A CRAVING for justice is one of the strongest instincts of the human soul. Great catastrophes remain unintelligible to us until we succeed in considering them as deserved retributions. Especially is this true when the main sufferers are, not individuals, but large aggregations of men, armies, political parties, nations. When, in 1870, the military power of France was shattered to splinters by the armies of Germany ; when one province after another was invaded by the victorious hosts ; when the brilliant and proud capital that considered itself the light of the world, la ville - lumière, was, before being compelled by hunger to surrender to the enemy, separated for months from the rest of the world, and the world continued to move, both the suddenness and the size of the catastrophe led many to believe that the tree which seemed all but rooted out by the storm was wholly rotten, and had no longer any power of recuperation. Only a thoroughly corrupt country, so it appeared, would thus pass from dazzling splendor to the blackness of such disaster, and history teaches what becomes of such countries. Was France to go the way of Babylon, of Greece, of the Byzantine Empire ? Many had no hesitation in answering that it was. Not in Germany alone, the victorious country, was the doom of France held to be simply the deserved and final retribution of a career of wickedness. In England, Dr. Macleod, in the presence of the court, preached a sermon in which he described the awful fate that is sure to overwhelm nations when they wander from the ways of righteousness ; and Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that although no nation was named, everybody understood the celebrated preacher to be speaking of “ poor, unhappy France.” Had any one at that time drawn a picture of what France now is, described the country as prosperous and strong, enjoying a degree of political liberty that it had never known, in possession of a commanding position in the world of art, science, and letters, peaceful and yet formidably equipped for war, as earnest and as successful as ever in the pursuit of everything that tends to national greatness, and had he said that such a picture would be a true representation of France before a quarter of a century had elapsed, he would have created serious doubts as to his mental sanity. The general belief was that France would frantically seize the first opportunity that presented itself of rushing again into war, and would then be overtaken by new defeats which would result in an end of her national existence. Moreover, the Parisian insurrection which followed hard upon the conclusion of the war, even before the German troops had left the vicinity of the city, led many to believe that no new foreign war would be necessary; that internal feuds would be sufficient to rend the country asunder, and forever blot its name out of the list of the controlling forces of modern civilization.
Even to-day it would not be quite unnatural, perhaps, for some superficial observer to entertain doubts as to the permanent character of France’s magnificent recovery. On the whole, what is most striking, at first sight, in the country’s improved condition is wealth and artistic supremacy. Wealth is not strength. Carthage regained her wealth so rapidly after the second Punic war that Rome was fairly frightened. But the third Punic war quickly showed how little real strength lay behind the recovered splendor of Rome’s African rival. Neither is artistic and literary supremacy a necessary sign of strength. Did not Greek art and literature conquer Rome after Rome had totally overcome Greece ?
“ Græcia capta ferum victorem cepit, et artes Intulit agresti Latio.”
The present paper is an inquiry into the nature of the changes that have taken place in France since l’année terrible (1870-71). It is thought that the result of such an inquiry will be to demonstrate that the disasters of that year were the result of temporary circumstances much more than of permanent faults of the French character, and that the present condition of France is due to a healthier tone pervading nearly every branch of national life and activity.
He who would cure a disease must first know its nature, and, if possible, its cause. That France at the time of her disasters was in a diseased condition no one could deny. There were some who believed that the disease was purely political. Some Republicans thought that the proclamation of a republic was a sufficient guarantee of returning national health, and most of the Royalists insisted that the first step towards recovery must be the reëstablishment of a monarchy. The wisest statesman that France then possessed, Adolphe Thiers, scouted both ideas, and said, as soon as put at the head of affairs, to Royalists and Republicans, “We have something more important to do than to make a constitution : we must reorganize France.” Here was the disease with which France was afflicted : she was disorganized, and therefore threatened with dissolution. The search after purely personal gratification had been for wellnigh a quarter of a century almost the sole occupation of nearly every class of society, and impending disruption was the result.
Fortunately, the heart of the nation was sound. We are never so conscious of our love for those we love, never so ready to show them our devotion, as when threatened with loss of them. The French still loved their country, and a startling proof of that love was given when the French government issued the first of the two great loans destined to provide the funds needed for the payment of the enormous war indemnity required of France by Germany. That the government would find capitalists ready to lend it money at six per cent nobody doubted, but what caused universal surprise was that the whole amount required, a billion dollars, and even more, came out of the hoarding-places of the French peasantry. The whole world stood aghast at such a demonstration of national wealth, and a feeling of admiration began to take the place of the pity which had filled the souls of the best friends France had. The moral phenomenon, however, was still more remarkable than the financial one. The peasants who had taken their money to the tax receivers had had no idea that they were loaning it, that they would receive their half-yearly interest as punctually as the soldier receives his pay. They had no ideas of investment. All they had trusted thus far was coin and land. They knew no other forms of property. They were told that money was needed in order to get the German armies out of the country, and they brought all they had saved. Great was their surprise when they discovered that even from a business point of view they could have made no better use of their money.
But more than money was required from the citizens of France. The collapse of the military establishment of the Bonapartist Empire made a reorganization of the army one of the most urgent questions. Compulsory military service was established; no explanation was needed to make the nation accept it. On this point it may be said that the people went ahead of their representatives. Grievous indeed would public disappointment have been if the National Assembly had failed to proclaim the duty of every able-bodied Frenchman to prepare himself in time of peace for any labors, any sacrifice, that might be required of him at other times.
Since that time, the money tax, the blood tax, have both been ungrudgingly paid by France. The French budget of expenditure has now reached the appalling total of thirty-seven hundred million francs, and yet no country pays its taxes more regularly, more cheerfully, than France. Several times the military burdens of the nation have had to be increased, and yet there is no movement whatever of emigration from the country due to a desire to escape military service.
In none of these acts, or series of acts, however, was there implied any acknowledgment of past errors, and without such acknowledgment no serious recuperation is ever possible. When we turn to the policy of France towards popular education, the confession is not simply implied ; it is openly made. “We were defeated by the German schoolmaster,” was a saying commonly heard between 1870 and 1875; and many also recalled Jules Simon’s famous words, uttered several years before the war: “ The nation that has the best schools is the first nation in the world. If it is not so to-day, it will be so tomorrow.” And thus the reform of popular education was undertaken. It was a work of no small difficulty. The nation was not unanimous. The Catholic Church resisted the enactment of any law making education compulsory. It felt that the public schools were gradually becoming emancipated from its influence, and well understood that compulsory education would, in most cases, mean education in the public schools. Then, also, there were financial obstacles. The burdens of the people had been immensely increased by the necessity of meeting the interest on the enormous debt created by the payment of the war indemnity to Germany, and of supporting the great military establishment considered as the sole safeguard of national independence. Every obstacle was overcome. A whole system of laws was enacted, which surrounded the educational service with every kind of protection. Compulsory education was decreed for both sexes. Every village had to have its own schools ; if too poor to build them, money would be loaned and subsidies granted by the state. Better pay was given to the teachers ; normal schools were erected in every department; the schoolmasters were granted representation in the various educational councils, including the Conseil Supérieur de l’Instruction Publique, which is presided over by no less a person than the Minister of Public Education ; finally, education in the public schools was made wholly secular. From this brief record of the perseverance shown by the Republican party in the accomplishment of its most serious task it would be unjust to omit the names of the men who led in the fight and solved most of the problems, Léon Gambetta, Paul Bert, and Jules Ferry.
So much for popular education. Great and arduous as it was, however, the work was undoubtedly helped by several circumstances. First, free compulsory secular education had been for a long time, even before the fall of Napoleon III., one of the war cries of the Republican party. The campaign carried on for its establishment derived no small encouragement from the fact that behind it lay the whole set of traditions of the party to which France, in 1876, decided to entrust the care of her political destinies. Then the opposition of the Church, though in many instances throwing local obstacles in the path of the new system, on the whole provided its advocates with a powerful weapon. The Church had been unwise enough to link its fortunes with those of the anti-Republican factions. In doing so, it had entirely misunderstood the temper of the country and overestimated its own influence. The country was determined to have a republic, and ecclesiastical opposition only weakened the Church itself. It not only weakened the Church ; it strengthened all that the Church opposed. The peasants of France were far from clear as to the desirability of free compulsory secular education ; but when told that the Church opposed not only the Republic, but also the educational policy of the Republican party, they concluded that it opposed that policy only because its success would strengthen the Republic, and their support was won for a policy the full scope of which they were far from realizing.
But other educational reforms were needed, very little if at all inferior in importance to the establishment of a good system of primary education. The condition of higher education in France during the reign of Napoleon III. was far from creditable to the country. Hardly any foreign students considered it worth their while to go to a French university for the purpose of studying philology, literature, philosophy, history. In most cases, all they would find there was a chance, at best, to hear some brilliant lecture full of witticisms, of well-turned sentences, some gem of crisp academic oratory; but for thorough drill in any sort of literary, philological, or historical investigation, it was well understood that they would, in some small German town like Giessen for instance, find their wants much better attended to than at Lyons, Bordeaux, or Toulouse ; better, perhaps, than in Paris itself. In the scientific and professional faculties things were undoubtedly better ; there were fine laboratories under the management of great, chemists and physicists, there were great law and medical schools, but the spirit of original investigation, which may be called the soul of university education, received on the whole very little encouragement. One man, Victor Duruy,1 the celebrated historian, had indeed, during his tenure as Minister of Public Education. tried to arouse the French universities ; but he had been understood by only a few, and although allowed to found sundry institutions intended to bring about an improvement in methods, such as the École Pratique des Hautes Études, he had been unable to provide them with adequate means
Here the reform was difficult of accomplishment. It is never very easy to give to a democracy an appreciation of the importance of branches of education of which only the few can directly avail themselves. Moreover, enormous sums were already absorbed by the payment of the debt, the reorganization of the army and navy, and the development of primary education. Finally, there was something galling to the pride of the nation in having its intellectual leaders represent as totally inadequate a system of instruction which undoubtedly fitted in with some of the most permanent traits of the national character. To have been beaten by the Germans was bad enough ; it was worse still to have to admit that ces lourds Allemands led France in intellectual pursuits as well as in military organization. The acknowledgment was made, however. Year after year grants of money were asked from the Chambers, with the plainly expressed purpose of raising the French universities to the level of those in Germany. Young French scholars and professors were sent across the Rhine to study the university system of the conquering country, and the methods of her teachers. Many more went in the same direction on their own account, and returned home to do missionary work in the good cause. Once in a while, some timid voice would try to bring forward the characteristic argument that German universities were well enough for the Germans, but that the brilliant Frenchman would only be a loser if he tried to assimilate the methods of his duller and plodding rival. The answer at once came from those best entitled to be heard that true patriotism required an acknowledgment of national weaknesses, as well as the courage to go to work to remedy them. So great courage had its reward. The grants for higher education were increased fourfold, new buildings were erected, new libraries established, new laboratories opened; the older institutions woke up from their prolonged, slumber, and entered upon a new era of development. Hosts of young teachers demonstrated that German thoroughness of research could be united with the merits of clear exposition and literary form which had always distinguished the French scholar. And what is to-day the result? Wherever there are scholars, French scholarship is held to be second to none, — in some branches to hold unquestionably the first rank. Twenty-five years ago a French philologist was almost a rarity. It is but yesterday that France was called upon to mourn the untimely death of a scholar who, though taken away before completing his forty-fifth year, had outstripped all his rivals in one of the most difficult branches of Oriental philology, while his vigor of thought and perfection of literary style made him, as was said by one of his former teachers, “ one of the voices by means of which France spoke to the world.” No Oriental scholar will need to have suggested here the name of the lamented James Darmesteter. This simple tribute will be forgiven, coming as it does from the sad heart of one of the friends of his childhood. There cannot be many James Darmesteters, but how many French scholars of high rank have in the last twenty years served their country well by serving science well ! Gaston Paris, Paul Meyer, Alfred Morel-Fatio, Léon Cleédat, Arsène Darmesteter, who have reclaimed for France the ground formerly tilled almost exclusively by Germans, although it ought never to have ceased to be French, — that is, Romance philology; in classical languages, Paul Girard, Alfred and Maurice Croiset, Salomon and Théodore Reinach, Victor Henri, Gustave Bloch, etc. ; in Sanskrit and comparative grammar, Michel Bréal, Abel Bergaigne, Barthe, Paul Regnault; in historical criticism, Fustel de Coulanges, Gabriel Monod, Giry, Émile Bémont, Alfred Chuquet. The same movement for better things is visible in pure literature. The French literary critics of the present day are not only literary artists, they are scholars whose theories are based upon the most accurate knowledge of facts; an article by Brunetière is not simply a masterpiece of logical reasoning, it is a magazine of well-sifted statements, a display of well-presented evidence that would rejoice the heart of an AngloSaxon jurist. Formerly German criticism was all that was feared by the slovenly literary worker ; now he has to pass the scrutiny of the Revue Historique, the Revue Philosophique, the Revue Critique. the Romania, the Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France, the Revue Sémitique, etc. And all this work has been accomplished without for a moment causing France to lose the prestige of literary taste and excellence. As purely literary periodicals, the Revue des Deux Mondes of to-day, the Revue de Paris, the Revue Bleue, do not yield to anything that ever came from the pen of the French littérateurs.
What need be said of science proper when two of the most terrible diseases known to the human race, rabies and diphtheria, have been conquered by the application of French methods ; when the laboratory of Louis Pasteur may be said to be the shrine towards which every fighter against human suffering is constantly looking for inspiration ? In every branch of human learning France stands to-day far higher than she did twenty-five years ago ; far higher than she would stand had she not been willing to learn from Germany the lesson taught originally by her own fabulist, that patience and industry are stronger than any obstacle : —
Font plus que force ni que rage.”
From England, too, Fiance was willing to learn, though in spite of the pangs of defeat it was easier, perhaps, for France to learn from Germany than from a country from which she so much differs, not in habits of life simply, but in her moral estimate of human actions, of vices and virtues. Beyond the Channel were no methods of scholarship to be studied, but the art of making men physically strong and morally self-reliant. Though far from placing football on the same plane as historical criticism, we cannot shut our eyes to the admirable results obtained by the League for Physical Education. The reports of the military authorities show that the average height of French recruits during the last two years has been decidedly greater than for years before.
For few faults have the French in the past been more severely rebuked than for their willful ignorance of what was done by foreign nations. It is hard to see how such an accusation could be leveled at them now. Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu’s master work upon Russia stands without an equal, and the English-speaking peoples read the history of that country in a translation from the French of Alfred Rambaud. Jusserand’s books upon English life and letters are almost as widely read north as south of the British Channel; Angellier’s and Chevrillon’s exhaustive works upon Robert Burns and Sydney Smith are held to be masterpieces of literary presentation. The works of Philippe Daryl (Paschal Grousset) and Francis de Pressensé upon Ireland have called forth words of high praise from Mr. Gladstone. Of books — we mean good books — about Germany there is no end; Spain has been studied by Alfred Morel-Fatio; the United States by Émile Levasseur, who visited them twice, and by Alfred Moireau. A stanch Republican may be permitted to inscribe here the name of a Royalist pretender, the late Comte de Paris, whose History of the Civil War has been pronounced one of the best books on the subject. France now knows her neighbors and all the civilized nations of the world at least as well as she is known by them. She follows their work even in the fields which the world was willing to admit to be peculiarly her own. The superiority of her dramatic writers does not blind her to what is done elsewhere. Ibsen has as many admirers in France, and is as well known there, as anywhere outside of his own country. The adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, which follow each other from year to year, and the success of Wagner’s works, both in the concertroom and on the stage, may be quoted also in demonstration of the broadening of the national taste.
Years ago, a Frenchman was described as a man who wore mustaches and knew no geography. He still wears a mustache, but his ignorance of geography is a thing of the past. Elisée Reclus’s monumental Géographie Universelle has been planned, written, and published entirely since the establishment of the Republic.
In short, there has been a clear determination in France to demonstrate that the faults for which the country was blamed (and if punished, how severely !) in 1870 were due to temporary circumstances, not to any ineradicable national vice of constitution.
We have dealt thus far with sets of facts to which the attention of the country was drawn either by the disasters of l’année terrible or by the comments called out by these disasters. Let us see now how the country has dealt with new and unforeseen contingencies.
For centuries the vineyards of France have been one of the most important sources of her wealth. Their extraordinary productiveness in the years immediately following the Franco-German war was one of the main causes of her wonderfully rapid financial recuperation. Her wine production then averaged over fifteen hundred million gallons. In 1875 it reached the almost incredible figure of twenty-five hundred million gallons ! Suddenly the country heard that it was threatened with a total loss of this magnificent source of revenue. A small insect, the phylloxera vastatrix, was destroying the vine, and even (so it was thought for a long time) unfitting the soil for the growth of new plants. The production fell to eight hundred and fifty million gallons, and once even to seven hundred and fifty million. The vinegrowers then showed whether those critics were good judges of the French character who said that it was incapable of perseverance. They tried every possible way of conquering their invisible enemy. They poisoned it; they drowned it; they pulled up their plants, and substituted for them the sturdier product of American soil; some of them left their native places, and searched in Algeria for districts where the vine would grow. For a long time success seemed impossible ; production remained stationary. Only after long and persevering efforts was victory achieved ; not until 1893 were former figures again reached, — fourteen hundred million gallons for France, one hundred million for Algeria.
The same energy, the same determination to conquer obstacles, lies at the bottom of the new colonial policy of France. The French heard and everywhere read that they were no colonizers. They resolved to demonstrate that only governmental blunders had in former centuries robbed the country of the fruits of its colonizing efforts. Canada and India had been lost, not by any lack of perseverance in the nation, but by the criminal carelessness of Louis XV. The policy that added to their possessions Tunis, Tonkin, part of the Congo country, most of western Sudan, and to a certain extent Madagascar was no mere governmental whim. It has gone hand in hand with a development of exploring enterprise that almost reminds one of the great discoveries of the sixteenth century. Stanley’s French rivals can hardly be numbered; they have certainly contributed more than any other set of men to our better knowledge of the centre of Africa; and fully as much successful energy was displayed in the peninsula of Indo-China.
Thus in every field we find the French of to-day careful to avoid the mistakes which, twenty - five years ago, came so near ruining their country forever. Their changed attitude in governmental matters, their increased political wisdom, are merely the natural result of the improved tone noticeable in all the separate manifestations of their activity. What is done in separate branches is the work of individuals; government is the work of all; or else why should historians always devote most of their labors to an examination of the doings of governments? France is no longer the land of revolutions. More than once since the establishment of the present Republic circumstances have arisen which in former times would have resulted in a complete overthrow of government. Still the Republic lives. It conquered the Paris Commune; it thwarted the plots of the fusionists in 1873, and those of MacMahon’s supporters in 1877 ; it shook off Boulanger and Boulangerism, and weathered the storm aroused by the revelation of the Panama scandals. Last of all, it withstood without a tremor the terrible strain that is caused in any country by such an event as the murder of the executive. When President Carnot fell by the dagger of Caserio, there was no thought of seeking help outside of the lines marked by the Constitution. The excitable Frenchmen remained as steady as the calmest people on earth could have done. Congress convened, and elected the man who would have been elected five months later, if Carnot had been allowed to serve out his full term.
Another instance of increased political wisdom may be seen in the attitude of the people towards the abolished institution of life senatorships. Life senators are no longer elected. Yet no one asks for a wholesale dismissal of the present incumbents. They are allowed to keep their seats until gathered to their ancestors, and gradually give way to their elected and temporary successors.
Not simply is the attitude of the people to the government changed. The same is true of the attitude of the government to the people. The duty of the state to adjust its burdens so that they may weigh least upon the least fortunate part of the population is clearly recognized. When it became possible, a short time ago, to abolish the tax of ten per cent on railroad tickets, which had been established after the Franco-German war, the Minister of Public Works insisted that the railroad companies should at the same time reduce their fares in the following proportion : on first-class tickets, ten per cent; on second-class, twenty per cent; on third-class, thirty per cent; thus making the masses the greatest beneficiaries of the reform, thanks to which the cost of railroad traveling has now been brought down, for the greater part of the population, to one and a half cents a mile, and even to one and an eighth cents on round-trip tickets.
A more serious tone is thus felt to be pervading all the manifestations of the national life of France. It is visible in the efforts made on all sides, among the adherents of all shades of philosophical opinions, Protestants, Catholics, freethinkers, to emphasize the need of devotion to some ideal; it is visible in the success that rewards every attempt of the kind, the Protestant writings of Charles Wagner, the Neo-Catholic exhortations of Paul Desjardins and Vicomte de Vogüé, the magnificently bold and sincere philosophical treatises of the lamented Guyau. Whether France will ever again, as a national body, adhere to the dogmatic tenets of Christianity seems, to the writer at least, more doubtful than ever ; but she is undoubtedly in search of some ideal form of inspiration, in the comforting sunshine of which all sincere minds may meet and rejoice ; and is not such a search to be answered by the beautiful words of France’s deepest religious thinker, Pascal, “ If thou seekest Me, thou hast found Me already” ?
- He died November 25, 1894.↩