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Cournet, Frederic Constant

Cournet, Frederic Constant (1801-1852) Born on February 21, 1801 in the Breton seaport town of Lorient, Cournet decided to ma ke a career in the navy. But, although a graduate of the École navale, he found that his republican politics stood in the way of his advancement. A bastion of conservatism at most times in its history, the French navy was especially hostile to the left during the Restoration and July Monarchy eras when Cournet was trying to make his way. When he finally retired from the navy in 1846, at the age of thirty eight, he was still only a ship's lieutenant.

The 1848 revolution made Cournet a barricade engineer. Although active in the February revolution in Paris, he played a far more important role in the June Days upheaval. Victor Hugo, who knew him well from both the 1848 revolution and the resistance to Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat in December 1851, has left this description of the the man in Les Miserables who "made the barricade [in the Faubourg] Saint-Antoine. . . monstrous . . .three stories high and seven hundred feet long." "Cournet was a man of tall stature; he had broad shoulders, a red face, a muscular arm, a bold heart, a loyal soul, a sincere and terrible eye. Intrepid, energetic, irascible, stormy, the most cordial of men, the most formidable of warriors. War, conflict, the melee, were the air he breathed, and put him in good humour. He had been a naval officer, and, from his carriage and his voice, you would have guessed that he sprang from the ocean, and that he came from the tempest; he continued the hurricane in battle. Save in genius, there was in Cournet som ething of Danton, as, save in divinity, there was in Danton something of Hercules".

In 1850, while serving as president of the Parisian Comité démocrate socialiste, Cournet was elected to the national assembly from the Saone-et-Loire department. In the same year, he was sentenced to a year in prison for having assisted the escape from prison of Eugene Pottier, fellow militant of the June Days and the future composer of the international anthem of communism, "The Internationa le."

Cournet led the resistance in Paris to Louis Napoleon's coup d'état of December 2, 1851. The rising was planned at his house and it was he who read out the proclamation of rebellion written by Victor Hugo. Cournet fled to London when the rising failed. He died there in a duel in 1852. His opponent was a fellow French veteran of 1848 and ex-barricade builder, Emmanuel Barthelemey, who is said to have taken offense at some remarks of Cournet's about a former girl friend. This may only have b een the pretext for the duel. The two men were on opposite sides of the feud then dividing the French left-wing exile community in London. Barthelemy backed the side led by Louis Blanc, while Cournet was a supporter of his opponent, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin.

Cournet's son, Frederic-Etienne (1839-1885), followed closely in his father's footsteps. A journalist and militant follower of Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Cournet fils would play a major role in the Paris Commune of 1871.

Bruce Vandervort


Lefrançais, Gustave. Souvenirs d'un Révolutionnaire, 3d ed. (Paris, 1972).

Tchernoff, I. Le parti républicain au coup d'Etat et sous le Second Empire (Paris, 1906).

"Cournet, Frederic Constant," in Jean Maitron, ed., Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français, Part I (Paris, 1964), I, 471.

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