French Peasants of 1848: The First “Deplorables”

One of the most salient features of recent electoral politics is the mutual incomprehension between urban progressives and rural dwellers. We saw this with the US presidential election of 2016—which gave us the term “deplorables”—as well as with the Brexit vote of the same year, and again with the US election of 2020.  Examples of this widening urban-rural divide can also easily be found in other countries.  If one restricts oneself to studying politics over the last few decades, then this seems like a new trend; in truth what we are seeing may be the return of a phenomenon nearly two centuries old.

Consider the example of the French Second Republic (1848-1852), which began with great hope for progressives, but which quickly ended in repeated electoral losses followed by a coup d’état.  For those French urban progressives—based above all in Paris—who tried to come to terms with what happened, there were many villains but one certain source of disappointment: the “deplorable” French peasantry.  I have touched on this subject previously in my recent book The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History From Antiquity to Today.[1]

The Second Republic began as a consequence of uprisings in Paris, leading to the abdication of King Louis Phillipe and the end of what has come to be called the July Monarchy.  The background to this was an economic crisis that had lasted for several years, and more immediately it involved debates about expanding the suffrage to a greater segment of the adult male population.  Between 1815 and 1848 eligibility to vote in French parliamentary elections was heavily restricted via a system known as the régime censitaire; only those who paid a significant amount of taxes (those with high incomes and wealth) could vote.[2]  This period saw a steady stream of conservative parliamentary majorities.

The abdication of King Louis-Phillipe was followed by the creation of a provisional government composed in its majority of various forms of progressives, ranging from those who sought above all to establish formal equality for all (men) and to a lesser extent to those who advocated more explicit redistributive measures to achieve real equality.  It was announced that there would be elections to form a constituent assembly that would establish a constitution for the new republic.  These would occur on the 23rdof April 1848 under a system of universal male suffrage.  There were some calls at this time from feminist clubs and newspapers, which have left a fascinating record, for women to be given political rights equal to those held by men, but these did not advance further.[3]  Election of representatives took place via list with a specific number of seats for each French “department.”  Commentators at the time saw this as a first in the western world, and it was logically assumed (or hoped) that a broad suffrage would favor those on the political left.[4]

(Translation) “This is for external enemies, but for our internal enemies, here is how we loyally oppose them.”

Sensing the need to convince the rural masses—who would now be decisive given France’s low urbanization rate—in the run up to the election various political societies and clubs from Paris sent emissaries to the provincial towns with the objective of “educating” the masses about where their true interests lay.  In a hint of things to come, in a number of cases these interventions provoked counter-demonstrations against the Parisian envoys.[5]

The end result of the constituent assembly elections was a very high rate of turnout—eighty four percent of registered voters—and a very clear defeat for the left.  Out of 800 members of the assembly, 300 were known to have royalist leanings (they were often referred to as the républicains du lendemain), and there were only 100 who affiliated themselves with some variant of democratic socialism.[6]  The assembly would be dominated by wealth holders who adhered to a relative conservative view of what a republic should be.

Once the constituent assembly established a new, republican constitution for France, the next step was to select a President for the republic, and this too would happen by universal suffrage in a single round on the 10thof December 1848.  Here again the forces of the Left would be gravely disappointed.  The election was won by Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of the original Napoléon Bonaparte, who obtained 74.2 percent of the votes cast.  Far behind were the moderate republican candidate, Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, with 19 percent of the votes and the democratic socialist candidate, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin with only 5 percent.

By the time of Louis Napoléon’s landslide electoral victory—the second stinging defeat for the Left in a matter of months—Karl Marx, who was present in Paris, had clearly had enough.  Though he chastised those on the moderate left for imposing a tax increase, he saved his fiercest words for the peasantry, and if he had thought of it he might have even called them deplorables.

December 10, 1848, was the day of the peasant insurrection…The symbol which expressed their awkward entrance into the revolutionary movement, awkwardly cunning, rascally-naïve, lumbering sublime, a premeditated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, an ingeniously-silly anachronism, a world historic waggish trick, an undecipherable hieroglyphic for the mental powers of the civilized—this symbol carried unmistakably the physiognomy of the class which, within civilization, represents barbarism.[7]

While Marx may have been unrivalled in his frustration, there were others who also had very sharp words for rural voters.  One of the best contemporary—and fascinating—accounts we have of the events of 1848 comes from an author who went by the name of “Daniel Stern.”  This was in fact a pen name used by Marie Catherine Sophie, Comtesse d’Agoult.  Born into a wealthy family and married into a noble one, Marie d’Agoult was in fact a political liberal who was supportive of the Second Republic.  At the same time, Madame d’Agoult expressed exasperation with the newly enfranchised group that she referred to as “the people of the countryside.”

The popular masses, as yet uncultured, half barbarous, and that is to say, unorganized (the very word massindicates it well) are like primitive societies, inspired and driven uniquely by sentiment and imagination.[8]

It’s clear from the above statements that those on the Left in Paris—ranging from liberal progressives to the true radicals—had a starkly negative view of the peasantry.  Marie d’Agoult, an author (pictured below), was like a member of what political scientist Katherine Cramer calls the “cultural elite” in the United States today, the individuals that produce knowledge and content yet sometimes seem incapable of listening to rural communities.[9]

Following the events of December 1848 the peasants were not finished.  After Louis-Napoléon’s victory, it was still necessary to elect a national assembly, and this did not go well for the Left either.  Held over two rounds beginning on the 13thof May 1849, the election, again by party list for each French department, resulted in a substantial majority (450 of 705 seats) for the Party of Order, a broad grouping, largely affiliated with Bonaparte, that was bound together by the idea of rejecting anything resembling socialism. The democratic socialists themselves, known at this time as the Montagne,obtained 180 seats, a sufficiently large number to strike fear in the hears of Parisian wealth holders, but nothing even close to an electoral majority.  Once again, the peasants had spoken.

There are several scholarly interpretations of why the shift to universal suffrage under the Second Republic failed to provide a majority for the Left.  It is true that the provisional government had felt itself forced into a generalized tax increase prior to the April 1848 elections, and there was also a tax on salt.[10]  Karl Marx castigated them for this.  It is also true that in some cases during this election—which took place on Easter Sunday—citizens marched with their local priest directly from church to the polling place, and clerics were not known to be supporters of the Left.  But what most modern commentators seem to settle on is that the progressives based in Paris had fundamentally lacked any real understanding of the inclinations, desires, or voting intentions of French peasants.  They instead often accused the peasants of “rural imbecility.”[11]  The great irony of this is that the progressives were the ones who established universal suffrage in the first place, and in era where three quarters of the French population lived in the countryside, this implied that peasants would be decisive.

A look at the democratic socialist (or Montagne) platform of 1849 sheds light on what went wrong for the Left.  The party did make efforts, recognizing after two defeats that the rural masses would need to be convinced, but the platform was one that did little to speak to many of the immediate needs in the countryside.  The Montagnecalled for a “social republic” that included many of the policies that liberals and progressives continue to advocate today, most notably progressive taxation.  Had it passed, this would have been a revolutionary development because throughout the nineteenth century—and even up to 1914—France maintained a strictly proportional system for taxing income and wealth.

The problem with the program presented by the Montagne was that much like rural voters today, the French peasants of 1848 seem to have been less enamored with the idea of progressive taxation than with other policies to meet their immediate needs.[12]  This could have included direct measures to address the agrarian economic crisis that had helped lead to the events of 1848 in the first place.  Key among these would have been promises to build new roads, to develop irrigation projects, and to help reform rural credit markets.[13]  The Montagnedid propose to repeal the tax increase implemented by the provisional government, but this was not enough.

One thing that is true about the democratic socialists is that they were indeed sensitive to the needs of the urban poor, of whom there were an increasing number in Paris.  We can see this in their writings.[14] What was missing was an overarching message that could have simultaneously motivated the less fortunate in both rural and urban areas to vote for the Left.  This shows how even in an environment where racism was not an issue that divided low income groups, as has long been the case in the United States, it can be very hard to put together a reform program that captures the imagination of both urban and rural dwellers.

Things only got worse for the French Left after 1849 as on December 2nd1851, Louis Napoléon, facing the end of his electoral term, launched a coup d’état by dissolving the National Assembly.  He followed this up by giving himself the title of Emperor.  The Second Republic was over.

It would of course be overly simplistic to suggest that the events of the French Second Republic provide a template for what might happen to other republics today.  All Western democracies are considerably more urbanized, and so the rural vote is not as numerically dominant as it once was.  It is true though that in some countries—most notably the United States—institutions give disproportionate weight to the rural vote. Absent constitutional change, this is a fact that progressives will have to reckon with.  As the rural-urban divide reemerges as a political cleavage in so many countries, we might want to ask whether we could understand it better by studying its initial emergence nearly two centuries ago.



[1]See The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History From Antiquity to Today.  Princeton University Press. 2020.  pp.274-276.

[2]See Louis Miginiac. Le régime censitaire en France, spécialement sous la monarchie de juillet. Paris: Librairie Nouvelle de droit et de jurisprudence. 1900.

[3]On this point, see in particular the fascinating contemporary newspaper La Politique des Femmesno.1 19 June 1848, available in the Gale Making of the Modern World database.

[4]On this point see Daniel Stern (Madame d’Agoult). Histoire de le Révolution de 1848.  Paris: Calmann-Lévy 1879. Original edition 1850-1853 Vol.II p.192.

[5]Philippe Vigier. La Seconde République. Paris: PUF, 1983

[6]See Vigier 1983.

[7]Karl Marx. The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850. Socialist Labor Party of America. 2018

[8]See Daniel Stern (Madame d’Agoult). vol.3 p.317.

[9]See also her 2016 book The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. University of Chicago Press

[10]Inès Maurat. La Deuxième République. Paris: Fayard. 1987. p.327

[11]Philippe Vigier. “La République à la conquête des paysans, les paysans à la conquête du suffrage universel.” Politix.15:7-12, 1991.

[12]See George Fasel. French Historical Studies.The Wrong Revolution: French Republicanism in 1848.” 8:654-677. 1974.

[13]See Fasel 1974.

[14]See Fasel 1974.