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Ecole Polytechnique

"Whoever wants to vanquish France." These words were uttered in the wake of the June Days of 1848, in general recognition of the decision of the students of the École to place their sparse numbers but enormous prestige on the provisional government's side of the barricades.

The École de Polytechnique, founded by the Convention in 1794 to train engineers and scientists for the military and civil service and by 1848 the most prestigious of France's grandes écoles, also enjoyed a largely unexamined reputation as a bulwark of popular revolution. This reputation stemmed in part from the students' restiveness during the Restitution era, when their Bonapartist sympathies put them at odds with the Bourbon regime. Alienation from Restoration politics had encouraged a flowering of radical politics in certain circles at the école. Saint-Simonianism, with its vision of a new social hierarchy topped by a scientific elite, not surprisingly made substantial in roads among the &eaacute;coles students. The sect's popularity also stemmed from the knowledge that most of its leading figures, e.g. Auguste Comte, "Père" Enfantin, and Olinde Rodrigues, were graduates of the school. Even Fourierism, with its distrust of science and disparagement of progress, gained an occasional adept among the disaffected polytechniciens. Victor Considerant, who would succeed Fourier as head of the movement, and his disciple, Jules Lechevalier, both studied engineering at the école. There had even been a rash of Carbonarism in the 1820s leading to the expulsion of a number of students.

But the event which more than anything else had given the école a revolutionary aura was the appearance of some 60 of its students, decked out in their glamorous uniforms, ceremonial swords in hand, alongside workers and artisans on the barricades during the 1830 revolution. This image of a republican alliance of "workers of the mind and workers of the fist" had been reinforced by demonstrations of student disapproval of the "hijacking " of the revolution by the Orleanists, such as the vigorous support given to the 1832 rising in Paris immortalized by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables. Students broke down the gates of the school in order to go to the aid of the rebels.

In the spring of 1848, however, the students of the école were "isolated from politics" (Callot). The issue which had gripped the school that spring was strictly internal in nature: a campaign to remove a literature profess or accused of chronic absenteeism. It was the street battle of the night of February 23, with its some 50 dead, that "awakened" the politechniciens to the February revolution. Even so, it is unclear that the newly-aroused students felt any particular identification with the revolutionary struggle then underway. Their main role in the coming days was to interpose themselves between combatants at the barricades in order to avoid bloodshed and to protect property, including the crown jewels an d royal chateau at Versailles and Chantilly. They also served as bodyguards for members of the provisional government, principally Lamartine, Louis Blanc, Marie, and Cremieux.

Contemporaries credited the polytechniciens with defusing a number of potentially violent confrontations between the provisional government and the radical opposition. On the 24th of February, they protected a number of soldiers and national guardsmen from the wrath of the crowds in search of weapons. And on February 25, the day the people came to the Hotel de Ville to demand that the red flag be made the flag of the new republic, it was the presence of "nine polytechniciens, swords unsheathed, around [Lamartine]" (Callot) that calmed spirits and gave the poet the opening to sway the crowd with his celebrated "tricolor speech."

As might have been expected of the students at a quasi-military school with a tradition of Bonapartism, polytechniciens played a role in one of the pro visional government's few foreign adventures, the farcical "invasion" of Belgium in March 1848 by a "legion" of Belgian immigrant workers recruited by Ministry of Interior Ledru-Rollin. The incursion, led by a small cadre of école students, was supposed to have sparked a mass uprising of sympathetic Belgian workers, but instead there was fighting with the Belgian army at the border, in which some fifty invaders were killed. None of the polytechniciens perished in this foolhardy venture , nor did the école suffer retribution from an embarrassed government for having lent itself to the scheme.

The école student gave notice of the limits of their revolutionary sentiments on May 15. Having learned that the constituent assembly had been invaded by the "reds," the students set out en masse to rescue the besieged deputies, only to find that they had already been liberated. Undeterred, they mounted guard around the Palais Bourbon for the next three days.

Only 36 students remained at the école when the June Days began. Because of the turmoil, exams had been held early in 1848 and most of the students had gone home. Nevertheless, those who remained joined with the cadets from St. Cyr to guard public buildings and engage in some of the street fighting. One polytechnicien, named Fargue, was captured by insurgents, who "vehemently reproached him for treason of the école, which, before, has always been on the side of the people." To which the foolhardy Fargue replied: "The école hasn't changed; you're not the people." Understandably, some of the rebels wanted to shoot Fargue, but it was decided instead to lock him in a nearby building. He was later rescued by the garde mobile. (Callot).

Bystanders like Victor Hugo should not have been surprised at the position taken by the polytechniciens. As the historian of the école, P. Tuffrau, so wisely observed: "The Ecole had fought alongside the people so long as the goal was political liberty; it was not prepared to set out on the paths, dark and winding as they were, of social reconstruction."

The students who now took their places on the establishment's side of the barricades did not lack for familiar company. The école was exceptionally well represented among the military high command of the government during the June Days. The commander-in-chief of the military operation, soon to become the "dictator" of the Second Republic, General Eugène Cav aignac, was an 1820 graduate of the school. General Louis de Lamoricière, Cavaignac's chief subordinate, has graduated from the école in 1826, while the commander of the tough garde mobile, General Franciade Fleurus Duviver, was an 1812 graduate. All had studied engineering at the école and all were "Africans," veterans of the wars to "pacify" Algeria.

Bruce Vanderort


Callot, Jean-Pierre. Histoire de l'Ecole Polytechniq ue. Ses legendes, ses traditions, sa gloire. Paris, [1959].

Gallaher, John G. The Students of Paris and the Revolution of 1848. Carbondale, Ill., 1980.

Pinet, G. Histoire de L'Ecole Polytechnique. Paris, 1885.

Tuffrau, P. L'Ecole Polytechnique travers l'histoire. Paris, 1928.

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© 1997 James Chastain.