Democracy and Modernity

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

  • The Republic in the Village by Maurice Agulhon, translated by Janet Lloyd
    Cambridge, 412 pp, £27.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 521 23693 2

In France, some years ago, a film director was making a film about the Napoleonic Wars. He enlisted more than a hundred extras to represent the French and other armies; the rate of pay for these extras was precisely the same whether they were playing officers or merely soldiers. Filming, which lasted several weeks, took place in open country, a long way from any town or village, so an open-air canteen was set up to provide for this fairly large number of ‘troops’. After a few days, the officers of this celluloid army began to eat at a separate table from the mere privates and NCOs: later on, an actual partition was put up to divide the ‘officers’ mess’ from the vulgum pecus, thereby acknowledging the social distinctions which had been established in a group where there was no difference in income.

The story is slight, but it illustrates the formidable potential for segregation inherent in French, and also apparently in English society. Not all France conforms to this rule, however. In the Mediterranean South, a communalist tradition, deriving from proximity of residence in large, closely-built villages, has long facilitated social contact and made possible mutual familiarity and a rapid dissemination of ideas and culture from the middle – bourgeois – class (lawyers, local doctors) to the lower-middle (artisan) and the unequivocally ‘lower’ classes (workers and most peasants).

It is this meridional tradition of sociability which provides the framework for Agulhon’s inquiry into The Republic in the Village, or, ‘how the republican spirit came to Provence’. His research was originally undertaken for a weighty doctoral thesis, which explains some of its peculiar characteristics – in particular, the vast and disconcerting erudition which may be off-putting to British readers. He is concerned with an area corresponding to the département of the Var, east of Marseilles, around Toulon and on what is now the Côte d’Azur, within a chronological framework which takes in the first half of the 19th century and culminates in the popular rebellion against Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état in December 1851.

At the beginning there is a great change. In 1832, when the legitimists were attempting to regain power, the population of the Var still had Royalist sympathies: but by the mid-19th century, we find a département which considers itself mainly Republican. The economy in any case remains archaic: the cork industry and communal forests, or those of the ci-devant landowners, give rise to small-scale conflicts. One or two Provençal Robin Hoods express the frustration of the peasants and resist the great landowners who want to protect their woodlands from poachers and woodcutters. In the realm of spirits, vine-growers attack the rats-de-cave, government officials who collect taxes on alcoholic drinks, while in the realm of spirituality, the priests become less influential, and believe it or not, in this region adjoining Papist Italy a local brand of Protestantism emerges three centuries after Calvin. The 1848 Revolution would replace it with free-thought.

All this was inseparable from the introduction of a new culture: the gradual spread of literacy, of the French language and, at the same time, of a Provençal-speaking theatre which, in its turn, looked increasingly to French. Culture also advanced through songs, with the dominant language again gradually driving out the langue d’Oc. Popular and working-class feeling was expressed by the Parisian song-writer Béranger whose words and tunes travelled round the whole country.

Traditional forms of social gathering illustrate the process of change. The bourgeois would meet in a cercle where they conversed and drank in a convivial atmosphere with their middle-aged colleagues (mostly men but sometimes women came too): one can get an idea of what these communal and highly commendable gatherings were like in the good old days in Provence by attending a reunion at one of the older English universities. Workers and artisans attended a different kind of club known as a chambrée, designed for entertainment and card games: there were different groupings for different classes (shopkeepers, peasants and workers) and for different ages, with young people’s chambrées and old people’s chambrées. They organised such traditional events as farandoles, a regional dance, and charivaris – but they were also mutual-aid societies. (Equally, a mutual-aid society might form a chambrée.) They came to the help of their members when they were ill, paid the cost of burying them when they were poor and made sure that there was a band to accompany the funeral procession of a dead comrade. Many people who had never touched an oboe or a drum belonged to a musical society just to ensure that they would get a good send-off at their funeral. These 19th-century Provençal chambrées took over from the penitents’ societies which the Baroque Catholic Church had done all it could to encourage in the 17th and 18th centuries (the red, grey and blue penitents): they had been accepted enthusiastically by the Provençaux because they met both the spiritual and the social needs of their members. The common people were thus, as it happens, far from being a disorganised mass.

Inter-group contact and transfers – ‘inter-social imitation’ is the term Agulhon uses to describe the opposite end of the scale from class struggle – were facilitated by the fact that middle-class Republicans or Bonapartists could not find wives among respectable, right-thinking girls, and so, given this matrimonial barrier, took mistresses, frequented cabarets and spread their ideas among drinking companions much lower down the social scale. At the same time, folk tradition, not necessarily either ‘white’ or Royalist as some hasty theoreticians have led us to believe, stimulated communication between classes, even when this was hostile. In theory, the charivari was designed to make fun of remarried widows, but it also provided an opportunity to satirise a prominent person who was disliked. The burning of the guy during the carnival every year was supposed to represent the burning of all the sins of the village, but could also be the focus for a symbolic attack on leading representatives of the Right or the Left. The tree of liberty projected the hopes of the Republic, but was in reality no more than the old maypole of the Renaissance and 18th century. It was planted in front of the town hall to honour the community. Finally, the flourishing of swords in the danse des olivettes could provide the occasion for a bloody battle against political reactionaries in which no blood was spilled.

Democratic tendencies spread through the Var, even before Karl Marx, thanks to the utopian communism of Cabet. Some artisans were followers of Flora Tristan, the charming Lenin in skirts (‘Just imagine: I recognised my shoemaker,’ said one conservative préfet, speaking of these agitators who had marched forth from their shops and stalls). Highly-qualified manual workers, they rallied to the new political ideas and were followed with complete confidence, and sometimes in utter ignorance, by the proletariat of economically-depressed areas. The self-taught bootmaker, a voracious reader, would pore over the latest ‘red’ theory, however insane; while the workers who gathered round him, believing and following every word he spoke, scarcely looked at the new socialist classics (even assuming they could read). These ideologies, emanating from the bourgeoisie of the cities and towns, flourished in response to a new class struggle which, though genuine, was not rigid and didn’t conform in any way to a dogmatic model. It was simply a conflict between the ruled and their rulers; and the two sides were quite capable of swopping political positions according to circumstances. In 1810, when the dominant groups rallied around Napoleon, the monstrous devourer of conscript soldiers, the combat of the small against the great, even in Provence, centred on the ‘white’ Chouan revolts, with the common people choosing to follow the great Royalist landowners, however noble and pious, in preference to their new Jacobin and Bonapartist masters. But from the 1840s onwards, the struggle changed its spirit. The dominance of the traditional Right (conservative large landowners and Orleanist bourgeoisie) and the spread of new Republican or socialist ideologies destabilised Provence and the scales tipped in the other direction, favouring the ‘reds’ rather than the ‘whites’. To this was added the six months of universal suffrage and total freedom of speech brought in by the Revolution of February 1848: the region began at once to talk the language of the quarantehuitards or the montagnards, just as in May 1968 the whole of France was to imagine that it was speaking ‘trotskyist’.

A few years ago, a young historian, disturbed by the fact that professors in the Sorbonne were giving their students theses to write on topics such as ‘the département of Aveyron under Louis-Philippe’ or ‘Tarn-et-Garonne during the Second Republic’, asked: is it necessary to ‘departmentalise’ French history? Of course, the implied answer was ‘no’: but Agulhon’s work shows that this ‘departmentalisation’, when applied to the Var, produces remarkable results. This is clear from the conclusion of his book where he discusses the insurgent troops from the Var who for a few days resisted the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

The rank and file of this more or less well-equipped army was made up of workers and peasants. A minority of their leaders came from the middle class and the intelligentsia and the majority were artisans and workers. They made up a whole in which modern elements (the defence of the Republic and of socialism) met with older ones: the insurgents were armed with old-fashioned weapons (including axes), spoke Provençal and represented whole communes in which the entire male population was mobilised whether they wanted to be or not. Other communities, ‘white’ rather than ‘red’, acted en bloc to reject the movement. In this way the insurgency revived the old Provençal tradition of ‘municipal militarism’, whether by way of bravades or in behaviour like that of the boastful Tartarin de Tarascon. Agulhon is entirely sympathetic to this combination of old-fashioned fireworks and civic solidarity: an incurable antiquarian, he is not susceptible to the charm of a noisy and would-be ultra-modern ideology.

He is also a chemist of history who studies with delight the figure of Madame Perrier, an attractive working-class girl who, like the image of Liberty hoisted on the barricades in Delacroix’s painting, led the revolutionary columns in 1851. Half-way between old-fashioned populism and modernism, combining Republican and anti-Bonapartist legitimism with the struggle of the wood and cork workers, Madame Perrier, decked in her red sash, was the paleo-goddess of a rural 19th century in process of micro-urbanisation. More than Robespierre-type Reason, she was the incarnation of the ‘good’ Republic which would give civic freedom to the people. In the same way, ‘good’ Catholicism in 1793 resisted the ‘bad priests’ who wanted to introduce disciples of the sansculottes to Provence. Thus Agulhon’s meridional compound changes: white becomes red in his Southern spectrum, with no great change in its social components. E.A. Wrigley distinguished between modernisation (literacy and the new culture) and industrialisation (cotton mills and the pollution from factory chimneys). Agulhon goes further in the same direction: he considers that Provence tasted the forbidden fruit of Democracy even before it fully attained the delights and the agonies of Modernity. Its people absorbed the new culture of the anticlerical bourgeoisie without at the same time laying the reconstructed foundations for an up-to-date, petty-bourgeois society. Their formidable loquacity, dating back to the Catholic and, in places, Baroque 17th century, disseminated throughout the area the brand-new ideas put forward by the Parisian Left. At the other end of the scale, the crushing silence of the Bretons, structured by centuries of secret patronage on the part of the great landowners, perpetuated Royalist and Catholic beliefs among copses and hedgerows nourished on cider and holy water.

Agulhon is an unwitting centrist, his vision, nurtured on the techniques of anthropology and the close study of detail, occupying the middle ground between ‘right-wing history’, which sees the Provençal rebels of 1851 as criminals, and ‘left-wing history’, which praises them as Republican militants. The old-fashioned rebels of Southern France were ‘white’ communards repainted red. When it comes down to it, the author of The Republic in the Village has told his own story in this persuasive work, for he is himself the historian of meditation and silence, the archivist, in a loquacious civilisation. A Provençal exiled to the grey skies and hostile environment of Paris, he is a free-thinker attracted to the study of what was basically a religious culture; a man of Protestant stock in a previously Catholic nation; a man who thinks of himself as an unrepentant social democrat in relation to a left-wing intelligentsia which was long made up of repenting Stalinists.

The Republic in the Village is valid well beyond the confines of the Midi: the ‘class struggle’ in the primitive conditions of the Var first adopted the costume of traditional Papism (1810), then switched towards red and even socialist utopianism (1851). In the 20th century, the Polish working class, in different circumstances, has continued and intensified the class struggle, but it has followed the same path in reverse, abandoning real socialism to return, through a kind of Marian populism, to militant Catholicism. So the Chouan insurgency was not quite as silly as good Republicans would have us believe.