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French Peasants under the Third Republic

France in the eighties and nineties of the 19th century was not a seething mass of political experiments, but a democracy of peasants and small shopkeepers, cautious and averse to change. The mass of the French population was essentially conservative, and wished, as far as possible, to maintain the status quo. The French peasantry was a force without which no French Government could think of counting. It was not one that appeared on the surface of French politics, but it was always a directing force beneath.

Some provinces and districts, those where the Church of Rome has retained strong influence, remained Royalist, or might, though a Bonaparte would stand a better popular chance with a portion of the town middle classes, yet welcome one — Brittany, Vendee, parts of Normandy. Over almost all the remainder of French soil the conservative French peasant was a Conservative Republican. He looked to no Monarchical or Autocratic restoration to improve his lot; he was shrewd and could see well that he would gain nothing by any change that way. The Republic was accepted on the countryside as the stable, natural and logical regime of France. That more than anything else made the Third Republic secure.

Before the French Revolution, the life of the peasantry was, for the most part, a life of toil, misery, and filth. "Certain ferocious animals," wrote La Bruyere, just a hundred years before the Revolution, "are to be seen in the rural districts, males and females, swarthy, livid, and sunburnt, and attached to the soil, which they dig with indomitable stubbornness. They have something like articulate speech, and faces resembling those of human beings; and, in fact, they are men. At night they retire to dens, where they live on black bread, water, and roots. They save other people the trouble of sowing, ploughing, and reaping, and thus deserve at least not to lack the bread which they themselves have produced."

Misery held a carnival in France. The despotism and fatal wars of Louis XIV. had produced their effects. During the latter part of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth the population went backwards, and then came to a standstill for a long time. One-fourth of the soil lay uncultivated, and agriculture returned to the methods of the Middle Ages. Except in Flanders and Alsatia the fields lay fallow one year in three, and, in many places, every second year. Bad agricultural implements; no iron plows; wooden axles to the carts, and wooden tires to the wheels; little live-stock and little manure. Hence the crops were small, and the dread of starvation constant. How to live until the next harvest was the all-important question for the peasants.

The feudal land system was general in Europe up to the French Revolution of 1789. The outbreak of that year was chiefly due to the fact that the French farmers were landless, that they worked chiefly for the benefit of the aristocracy and of the Church, who were the principal landowners. The distribution of land possessed by the few among the many converted the French peasants, whose wretchedness and backwardness was notorious, into prosperous, progressive, and contented men. The French peasants who had been inclined towards violence and revolution became the most conservative element in the State. Henceforward French revolutionaries were to be found nearly only among the propertyless masses of the big towns, and especially of Paris.

The Revolution polarized, as it were, the opposing elements within the nation. But this absolute opposition was more theoretical than real. The vast majority of the people were conservative without fanaticism. Private property was one of the "sacred rights" recognized by the Declaration, and death was later decreed against whoever should dare to propose an "agrarian law." The sale of "national property," composed of the confiscated domains of the clergy and of emigrating nobles, changed the course of the Revolution, and by some writers is held to be the whole of the Revolution. The most numerous and most conservative classes, the peasantry and the lower bourgeoisie, had at last free access to the ownership of land, their immemorial dream.

The French peasant, owner of the soil, was "Anti-Clerical" because he was Republican, usually for no other reason. He was not "Anti-Clerical" because he was irreligious, though he might be irreligious; he was "Anti-Clerical" because the Church meant "Clericalism." "Clericalism" was an active policy, and that policy meant the upset of the Republican Government, and because finally "Clericalism" made for upheaval and the Republic stood for conservatism. It would be a great mistake to imagine that 'Anti-Clericalism in the French village means war on religion. In some villages, in the Ile de France, in Champagne, but in very few, the peasant does not get married in church and does not have his children baptized. Compared with the rest of the country these are extraordinary exceptions. They were not a lovely folk, these ever-toiling French peasants. The long struggle for land and money prematurely aged them, and the wizened look of the inveterate miser was on their careworn features. How they loved the soil. Irish "land-hunger" was nothing to it. These French peasants scraped and scraped and toiled and toiled, to add a foot of ground to their property. Of course they were owners of their land, not tenants; and dearly do they love it and pinch themselves to increase it. A farmer close by drew a rente of something like 100,000 fra. a year; yet there he is, working away in his fields like any ploughman, dressed in his worst clothes, as intent on gain as ever.

On the high road dwelled quite a rich man: yet he and his wife and four children lived in three wretched rooms like a labourer's family, without the least pretension to comfort. Of course, there is scarcely any distinction of classes. Every one is Monsieur or Madame; and Madame often wears no hat, and throws but a shawl over her shoulders, rich as she may be, and fully prepared to give her daughter an excellent dot. Wealth does not bring comfort, any more than honest toil brings a merry soul—in France. At work or play you never hear the jolly song of the ploughman or the whistle of his boy. Everybody goes to his work solemnly and gloomily. It was a rare thing to hear a servant singing over her work.

The development of popular education was by far the most creditable achievement of the Third Republic. From 1880 to 1882 Jules Ferry had a series of laws enacted which made elementary education gratuitous, compulsory, and non-sectarian. In twenty years illiteracy was almost wiped out; for a country predominantly rural, France compares favourably with any European nation. These laws were by no means anti-religious. Moral teaching was to be based on the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the sacredness of duty. A day was set apart in which children could receive religious instruction from their respective priests and ministers. But the Republican party had not forgotten that the clergy had been their worst enemy from 1849 to 1877.

The French peasant was the backbone of the French soil, as the French bourgeois is the backbone of French cities. The French peasant was often not a lovable person; perhaps the genuine one never is to any outsider. He is was ruthlessly hard and dry as any French story-teller has made him out to be. Ease, open-handedness, good cheer, he had probably less than any other countryman in the world. In his love for the soil he was sometimes scarcely human, and his field may be more to him than mother, wife or child. But he had even so a grandeur, a grim grandeur, and a national significance for France that even French writers had not described, seeing him from too near.

A zeal to modernize and cast out the perceived demons of ignorance and superstition was characteristic of domestic republicans. In 1884, the French Ministry of Public Education declared: "It must be admitted first of all that, of all the civilised nations, our is one of those which cares least about cleanliness . . . " In the same vein, one French physician asserted that "French people are naturally dirty". Both these statements reflected what seems to have been, up to the mid-twentieth century, a longstanding French preference for dirt and strong odors. Indeed, among the nineteenth-century French peasantry dirt was considered a disease preventive, while strong bodily odors were associated with sexual potency. The French remained "the unwashed" not just from cultural preference but also for practical reasons related to scarcity and expense of water and badly heated dwellings.

During the nineteenth century water evolved from a luxury item for the affluent classes to an essential commodity required by all. As France became secularized, democratized, and industrialized, so did water. To combat the French prejudice against bathing and washing, physician-hygienists preached the gospel of hygienism, emphasizing public health and private hygiene. Hygienists encouraged the use of water to combat, first, disease-causing miasms and, later, Pasteurian microbes. Hygienism also served broader sociopolitical aims. Hygiene-incorporating the "cleanliness is next to godliness" philosophy-was one response to the nineteenth-century "social question": how were the lower classes, urban and rural, to be managed and controlled-indeed civilized? The answer, according to physician-hygienists and Third Republic politicians, was "Make them like us!" or embourgeoisement. Hygienists would inculcate the habits, values, and morals of the middle class into the lower social orders. In this way physicians and educators could carry out la mission civilisatrice to the barbarians and savages within metropolitan France.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:45:13 ZULU