
1814: Napoleon defeated. The victorious allies restore the monarchy: Louis VIII (heir to Louis XVI who was overthrown in the French Revolution) becomes king. He tries to follow a moderate policy.
(The "100 Days": 1815: Napoleon returns to France and resumes power. The war begins again: he is defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and sent into exile on St Helena.)
The King was theoretically absolute, but granted a "Charter": he agrees to rule with a parliament of two chambers, one representing nobles and one representing commoners (on a property franchise which restricted voting rather narrowly). Most of the Napoleonic settlement (law, admistration etc) is left intact. Legitimists, conservatives
1824: Louis XVIII dies, Charles X becomes king. He follows more "reactionary" policies which seemed to seek to reverse many aspects of the Revolution.
1830: Parliament seeks reform on issues of censorship, the franchise etc. Charles X resists and tries to restrict the franchise further.
Government continues under the Charter, but with "Reactionary" policies, e.g. compensation for nobles who had lost land in the Revolution, at the expense of (bourgeois) holders of government bonds. Reactionaries
1830: the July Revolution: Charles X overthrown.The Duke of Orleans (a junior member of the royal family) becomes king, under the name Louis-Philippe. He accepts the principle of constitutional monarchy.    
1830-48: the Orleanist Monarchy (also called the July Monarchy) Parliamentary government, franchise wider but still restricted to landowners and bourgeoisie. The government is identified with the bourgeoisie (hence "the Bourgeois King"). Conservatives, liberals
1848-52: the Second Republic
February 1848: Revolution of 1848. Louis-Philippe overthrown. A republic is declared with a "Provisional Government" (i.e. a temporary government until elections.)
Provisional government: self-appointed committee Liberals, radicals, socialists
April: universal male suffrage elections to Constituent Assembly: conservatives (including secret monarchists) do well. Radicals in Paris were very disappointed.
June Days: A popular uprising in Paris, leading to six days of fighting in Paris. The government wins.
November: new constitution agreed. December: election for President, won by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte.
May 1849: elections for parliament.
Parliamentary republic, parliament elected by universal male suffrage. Conservatives, liberals
Parliament split between left and right, with right dominant. Parliament restricts franchise.By 1851, conservatives planning to restore Orleanist monarchy. Under the 1848 constitution, a republic with a separate President and Legislature (on American model). Conservatives, liberals
Bonapartist coup:
2 December 1851: coup d'état by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who becomes dictator.
1852-70: The Second Empire
2 December 1852: Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte becomes emperor, as Napoleon III.
Authoritarian Bonapartist government. A Legislative Body is elected by universal male franchise, but is dominated by "official candidates" backed by the government. In the 1860s the regime becomes more liberal. Bonapartists, conservatives, liberals (in later phases)
1870: France defeated in Franco-Prussian War; revolution in Paris. Republic declared.
1871: conservatives do well in elections; radicals in Paris disappointed. Revolution in Paris by the Commune; violently suppressed by the government.
  Radicals, liberals
1871: The Commune
(N.B.: this was confined to Paris)
Revolution (especially but not exclusively working-class) in Paris against conservative trend of Republic. Apparently favoured some type of loose federation which would allow Paris to follow its own path Socialists, radicals
1870-1940: Third Republic Parliamentary republic, universal male franchise Conservatives, liberals (monarchists initially in majority in parliament)

Political terms:

Left & Right:
these terms date from the French Revolution; the more you wanted radical change, the more you were to the Left. Radicalism, socialism and republicanism were Left. The more you opposed radical change and wanted to preserve traditional society, the more you were to the Right.
to the left but not socialist, not necessarily democratic but in favour of individual rights and economic freedom.
to the Right but not extreme Right; respect for authority, opposition to socialism, suspicious of democracy, but reconciled to the Napoleonic settlement.
Reaction, reactionary:
extreme Right, not reconciled to the original French Revolution, would like to go back to Ancien Regime. During the Bourbon Restoration known as Ultras.

Main political groups:

Monarchists (also "Royalists"):
those wanting government by a king; after 1830 divided into
  1. Legitimists: divine kingship; only the "legitimate" heir can be king: supported by reactionaries especially nobles
  2. Orleanists: supporters of Louis-Philippe: monarchists: monarchist but not as divine kingship, merely as a good system: supported by conservatives, especially rich bourgeois
Monarchists were dominant in parliament in the initial years of the Third Republic but lost their chance due to Legitimist/Orleanist splits, and later ceased to be significant.
Broad category (see above), especially those of conservative views willing to consider different systems (Orleanist monarchy, conservative republic, Bonapartist state)
to Left of Orleanists: more emphasis on liberty, wider franchise wanted though not necessarily democracy
following the original republicans of the French Revolution; anticlerical, seeking a democratic Republic but not necessarily socialist.
emphasis on social reform and improved life for workers; seeking reform of the economy on "socialist" lines but often unclear about details; closely associated with radicals in 1848.
not very significant until the rise of Napoleon III. Attached to the "myth of Napoleon"; belief that a strong government could deliver some social reform without destabilizing traditional society. Very eclectic. Ceased to be significant after early years of Third Republic



The Second Empire of Napoleon III had been discredited by defeat, but the Republican government which then took power was also discredited by its failure. The Commune made the French bourgeoisie very suspicious of radicalism. In these circumstances the royalists predominated in the initial years of the Third Republic, and planned to restore the monarchy. They lost their opportunity due to failure to resolve the Legitimist/Orleanist split and the unrealistic and extreme views of the Legitimist candidate for the throne. Subsequent Bonapartist advances led the Orleanists to combine with the moderate Republicans against them, and the constitution of the Third Republic was settled in 1875.

The Third Republic was a compromise arrangement, a parliamentary republic in which governments changed frequently. There is a sense in which the various political movements of the 19th century can be seen as "alternative endings to the unfinished story of the French Revolution": the Legitimists rejecting the Revolution, the Orleanists perhaps wishing it had stopped in 1791, the Republicans endorsing the First Republic, and the Bonapartists looking to the legend of Napoleon.

The deep divisions of Left and Right had not, however, been resolved. Sections of the Right never really accepted the Third Republic, and in 1940 they seized their chance. It is perhaps only with Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic that a stable national consensus on the regime has been reached.

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Copyright © 2000 B. S. Bennett
Last updated 11 September 2000