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Rural Society and French Politics: Boulangism and the Dreyfus Affair, 1886-1900

Rural Society and French Politics: Boulangism and the Dreyfus Affair, 1886-1900

by Michael Burns

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This book will be recognized as a unique contribution to the field of French political and sociocultural history.


This book will be recognized as a unique contribution to the field of French political and sociocultural history.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
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9.10(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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Rural Society and French Politics

Boulangism and the Dreyfus Affair 1886-1900

By Michael Burns


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05423-0



* * *

Parce que les paysans ont cessé de danser la bourrée et qu'ils abandonnent leur vieille blouse bleue, il ne faut pas nous figurer que tout est changé.


On a May market day in 1895 socialists in the Isère mining town of La Mure held a meeting to attract visitors from the countryside. Addressing 400 inhabitants "de tous environs," a deputy began his political appeal with "Vous paysans." There it ended. The audience jeered, shouted, hissed, and ignored all attempts to restore order. The deputy and his colleagues tried to calm the crowd but, says the mayor, the meeting degenerated into a ludicrous bouffonnerie and had to be quickly terminated. The mayor might have held a political or personal grudge against these visiting socialists — the audience reaction might have been less farcical than depicted — but it is the truncated introduction which concerns us here. What type of rural inhabitant attended the meeting? Unhappily, the evidence hides more than it reveals. Given the nature of the Isère, most were probably small-holding farmers come to market. But did field hands, domestics, artisans, wine-growers, or peasants who worked in the local mining industry also attend? Was the politician's inflection condescending — the offhand slur of an imperious deputy — or was "Vous paysans" uttered straightforwardly, even sympathetically, and still to no avail? Crucial questions, never to be answered. But who were these folks "de tous environs"?

Tidy definitions of the countryside are impossible. One finds many blurred distinctions, many exceptions, to the strict "city versus country" rule at the end of the century: butchers in the inner city of Limoges maintained ancient traditions commonly associated with atavistic peasants, while workers in outlying faubourgs, many of them recent rural migrants, developed a class consciousness and led the way to modern political organization. Daniel Halévy, traveling through the Centre, mentioned those towns — "half urban, half village-like" — which were set off from isolated peasant hamlets, yet removed from bustling provincial cities. Industrialization and urbanization in the Lyon region did not completely destroy rural industries in outlying bourgs and villages; on the contrary, as in Limoges, there was an important interlacing of the rural and urban industrial worlds. Throughout the century France consisted of many "cities without borders," many "towns still countrified."

Marx characterized the separation of city and country as the first division of a population into two classes; and, with Engels, said that the bourgeoisie "agglomerated the population, centralized means of production, and concentrated property in a few hands." Political centralization followed, and "independent, or but loosely connected provinces ... became lumped together into one nation...." State centralization and the growth of large-scale industrial capitalism were two of the most important and pervasive motive forces of change in the nineteenth century. Yet we shall see that the state could centralize, industry could grow, and urban and rural populations could proletarianize without destroying crucial aspects of rural culture. In much of France, despite blurred distinctions, the town-versus-country conflict had not yet been "confined to historical museums."

The size, location, and economic activity of a rural community helped determine the impact the locality had on immediate and nearby residents. "Proto-urban" centers — bourgs and market towns in rural regions — facilitated the spread of Montagnard politics in 1851; and, at the end of the century, new ideas and political movements, still traveled more easily through nucleated communities. Peasants who became porcelain workers in the faubourgs of Limoges, for instance, could be distinguished from their distant countrymen in outlying agricultural hamlets. Topography continued to be an essential factor in shaping human differences, much as it had been 300 years before in the Mediterranean region so exquisitely painted by Fernand Braudel.

In the late nineteenth century both contemporary travelers and peasants stressed a difference between villages and the world beyond. Emilie Carles in the Hautes-Alpes emphasized the tightly knit world in which she lived, and Emile Guillaumin in the Allier reckoned that "one can divide rural people into two categories: those of the region and those of the village. ... Personalities of a region" who travel extensively and often; "petits gens" of a commune who rarely venture far from home. Auguste Santerre, a laborer who worked on large, sophisticated farms in the north, said that he "would like to see something other than the fields. ... I was born in 1889 and since my childhood I have only seen the fields. And still it is the soil that I gaze upon, because I hardly have time to admire the landscape." In the twentieth century, peasants working in a forest clearing did not know an area less than ten kilometers away. They were aware of the village where they sold wood twenty kilometers down the road, but "outside a specific line, they were unaware of space."

On rural fields and roads conceptions of space and time differed from those on city streets and in urban factories. In agricultural communities frenetic work was concentrated in a few summer and fall months, and the rest of the year was reserved for no less back-breaking maintenance, repairs, feeding of livestock, and sporadic oases of leisure. This "milieu naturel" contrasted within the "milieu technique" in cities and industrial towns where artificial schedules replaced natural cycles, indoor work shifts supplanted dawn-to-dusk labor, and seasons lost their significance (though the poor were no less cold in urban tenements than in rural shacks). Leisure industries and fashion designers found new uses for sunshine and snow. Land, the essential ingredient of agricultural life, was bought, used, and sold in the city with little — or at least different — attachment. Zola's avaricious Beauce peasants displayed heartless greed for land at the end of the century, but this had evolved in a unique time and place, shaped by legacies of morcellement and intense family rivalries which we shall explore in more detail below. While town and country moved closer together, the different ways in which peasants and bourgeois lived and worked — including how they addressed politics — survived as the new century approached.

Much has been written about rural exodus and the economic crises which fueled the flight from the countryside; about decaying villages like Chaudan in the Hautes-Alpes with its closed inns, empty stables, abandoned fields, and, in this case, families exchanging property for land in Africa. "The village of Chaudan will soon disappear and become an African colony." A strong and numerous peasantry sent not only food to the table but (many believed) right-minded politicians to the Chamber, and these decades were marked by entreaties, as Jules Méline put it, to "return to the land." The Georgics had been written to hold peasants to the soil, and late nineteenth-century appeals waxed as enthusiastic (if not as rhapsodic) as Virgil's. Still, they had little effect. Rural decline provided an important theme for doomsaying politicians, including, as we shall see, Boulangists and, later, anti-Semites. But in order to grasp the nature of rural communes in the 1880s and 90s — and how their inhabitants might or might not react to Boulangism or the Dreyfus Affair — we must know more about who left, who remained, and most importantly, how the latter viewed national politics.

Traditional accounts of rural exodus and depopulation rarely venture beyond sentimental laments about the world we have lost, and many overstress the glittering attractions of the city, especially fin de siècle Paris. The capital, a "modern Babylon" for Stendhal's characters earlier in the century, stands as a beacon of opportunity in the literature of peasant exodus. Most country people, however, never got that far. Only detailed regional studies can adequately explain complex migration patterns and the forces behind local economic and demographic changes in the countryside.

In general, both emigration and low or falling human fertility led to rural decline. Paul Hohenberg tells us that the excess of births over deaths fell from "some 60,000 per year in 1876-81 to minus 8,000 in 1891-96 in fifty-eight departments covering most of the campagne." Enclaves of high or stable fertility remained, but the falling birth rate which so worried contemporary observers was — no less than emigration — a striking and pervasive feature of rural France.

Meanwhile, new roads and railroads, facilitating communications and spreading urban goods and services to country people, helped change the structure of French agriculture. In Calvados, as in other areas, railroads and the competition of new markets meant that farmers lost their age-old "geographic privileges." Distant economic centers became "more and more indispensable" and eclipsed local markets. This development, combined with rural deindustrialization, accelerated exodus.

While poly culture remained the base of French agriculture, increasing numbers of peasants in Normandy, Gascony, Dauphine and elsewhere responded to new economic pressures by turning to animal husbandry. "He who marries has a lovely day," said peasants near Toulouse, "He who kills a pig has a beautiful week." Livestock raising and dairy farming saved many former cereal growers who felt the impact of a declining labor force and national and international competition (linked, again, to the railroads). The Paris basin — that rich expanse of agricultural land where thousands of hectares of wheat spread across the horizon interrupted only by a windmill or the spires of a cathedral like Chartres — the Paris basin had long been a cereal-producing region serving the capital. But it could not become the major commercial "bread basket" that it is the twentieth century until structural transformations reshaped French agriculture. Although the processes of mechanization after 1900, and remembrement after 1945, go far beyond the scope of this study, it is important to note that the origins of these structural changes date from the late nineteenth century, and that rural France in the 1880s and 90s was not a static society made up exclusively of decaying villages and unemployed agricultural laborers in search of the first train out.

In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, agricultural workers did not always move en masse to cities, towns and industrial centers. Many, perhaps most, did, but along with village artisans suffering dislocations brought by large-scale industrialization, significant numbers of rural workers acquired land and became peasant farmers. Small holdings of five to thirty hectares increased in number down to the last decade of the century, above all in the West and South. The declining number of large farms is associated with a fall in the number of agricultural laborers, which suggests that while many workers moved to cities and towns, others bought or rented land. Again, the French countryside, like French history, is a landscape of exceptions. There is no doubt that rural populations declined rapidly, and specific examples of that decline will be presented in the next chapter. Broadly speaking, however, many longtime rural residents also stayed on the land (at least temporarily) to pursue agricultural activities which, in turn, had been reshaped by the growth and impact of new communications networks and competition.

The "modernization" of rural France brought by the "agencies of change" so expertly outlined by Eugen Weber, led to an ironic consequence in the final decades of the century: the "ruralization" of modern France. Philippe Pinchemel's comments on Picardy apply elsewhere:

villages became exclusively agricultural communities with, here and there, a merchant and a few other non-agricultural workers; this impoverishment of the socio-professional structure, this 'ruralization' of the countryside, is in fact recent, dating from the second half of the nineteenth century.

Early Third Republic observers, and many historians, oversimplify the scenario when they describe tidal waves of "peasants" sweeping out of isolated villages into industrial centers. Exodus had indeed become a "neurotic worry," but working farmers very often stayed on the land while many of their neighbors — rural bourgeois, artisans, shopkeepers, workers in small industries, and others — left. Pinchemel continues:

Rural communities where cultivateurs ... lived in a variegated social structure alongside artisans, factory workers, and merchants, were eclipsed by villages comprised almost exclusively of cultivateurs and agricultural workers; the evolution led, in a sense, to a simplification of the social structure, to a "ruralization."

Southwest of Picardy in the Norman countryside, and farther south still in the hinterlands of Toulouse, depressed land prices at the end of the century prompted many rural bourgeois to sell out to local peasants and, to a lesser degree, agricultural workers. A "hierarchical structure," says Roger Brunet speaking for others, was replaced by "an egalitarian community" dominated by small landowners.

The decline of rural industry, along with the type of exodus described above, helped create "an agrarian world which resembled the 'traditional' countryside...." Traditional in the sense that agriculture dominated while rural industry diminished; yet far from traditional in light of widespread advances in education, new roads and railroads, and a generally improved quality of life. The heterogeneous villages of 1800 or even 1850 — with their rich patchwork of rural notables, notaries, artisans, peasants, and laborers — had become more exclusively agricultural societies. This "pastoralization" of rural France — its economic and demographic transformation — had important cultural and political consequences which would shape the mode and timber of peasant reactions to Parisian events.

Peasants who stayed on the land were, on the average, older than town- and city-dwellers. A mayor in the Lot in 1889 grieved at the sight of youths setting off for the city, leaving, he reported, villages filled with old people and children. A decade later, the socialist Emile Vandervelde described a void created by the flight of the young and the strong: "only the aged remain." In Picardy the "departure of young people" had a severe effect on the birthrate in the countryside; it was a period marked by an "aging of the rural population." Exodus from the Southwest also drained rural regions of young adults, and led to an overall population decline. In some areas only a "few good old folks" (quelques bons vieux) worked the land. The next chapter will offer more examples of this "aging" process, but these descriptions and others confirm that the emigration of young men and women became more and more frequent between 1870 and 1914. There were exceptions of course — septugenarians and juveniles did not completely overrun peasant communes- — but, beyond doubt, the young and active left the countryside in great numbers. Fictional characters in nineteenth-century Bildungsromane, newly arrived in Paris from the provinces, had thousands of real-life (and more humble) counterparts: young country people moving to cities and towns in search of a better life. "The loss of manpower is killing agriculture," warned a Norman peasant in 1884. "If workers were less assured of being aided in case of unemployment or sickness in the city, they would not desert villages as often. As it stands now, very few young men return among us after their military service: they are staying in the cities."

Those who remained on the land were not doddering illiterates condemned to a relentlessly static life; isolated villages in the Massif Central, Alps, or Upper Var were exceptions (though no less important for that). Yet, in agricultural villages and hamlets throughout France, the memories and habits of the predominant older generations, less challenged by youthful harbingers of change, would continue to influence the actions and reactions of rural people. The "routine" of peasant life, said Marc Bloch, is formed and perpetuated by grandparents tending and instructing children while parents work (or move away); in this way, traditions persist. When older people abound and many young adults depart, a society will reflect the world view of the dominant generational unit. Considered along with the geographic and economic distinctions of agricultural communities, and the ongoing routine of rural life, we can see that changes would come slowly, skirmishing as they must with entrenched conventions.


Excerpted from Rural Society and French Politics by Michael Burns. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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