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Conservative Resistance to Revolution in France

The principal resistance to the French Revolution of 1848 came from former local and parliamentary elites, organized in the legitimist and Orleanist parties, and from police and judicial administrators and prosecutor, many of whom had survived the provisional government's attempt to replace Guizot's prefects with republican commissioners. The brief administrative revolution had run its course by early May when the extreme Left was defeated in a national elections which brought to power moderate republicans who found willing allies among conservatives in their effort to protect their political revolution from radical democrats and revolutionary socialists. Even before the repression of the June insurrections, administrative personnel had begun to return to the pre revolutionary routine of prosecuting political suspects and restricting freedom of the press and freedom of association. While the legitimists were initially gratified to see Louis-Philippe and the Orleanists punished for the events of 1830, they were no less immobilized than their dynastic rivals by the fear of social revolution. In the firs t days of the revolution, conservatives of every nuance were bewildered by the sudden loss of their political monopoly and nervously anticipated a new Reign of Terror. Reassured by Lamartine's moderation, conservatives nevertheless avoided opposing the republic openly and declared their loyalty to the new regime. Sine the threat of democracy had temporarily made former dynastic conflicts irrelevant, legitimists and Orleanists joined together to hold their ground as the Provisional Government attempted to clear away the features of oligarchic rule. By hiding their monarchist convictions, these républicains du lendemain hoped to avoid a thorough purge of the administration and to support moderate republican appeals for early national elections.

Yet, the anticipated consequences of universal suffrage, republican judicial, administrative, and social reforms, and the financial crisis of 1848 soon turned early passivity into a concerted effort to mobilize resistance. Although the monarchists h ad lost control of the central government and the large cities, they maintained a grip on most rural communes and held on to their predominant positions in business, banking, and provincial journalism. As the April elections approached, legitimist and Orleanist notables formed electoral committees and used their newspapers to badger republican administrators and denounce republican policies as a threat to the social order. The press campaign against the 45-centime tax and a variety of republican political and social "excesses" forged a new unity between former monarchist adversaries and diffused a fear of radical social and economic reform which found resonance among rural and urban property owners. While conservatives often backed moderate republicans in the elections for the national assembly, early preparations had allowed then to exert a moderating influence on the electorate while rallying their own forces in traditionally conservative departments. The new assembly had a moderate republican majority, which included many who had accepted the previous regime, and a substantial monarchist minority which was ready to support measures to resist further radicalization. Thus, while the republic remained in republican hands, the assembly was composed of a majority which favored an end to revolutionary change.

The April elections reversed the forward impetus of the revolutions and opened a period of reaction which culminated in Cavaignac's dictatorship and the election of Louis-Napoleon to the presidenc y. Viewing the April elections as a victory for order, the Right was now confident enough to isolate and resist the revolutionary movement in Paris. The events of May 15 demonstrated that repression in the capital would not stir grave disorder in the provinces. The first counter revolutionary measures against demonstrators, proposed on June 7 by the republican-dominated executive commission, assured monarchists that the Left was divided and that moderates would choose repression if the extreme Left tried to overturn the assembly. Meanwhile, parliamentary by-elections in June returned a number of prominent Orleanists to power and the first municipal elections held under universal suffrage indicated that the conservatives had largely overcome internal factionalism and had mastered the democratic process. With the formation of the Comité de la Rue de Poitiers, Orleanists and legitimists formed a formidable parliamentary party of order capable of coordinating electoral activity, diffusing anti-sociali st propaganda, organizing petitions drives, and resisting such policies as the nationalization of insurance companies an the continuation of the national workshops.

By the time of the June insurrection, therefore, conservatives were well placed to assist in the repression of working class radicalism. Many on the Right had foreseen the coming confrontation and hoped to insure its outcome by provoking disturbances in order to destroy working-class insurgency once and for all. The repression of the Jun e Days not only weakened the extreme Left and brought to power those Cavaignac moderates who were willing to act in concert with the party of order to place severe restrictions on public liberties, it also served the long-term goals of reaction by confirming bourgeois fears of democracy and increasing provincial and peasant hostility toward the republic. Subsequent municipal and departmental elections guaranteed the ability of the notables to reassert their local predominance in all but a few regions while conservative pressure in parliament and the general state of siege turned the administration once again into an instrument of counter revolutionary surveillance and enforcement. After June 23, therefore, resistance to the revolution continued unabated until the coup d'etat at 1851 dismantled the Second Republic.

Dynastic differences and the ambiguity of the Napoleonic tradition made it impossible for many in the party of order to back the candidacy of Louis Napoleon. Although the leaders of the Co mité de la Rue de Poitiers supported Louis Napoleon as the lesser evil, many legitimists campaigned for Cavaignac or General Changarnier. Louis Napoleon's election, however, was viewed by the entire Right as a victory for the forces of order and even the legitimists admitted that, in lieu of a monarchical restoration, Bonapartism was the inevitable antidote to revolutionary anarchy. The triumph of Louis Napoleon paved the way for a monarchist ministry and a new round of repressive legislation which targeted moderate republicans and the Mountain alike. Although conservatives had a clear majority in the new legislature, the elections of May 1849 had returned a sizable radical delegation and the continued vitality of the Left served to justify and intensify the repressive zeal of the Right. The passage of the Falloux Law, which gave the Catholic Church a prominent role in education, and the reduction of the electorate in May 1850 indicated not only a retreat from democracy but a counter-revolutionary strategy to eliminate what conservatives considered the sources of radical subversion.

Since the legislative assembly was its principal power base, the party of order resisted the drift toward increased presidential autonomy. Yet, its leaders had helped pave the way for a Bonapartist dictatorship by persecuting elements on the Left which made it difficult to convince the peasant masses of the benefits of a republican regime. Many Orleanists and legitimists who might otherwise have supported parliame ntary institutions accepted the coup d'etat of 1851 as a guarantee against the political and social reform with which they associated the republic.

Steven Kale


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