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Drink Question

After being virtually ignored during France's previous revolutionary upheavals, drink began to emerge as an important political issue in 1848. In a soci ety still lacking an integrated national market, the problems of consumption and taxation far outweighed those of drunkenness and disorder.

During the 1840s drunkenness came to be seen as a major proletarian problem. For example, the 1848 inquiry into labor conditions discovered that employers believed temperance was the key to overcoming working-class misery. In her The Worker's Union (1843), Flora Tristan was one of the first among the growing socialist movement to argue that dru nkenness was a serious impediment to organization. Nevertheless, observers on neither side of the barricades in February or June 1848 emphasized drink as a major factor in the revolutionary events. One of the major revolutionary groups in Lyon was a drinking society, the Voraces. It seized the fortifications in February 1848, acted as a semi-official security force, and later transformed itself into a secret society. However, the Lyonnaise "party of order" did not attack its members for the ir drinking, simply for their political action. By 1851 the question of drunkenness had begun to emerge, if obliquely, as a political issue. In March 1851 two conservative deputies, M. Pidoux and S. Vandore, submitted a bill to restrict the commerce of drinking establishments. During the debates, for the first time in French parliamentary history, an extended argument ensued over the link between drink and revolution. Naturally the right affirmed and the left denied the connection. The National Assembl y voted to consider the measure but never returned to it. However, within a month of his coup d'état, with his decree of December 29, 1851, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte enacted a much more draconian version of the anti-drinking project.

Yet, the specter of the drunken revolutionary would not fully appear until the Paris Commune. What did exercise the minds of politicians concerning drink, from Adolph Thiers on the right to a Pierre Joigneaux on the left, was the question of taxation. Drink taxes , much like the regulation of papers, theaters, and the freedom of assembly and association, had fluctuated with the political climate ever since the fall of the Bastille. In March 1848, a revolutionary government again, in the first blush of revolutionary idealism, abolished the drink taxes. But once more, right before the start of the June Days, on the 22d, a growing demand for "order" found them reimposed. The left republicans, those advocating a democratic and social republic, then made the issue the ir own and advocated the repeal of the taxes. This appeal effectively joined urban workers who wanted a cheap beverage with peasant wine producers demanding a growing market for their product. To steal the left's thunder before the May 1849 elections, the chamber of deputies temporarily repealed the taxes. But after the dem-soc's electoral gains the chamber reimposed the taxes. Consequently, the left would use the issue for the remainder of the Second Republic.

The reason alcohol consumption rath er than abuse was the central issue of the era was related to the wine and spirit industry in particular and French commerce in general. The period 1846-1851 was lean, even famishing, years for alcoholic drink producers. Only after 1855 did rising prices combine with exceptional weather and the establishment of a national transportation network (based on railroads and steamboats) to provide a boom period for the production and consumption of wine and, later, of spirits. As a result, per capita alcohol co nsumption would more than double by the end of the century, making France by 1890 the highest consumer per capita of alcohol in the world. In 1848, however, alcoholism was one problem France did not yet have to face.

W. Scott Haine


As of yet, no comprehensive work exists on the drink question during 1848. Nevertheless these two works are valuable:

Lachiver, Michael. Vins, vignes, et vigerons: Histoire du vignoble fran&cc edil;ais. Paris: Fayard, 1988.

Loubère, Leo. The Red and the White: The History of Wine in France and Italy in the Nineteenth Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1978.

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Holly Johnston revised this file (http://www on January 28, 1997.

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© 1997 James Chastain.