My Book Review: A Social History of France in the 19th Century by Christophe Charle

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Christophe Charle provides history students with an up-to-date summary of his and other social historians’ findings  on the social history of France.  Unlike recent books on this subject by Gerard Noiriel and Annie Moulin which treat the workers and peasants of French society, he gives new perspectives on all social groups including the nobility, bourgeoisie, elites, middle classes, and petty bourgeoisie.  He examines the dynamics and relationships within these groups from 1815 through the Belle Epoque of the early 1900’s with direct contact with documents and secondary sources.  While Charle respects the views of popular historian Ernest Labrousse and his Marxist interpretations of French historiography, the purpose of this book is to examine the social microhistory and the monographs of specific groups which do not fit into the Marxist and Labrousseian perspective.

Charle does argue in favor of gathering new data from the period following the Revolution  including information on the economic and class struggles restoring autonomy to the intermediate groups, the State as a social force, the old social relationships, and the differences in geographical areas.

The structure is very formal and technical using a detailed outline to show the distinctions of two social models: the Notables (1815-1870) and the Democratic Society (1870-1914).  Charle uses secondary sources and some primary sources of statistics, maps, graphs, and timelines to validate his arguments in each section. Image

In the first section of the Notables, Charle examines the effect of the French Revolution on society as a whole.  He contrasts the old, church protected way of thinking with the new, liberal, individualistic order.  The influence of the Ancien Regime was still impacting the level of fear among the notables.  This prevented them from evolving and they therefore became isolated.  They had a great mistrust of the working class which had rapidly increased because of the weakened economy.  Charle cites Louis Chevalier stating,“Crisis caused by high prices and periods of unemployment extended this deep-seated poverty to almost half of the urban population..,the number of victims of chronic poverty in Paris at 350,000 out of the 750,000 inhabitants”(24).

Under Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign during the Second Empire, the State control became stronger.  He had a great influence over the democratic-socialists in the rural areas and provided jobs for the peasants through the railroads, mines, quarries helping them to become the “nouveau riche”.  Charle concludes the first section stating that “There was in the background the nostalgia for some forms of the paternalism of the Ancien regime among the governed and the fear of what tomorrow might hold among the workers, whose position had deteriorated considerably in the Revolution”(27).  However, the  period following the Revolution led to a rise of the middle class through a capitalist economy, an increase in education and a strong emergence of a working class.  These improvements helped develop a ‘democratic society’ which Charle examines in the second section of the book.

Charle continues by examening the Third Republic, in which a ‘democratic’ society began to emerge and therefore leading to a rural exodus of peasants.  Many were craftsmen who fled to the urban industry where there was higher pay.  Charle gives a new term to this social class, “For the qualified petty bourgeoisie, minor officials or members of the liberal professions practicing in the smallest towns or market towns (capacités) Guizot’s advice ‘Get rich by hard work and saving’ was nothing more than an illusory perspective”(33).   Charle also uses the Malthusianism argument to show the reduction in the population during this time, “These circles were also characterized by their Malthusian precocity: in Paris in 1847, 22.2 per cent remained unmarried and the majority of those who started families had one child at the most”(34).

In addition, the term “employee” changed during the Third Republic and became the new ‘proletariat’.  Previously this term was used to refer to an employee of the State.  However, after 1870, the term was used for employees of department stores, the railway, steel industry workers, and other positions where they would be ‘in contact’ with others.  “He [the employee] was the most complex social product of the new society which came to maturity at the end of the century. That is why there were so many employees in Paris, where the number of ‘white collar workers’ rose from 126,000 in 1866 to 352,000 in 1911”(147).  Charle also shows a renewed emphasis on education with professional training of teachers and liberal professions.

The Bourgeoisies of this democratic society became land-owners, industrialists and agriculturalists helping to develop the “self-made man” with country houses, châteaux and domestic staff.  “The spread of socialist ideology tended to make the economic bourgeoisie the most important group in the general view of contemporaries, since it was the workers’ enemy, the peasant’s parasite, or the author of the downfall of part of the middle class”(188). This also produced the Elites of Parliament and Intellectuals such as Pasteur, Berthelot and Zola.  These new bourgeoisie replaced the notables of the Second Empire and the working class became more divided in geography, mobility and budgets.  Work conditions and wages improved in part due to an increase in worker’s strikes as well as employer provisions of clinics, organized leisure activity, pensions and housing.

In the general conclusion, Charle restates his thesis by summarizing the dynamics and relationships showing a convergence of the new Republican urban and rural working classes in opposition to the Church and the old notables.  “Republican ethics put less emphasis on wealth than on saving and a respectable affluence, since the political advantages linked to wealth had disappeared”(263).  The general conditions of social life improved.  The improvement of education “destroyed the classical foundations of the earlier domination by the notables…”(271).   Bonapartism won the support of the notables and peasants and decreased confrontations, increased geographical mobility, improved education.  These capacités included the new bourgeoisie, middle classes as well as the elite working class and the other “petty bourgeois model of social mobility…was only able to survive as a lasting social ideal because it was based on a cultural mutation specific to France in the early days: the Malthusianism of the rural and middle classes.

Charle, Christophe. A Social History of France in the 19th Century.  Oxford: Berg, 1994

Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)

 

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