How important were divisions among the revolutionaries in explaining the failure of the French Second Republic by 1850?

Divisions among Revolutionaries

The revolutionaries of 1848 were not united in their political and social aims but rather were a loose collection of disparate groups each with their own agenda. Although it had been political discontentment which initially prompted protest, it was the socially discontent who forced Louis Philippe’s abdication. By necessity, therefore, the Provisional Government was made up of moderates who provided, in Thiers’ words, “the form of government which divides us least”. The failure of the Second Republic was the direct result of a steady movement to the right among the deputies, which resulted in the election of Louis Napoleon as President.

The major dichotomy among the revolutionaries of 1848 was between the politically motivated bourgeoisie and the socially discontent unemployed workers. The rift between the desire for increased protection of property on the one hand, and the demands for food, work and welfare on the other, was an important factor in the failure of the Provisional Government. In order to appease the Parisian mob, the Luxembourg Commission was set up to institute social reform. By providing National Workshops and poor relief, the socialist Louis Blanc appeased the unemployed workers who had demanded food, work and welfare but estranged the bourgeoisie who felt that these measures were too expensive.

The Legacy of the French Revolution

The legacy of the French Revolution was important to both right- and left-wing politicians. To conservatives, it was democracy that had led to the excesses of the Terror and so the prevailing feeling among them was that this force had to be kept in check by means of a constitutional or absolute monarchy. To socialists such as Louis Blanc, the ideals of the Revolution had never been fulfilled and a republic with universal suffrage seemed the only solution.

Moderate Compromise

The moderate coalition within the Provisional Government existed in an uneasy compromise until the subject of the President arose. Some deputies felt that a safe pair of hands had to be chosen, whoever this might be, in order to ensure the continued security of the republic while others led by Thiers claimed that Louis Napoleon must not be allowed to obtain office because he was too politically ambitious and this dispute caused a split within the Provisional Government.

Parisian Workers

From the beginning of the revolution in February 1848, the Parisian workers had had a different agenda than rural France. Their left-wing policies were fiercely opposed by the right-wing bourgeoisie and peasantry with their desire to safeguard their property rights. The peasantry did not want to pay for the National Workshops and the workers’ continued demands for social reform alienated them from the rest of France and meant that the electorate lost all sympathy for their cause.

Financial Crisis

It had been a financial crisis that had lost Louis Philippe’s government its bourgeois support and uncertainty continued to prevail in the business world, reflected by a fall in the Bank of France’s share index. The effect of this, together with a fall in gold reserves, was to restrict lending and cause a decline in the financial stability of the government. In response to this and in order to pay for social relief, the government imposed a 45 centime tax on direct income which fell predominantly on the landed classes and caused a widespread rejection of republicanism in rural France.

The Peasantry

At the same time, the introduction of the republican ideal of universal suffrage meant that control of the Constituent Assembly was in the hands of the peasantry, heavily influenced by clerical conservatism. These factors, combined with the fact that the election was held on Easter Sunday, meant that over half the deputies elected were on the right.

Divisions within Paris

Although the revolution had involved both the bourgeoisie and the workers of Paris, these two groups in fact had little in common. When the largely bourgeois Constituent Assembly ignored the workers’ calls for programmes of public works to alleviate unemployment, the radicals opposed the government by means of insurrection, with demonstrations in Paris and Rouen culminating in the ‘June Days’ uprising. The government showed that it was prepared to use force against the workers and the uprising was ruthlessly crushed by Cavaignac, resulting in the death or deportation of many radicals. The National Workshops were closed both because of their expense and because they were seen to breed political subversion. In order to prevent Red Republicans from being elected in future, the franchise was restricted to exclude what Thiers called “the vile multitude”, but in the process the Assembly necessarily became more conservative in make-up.

The Consequences of the June Days

The political consequence of the June Days was a growth in the appeal of Louis Napoleon and despite the misgivings of Thiers, he had no viable opponent. Politicians believed they could use his popularity, the middle classes were attracted to his views in favour of the religious control of education, the working classes voted for him to oppose Cavaignac, and his association with Bonaparte gained him the support of those who remembered the Empire as a golden age. Upon his election, the fact that Louis Napoleon had no responsibility to the Chamber meant that he could distance himself from the government and its unpopular legislation while promoting his image as Napoleon’s heir and paving the way for his 1851 coup.

Why did the Republic fail?

The Second Republic failed due to the failure of the Constituent Assembly to maintain order within France, a failure which caused a drift towards conservatism among the electorate. Louis Napoleon gained power because he represented order to an electorate which was disillusioned with the Assembly and the divisions within it. Divisions among the revolutionaries, between the conservative bourgeoisie and the radical urban workers, made it difficult for a unified government to emerge but the failure of the Second Republic was caused far more fundamentally by the failure of the revolutionaries to diminish the divisions between the essentially republican Parisians and the conservative peasantry.

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