A Study of the French

MR. J. E. C. BODLEY has written a book 1 which challenges comparison with the works of Mr. Bryce on the American Commonwealth, Sir Donald Wallace on Russia, and de Tocqueville on Democracy in America. The possibility of a book which should combine the philosophic insight and treatment of de Tocqueville with the precise, multifarious personal observations of Arthur Young’s Travels in pre-Revolutionary France appears to have suggested itself to Mr. Bodley ; and although he expressly disclaims the imitation of either, both these writers were evidently before his mind, for he begins by saying that it behooves any one who has undertaken such a labor as his to consider the methods of their two masterpieces. Whatever his ideal may have been. Mr. Bodley has at all events written a notable book. He has devoted seven years’ residence in France to his task ; lie has enjoyed very wide and unusual opportunities for seeing French places and French people of every sort and rank; and while his volumes do not contain much that we should have expected to find under the title he has chosen, they are graced with a wealth of allusion, anecdote, and incident which illuminate subjects he does not formally treat, and it is not too much to say that Bodley’s France will hereafter be essential, as well to students as to every English-speaking person who cares to know the state of government and society in contemporary France.

In the preface to a portion of his history of Cardinal de Richelieu which has lately been published as a separate volume. M. Hanotaux says of France that it is “ one of the most perfect social organisms which the history of humanity has ever known. . . . The more we learn of the history of a great people, the more we perceive that the substance changes little; that even across the ages the great fines remain the same; and that the mere thumb-touch which at a given moment determines the characteristic features of a nation moulds them for all time. The French people has now existed for more than one thousand years. It is ever the same, gentle, light, mobile in its temper, easily given to enthusiasm, easily discouraged, easy to govern, easy to mislead, capable of generous enthusiasms and of the wildest violence, agile of wit, warm of heart. It is still the people which Cæsar saw, and which throughout the ages all who have approached it and known it have found the same. It becomes animated, inflamed, and excited, and then of a sudden unbends and laughs. It often earns the hatred and always wins the pardon of other nations. A foundation of seriousness, courage, and good sense saves and sustains it in the most critical circumstances. When Paris warms up and boils, the provinces calm down. Even when revolution rumbles, people amuse themselves. Even when all seems lost, hope remains deep-seated in French hearts. This people is, in spite of all, incurably optimistic, and the fogs and gloom emanating from without have hardly affected its good demeanor or caused the smile on its lips to hesitate.”

Mr. Bodley’s opinion is that, after Greater Britain, France is the most interesting member of the human family. Those who have seen the new birth and studied the consolidation of the mighty German fatherland, and who have witnessed the accomplishment of the more difficult and almost equally important work of Cavour in Italy, cannot quite agree in this respect with Mr. Bodley, who appears to regard Germany mainly as a breeder of princesses for the rest of Christendom. Still less can they wholly agree with M. Hanotaux. The Gauls are, indeed, to-day as Cæsar found them, but Tacitus’ description of the German tribes can be still fitted to the German people ; and where in the history of humanity is there a more pregnant and thrilling episode than the proclamation of the Kaiser by the German princes, in the great hall of Versailles ? Where is there a sterner lesson of the necessity for a national righteousness than Bismarck’s and Moltke’s splendid fulfillment of a long revenge for le Grand Monarque’s appropriation of Elsass and Lorraine, his thirty or more unprovoked raids across the Rhine, and the insults of Napoleon’s soldiers, of which every German family has its traditions ? The French are a great and interesting people, but their place is not what they themselves and their panegyrists assume it to be. M. Hanotaux’s sentences are, however, quoted at length, because they give even better than Mr. Bodley himself the reason for his opinion about France, and also because they illustrate the difficulty of studying, still more of judging, the institutions of a people so described.

For all practical purposes, the Revolution was, as Mr. Bodley has put it, the beginning of modern France. Yet for an American there remain many astonishing relics of the ancient régime which survived what we are apt to regard as a social and political deluge. AiguesMortes stands to-day — except that the Mediterranean has receded from its walls—exactly as it was when Louis IX. embarked from it on his two crusades ; the miracles, and the sublime or infantile faith, as one chooses to regard it, shown at Lourdes belong rather to the age of St. Louis than to the age of steam and electricity; one could see, a few years ago, and perhaps to-day can still see, in the vaults of the abbey of Fontevrault, the original effigies of Henry II. and his son, Richard Cœur de Lion, in their royal robes ; and even in practical business the land is full of evidences of a society we supposed was effaced. In a certain country place known to the writer there is, for instance, a mill which has been held for three hundred years at the same nominal rent, on condition that the tenant should deliver at the château every spring a salmon of a certain weight; and having delivered his fish, the tenant was thereupon entitled to dine with the landlord and to wear his hat at dinner. Salmon have ceased to ascend the river which turns the mill, and the miller must procure his fish at great expense from Paris, but he does it, and gets his dinner.

If the Revolution was not, therefore, so complete a deluge as we have imagined, it was nevertheless a tremendous event, and has controlled the minds of Frenchmen for nearly a century. The July monarchy, the revolution of 1848, the second empire, and the third republic were all proclaimed as asserting the principles of the Revolution. Jules Simon said it came “ like the law from Sinai ; ” and in March, 1898, the Comte de Mun, in his address on his reception into the Academy, said, “The French Revolution is in this century the dividing line between men, the touchstone of their ideas.” Only of late has the exact criticism and vast knowledge of M. Taine, in his Origines de la France Contemporaine, begun to undermine the influence of the Revolution, until now it is beginning to be regarded as a mere historical phenomenon, “ like the wars of religion under the last of the Valois.”

However it be now regarded, it is clear, at least, that the Revolution reorganized France, and Mr. Bodley well describes its apotheosis as the scene in Notre Dame when the Vicar of Christ, surrounded by the Revolutionary generals in unwonted trappings, crowned Bonaparte as Emperor, and then the latter, unheeding the gesture of the Pontiff, himself crowned the ex-mistress of Barras as Empress of the French.

The newly made Emperor finished as well as glorified the work of the Revolution ; and after he had been succeeded by Louis XVIII., and the Bourbons and the allies had put back the hands of the clock, as they thought, what was left of the Revolution was the work of Napoleon ; “ that is, the whole framework of modern France.” Napoleon’s, more than Richelieu’s, was the thumb-touch which “ determines the characteristic features of the nation.” He created the whole centralized administrative system of France ; he organized the departments and the work of their officials. It is a pity that Mr. Bodley does not give us an account of this system and of the manner of its working, for it is the chief tangible result of the Revolution. No other one institution has so deeply affected French character by teaching men to look for what they want, not within and to themselves, but outside to the authorities ; or has so widely influenced French politics by giving to the central government an influence over elections unknown in English-speaking communities. Besides this administrative system, the relations of church and state are still regulated by Napoleon’s concordat. The university, which is the basis of public education, the codes, the Conseil d’Etat, the judicial and fiscal systems, and in fine “ every institution which a law-abiding Frenchman respects, from the Legion of Honor to the Bank of France and the Comédie Française, was either formed or reorganized by Napoleon.” He left France exhausted after the twenty years of intoxication with destruction and victory, so that the restoration and the white flag were welcome ; but presently the growth of the Napoleonic legend began. Las Casas’ Memorial of St. Helena and Thiers’ History of the Consulate and the Empire nourished it; and after Louis Philippe had brought home the Emperor’s ashes, and interred them with great pomp at the Invalides, the sentiment was so strong that the mere name of Louis Napoleon, who was then an unknown personality, swept him through the presidency of the third republic and a dictatorship into the imperial chair. Within the past five years, after Sedan and the débâcle, we have again seen, in plays and numerous biographies, a visible recrudescence of the legend which, as Mr. Bodley points out, may one day place at the disposal of a leader with only the genius of one of Napoleon’s marshals, but who happens to touch the popular fancy, the disciplined legions which the democracy now maintains on a war footing, compared with which the conquering armies of Bonaparte were but ill-equipped levies.

Besides the work of Napoleon, the French Revolution bequeathed to posterity three principles which are still written all over France, and as to the fate of which Mr. Bodley inquires at some length. " Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” what has become of them ? There is a saying, attributed to Mr. Rudyard Kipling, that the French know nothing at all about liberty, have an offensive passion for equality, and like to talk about fraternity; that the English never fraternize with anybody, know nothing of equality and care nothing for it except before the law, but insist always and everywhere on liberty, and will sacrifice anything they possess to get it; that the American has loose notions about liberty, assumes the fact of equality with everybody, and is ready to fraternize with anybody.

So far as France is concerned, there is a good deal of wisdom in the saying. Liberty to a Frenchman, as Mr. Bodley truly says, is “ a dogma to define or to expound rather than a factor in the every-day life of a community;” and certainly, from the standpoint of English law, the fundamental safeguards of personal liberty do not exist in France. Domiciliary visits of the police, undertaken on purely ex parte denunciations, are lawful, and the procedure in the case of persons accused of a breach of the criminal law seems incredible to men of the Anglo-Saxon race. The French theory is that an accused person is presumed to be guilty until his innocence is proved. He may be kept in solitary confinement, interrogated day by day in private audiences by a magistrate who seeks to extort an avowal of guilt, and all the time the police are at work to get up evidence against the untried prisoner, who may even be in ignorance of the charge against him; and only in 1897 was a law passed which permitted the accused to have counsel in preparing his defense. The accounts of the Zola trial which have recently been published show the sort of performances which are possible when the defendant is finally brought into court. This procedure is merely indicative of the indifference of Frenchmen to what we consider the essentials of personal liberty. The same indifference is manifest in many other directions. A Frenchman, as he looks backward, is apt to think of himself at the Lycées, for instance, as having been in a prison where he was subjected to perpetual espionage and servitude. From every sort of subordinate officials, private as well as public, the individual suffers infractions of his personal liberty; and often these infractions seem to be inspired, as is frequently the case on an American railroad or in a city hall, by the mere desire to convince the traveler or the citizen that he is one of the mass, and no better than his neighbors. In matters of opinion, too, the objection to letting people think what they like is apparently insuperable. The virulence of the odium theologicum in France can hardly be imagined in this country by any one who does not know the traditions of the Unitarian movement, or has not had the opportunity to observe the temper — and absence of humor — of the members of a Presbyterian general convention engaged at the same moment in revising their creed and prosecuting some of their members for heresy. In France there is no personal toleration for agnostics, and Mr. Bodley says that Voltaire occupies there the place which “ Jews and Turks ” hold in the English liturgy. On the other hand, he quotes with approval from the Journal des Débats a statement that “ no one has any idea of what a noxious and insupportable creature is the anti-clerical of the provinces.” He gives an instance where a postmaster in the Vendée was warned by the sous-préfet that he had been observed to be a constant attendant at church, and that one of his daughters sang in a chapel choir, and he was therefore in danger of being considered a “clerical.” The warning was intended to be a friendly one, and the postmaster thereupon ceased going to church.

As to equality, Mr. Bodley is of the opinion that it is neither found nor cultivated among Frenchmen, except in the sense mentioned by de Tocqueville, who said that equality on the lips of a French politician signified, “No one shall be in a better position than mine ; ” but this, Mr. Bodley thinks, is no reproach to them, for if it were otherwise Frenchmen would have “ ceased to belong to the human family.” Absolute equality, we should all agree, is a mere philosophic abstraction. It was possible for a comparatively primitive community, in which there were no great dissimilarities of fortune, taste, or education, to adopt Jefferson’s declaration that “ all men are created free and equal.” But that declaration was promptly interpreted to mean political equality for white men. Taking equality in that sense, Mr. Bodley has hardly done the French justice. He notices that civilization has sunk down among the people, so that it is more difficult in France than elsewhere to judge from the conversation or address of the man in the railway carriage or in the street what his position really is. That is true, and it indicates a considerable advance toward equality. The recognition by the republic of titles to which no privileges are attached is of no significance, because apparently most of the titles are self-conferred, and the passion for the Legion of Honor, like the desire for knighthoods and baronetcies in England, usually to please the applicant’s wife, is no more important than the passion of numerous otherwise decent people in the United States to travel on a free pass. Mr. Labouchere upholds the English titles and even the peerage as a most valuable party asset, and most of our great railroad managers like to have passes to distribute in moderation. They certainly like to ride on them ; and though the use of passes may show an absence of self-respect, and may be a pitiful and comic evidence of an apostate democracy, neither passes, nor titles, nor the Legion of Honor show the absence of equality before the law.

In regard to fraternity, there is not much to be said, and there never has been, since the fever of the Revolution spent itself. The intimacy of strangers in times of great public excitement is a well-known phenomenon, and there were public dinner-tables spread through the Rue de Rivoli before the days of the Terror ; but otherwise the doctrine of fraternity existed, and exists, for purposes of declamation only. Mr. Bodley notes the cruelty which has often been shown to Frenchmen by Frenchmen, the attachment of the French to the soil, their consequent inaptitude for colonization, the absence of race patriotism, and the separation of aristocratic and plutocratic society — which are rapidly becoming identical — from the intellectual and political side of the nation. The isolation of society from affairs, and its surrender to mere amusement, is greatly regretted by Frenchmen, who think its tendency is to make Paris, the centre of society, not the intellectual, still less the political capital of Europe, — which is what they like to think it used to be, — but a great cosmopolitan casino, given over to the idle, frivolous, and rich of all nations. That isolation is not, however, peculiar to France ; we hear a good deal about it in America, and it is beginning to be said of “ smart ” society in England, where a good conservative will tell you it is a necessary consequence of giving a vote to everybody and of paying salaries to your legislators. Perhaps those causes are efficient in producing the result; perhaps also in America it is largely imaginary. It may be that such separation of rich and educated people from affairs is a necessary consequence of democracy ; but certainly no state is any worse off because of it than it was, or would be again, under the pre - revolutionary régimes of exclusive privilege to those who now hold aloof.

When Mr. Bodley comes to consider the actual constitution and form of government in France, he is not compact, and a better and more orderly view than he gives can be obtained elsewhere, — in Burgess’s Political Science and Constitutional Law, for example. In considering, however, how the constitution and the machinery of government have actually worked during the past twentyfive years, Mr. Bodley’s book is vivid and admirable. It might almost be called a history of the third republic, and nowhere else can the English reader get such a complete and accurate view of what has been happening in France during the past generation, or of the people through whom it has come about.

The French President is “ the head of the state.” Mr. Bodley gives us a brief history of the term of each President; then goes on to treat, in the longest division of his book, the parliamentary system ; and finally gives a sketch of the various political parties. The constitution of the Senate ; the method of legislation through the bureaus, which suggests our committee system ; the method of registering votes, of elections ; the corruption of politicians, the restriction of corrupt practices ; the ministers, their functions and positions ; the origin and purposes of the parliamentary groups, are all treated, but the general impression left by the parliamentary history of the last republic is of disorderly fractions of parties headed by innumerable ministries, composed almost wholly of unknown men, hardly one of whom has held office for a year, marching across the scene like the battalions of a stage army. The keynote of Mr. Bodley’s treatment of this part of his subject is contained in a quotation from a romance of Disraeli’s ; though found in the introduction, it might have been placed at the end of the book as the author’s conclusion : “ ‘ I go to a land,’ said Tancred, ‘ that has never been blessed by that fatal drollery called a representative government.’ ” This, comments Mr. Bodley, it is useful to recall at a time “ when France, having made unexampled trial of parliamentary government, has found it to be, in the words of its consummate master, a ‘ fatal drollery.’ ”

One thing of which we can learn much from the French is in reference to elections and the selection of candidates. Their system is far simpler, more democratic, and cheaper than ours. “No nomination or similar formality is needed as preliminary to a parliamentary candidature.” All that is necessary is for a candidate to make a declaration, witnessed by a mayor, that he intends to run in a certain constituency, which declaration must be lodged five days before the election in the prefecture of the department in which the constituency is situated. Another thing that we ought to learn from the French is the disgrace of a shameless, venal, and pornographic press. It is quite possible, if M. Pressensé, the accomplished editor of Le Temps, or any other Frenchman of similar position, had ever read the pounds of trivial stuff furnished by our Sunday journals, or had studied during the last six months what it is possible for our newspapers to accomplish, by sheer ignorant or sinful misrepresentation, that he might say the Americans could learn nothing bad from France. But our newspapers can hardly be bought with money alone, and it is well known to be an incident of every important financial transaction in Paris that a large payment must be made to the press; partly for this reason a good deal of French business is now transacted in the city of London. This system2 was well enough shown during the Panama scandals; and on one memorable occasion when it was proposed to investigate such payments, a minister went into the tribune and advocated the quashing of the inquiry, on the ground that such payments, however regrettable they might be, were customary in France.

One final observation made by Mr. Bodley it is good for us to mention, and our countrymen may just now well take it to heart. He comments on the growth of pessimism and the joylessness of the French people. The old blitheness and courtesy of the people have gone. This change, he says, dates from the FrancoPrussian war. The observation is just. The French have waged war for the sake of humanity and to liberate the oppressed of adjacent lands ; they have satisfied the lust for fighting, which we are told in these days strong men should feel; they have sacked the capitals of Europe, and they have quaffed the cup of glory to the full. But they have transgressed the law.

Therefore they are changed, and are silent, stern, weighted with taxes, compelled to a frugality we cannot conceive, wasting themselves from time to time in wild colonial ventures for which they are unfit, sickened with the mediocrity and corruption of their rulers and governors, and with the red spectre always before them.

Retribution, human or divine, has never been a popular doctrine among transgressors, but let those who disbelieve in it for nations study the history of France. The writer recalls a scene which enforced the lesson, and of which the impression is indelible. He happened, on a lovely winter’s day, to be in the market-place at Fréjus, the town to which Bonaparte returned from the expedition to Egypt as the saviour of France, and where he later landed from Elba. It was the day on which the young men who had attained the requisite age to render military service drew for the numbers which decided in what branch they were to serve. There were perhaps a hundred of them, somewhat undersized, looking less rather than more than eighteen years of age. They were dressed in their best, and were doing their best to make a holiday of it. Most of them were evidently poor, some of them delicate looking, and many were accompanied by their mothers or sisters. Drawn from their vocations or from school, they were about to become for three years part of that vast military machine which a century of liberty has made necessary in France. A few of those who were well-to-do had apparently been indulging in stimulants, and were going through the forms of a mechanical good time. On the cheeks of a few the tears were running down, but most of them were standing about looking as silent and vacant as their friends looked depressed. A sadder sight one never saw, and of elation or gayety there was no more suggestion than there would have been among the youths of Athens about to embark for the Minotaur. No American could see the sight without thanking Heaven that his country was free from the necessity, or, as he might then have supposed, the desire to make such sacrifices as the scene revealed ; and no American would then have believed that within three years he would hear the President of the United States reproached with having tried to avert a war.

  1. France. By JOHN EDWARD COURTENAY BODLEY. In two volumes. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1898.
  2. We do not at all mean that financial corruption is universal among French newspapers. There are honorable exceptions, but apparently they are only exceptions.