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Drinking Establishments

Drinking establishments in France, usually called cafés or cabarets, played a vital role in the 1848 revolution. In these centers of neighborhood or village sociability, workers in cities and peasants in the countryside became acquainted with the doctrines of republicanism and socialism. Cafés and cabarets were the places where the French masses met itinerant political agitators, read newspapers, or had them read, and where they sang political songs and organized for political action. The "descent of politics towards the masses" that Maurice Agulhon has chronicled for the southern French department of the Var has been documented for many ot her regions in France. A survey of the growth in the number of cafés and cabarets in France during the decades preceding 1848 provides an overview and an index to the implantation of politics into the daily lives of the masses. Between 1830 and 1848, the number of drinking establishments in France increased dramatically. In 1830 281,847 shops existed outside of Paris but by 1850 the number had grown to over 350,000. In short, an increase of virtually seventy thousand, or twenty-five percent, had occurred in only twenty years. Over half (40,000) of these shops had opened in rural communes of under 4,000 inhabitants. Balzac described one of these establishments in his novel The Peasants (1844) and called it "the people's parliament." In his novel he documented the resentment against both the rich and the police which smoldered in the sociability of these rural shops. The February revolution of 1848 brought this budding café and cabaret culture out into the open. Following the first blush of revolutionary idealism, the Republican leaders, such as the Minister of the Interior, Ledru-Rollin, believed that café sociability posed no threat. Thus, in preparation for the April 1848 elections, he abrogated the 1814 law which required that all cafés and cabarets close on Sunday during church service. He declared that it was incompatible with freedom of religion and was also a violation of freedom of commerce of those "useful" entrepreneurs, café and cabaret owners . In the months following the February upheaval in Paris, cafés throughout France, but especially in the countryside, became centers of popular political mobilization.

After the June days of 1848, with the specter of popular political mobilization turning toward socialism, a chastened and conservative Republican government began to repress political discussion, agitation, and organization in cafés. Initially, the conservatives strengthened the laws against political meeting and organizations by permitting the police to close clubs and public meetings which threatened public order. As the democratic -socialist movement was denied means of formal organization, it increasingly used informal means of organization, the cafés among them. Under the pretext of simply gathering together for a drink, food, and conviviality, the left-wing opposition kept its organization alive. In order to counter this threat, prefects and rural police closely watched cabarets. They closed shops that acted as distribution centers for printed propaganda or which advertised their political orientation by painting their shop marquees red. The laws against secret societies and the restrictions imposed on associations and assemblies, in the eyes of many prefects and police officials were insufficient to stem the tide of seditious sociability in cafés. Even though the number of cafés in France would drop from 350,424 in 1850 to 340,320 in 1852, many provincial officials believed that th e government remained at a disadvantage in relation to this institution, the café, which operated under the protection of freedom of commerce. Thus, provincial officials increasingly agitated for a law specifically designed to curb café sociability. In March of 1851, the National Assembly considered a proposal to give local mayors control over regulations. Each mayor would have the power to close any shop deemed a peril to public order or morality. The debate quickly became partisan as th e left accused the right of an attempt both to destroy one of the last vestiges of freedom of assembly and to install the police in every meeting place. The vote to consider the proposal split along clearly political lines. Before the chamber could reconsider the proposal, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup d'état in December 1851. Within the same month, Napoleon III enacted a draconian decree against cafés, much more severe than the National Assembly's proposal. In the d ecree's preamble, café sociability, especially in rural areas, stood accused of causing disorder, demoralization, and secret societies. The power to regulate cafés was placed in the hands of prefects. Between 1852 and 1855, Napoleon III's forces closed more than 50,000 cafés, 40,000 of which were in communes of under 4,000 inhabitants. The number of cafés in France fell from 340,320 in 1852 to 291,241 in 1855. Napoleon III's actions marked the most severe political repression of drinking establishments in nineteenth-century Europe. The politicization of the café during the 1848 revolution in France marked a watershed in the development of modern politics. During this period, the café was the site upon which the old local forms of revolt, which were focused during times of festivity and expressed through popular culture, became linked to the emerging national political culture of ideologies such as republicanism and socialism. After 1848, national politics would become a staple of café conversation. Prior to 1848, the governments of France had been able to ignore cafés and cabarets because the level of popular political mobilization in them remained minimal. After 1848, successive French governments either suppressed or subsidized café politics. In any case, the power of the café owner or the ambience of the shops was no longer ignored and became a vital venue in the shaping of public opinion.

W. Scott Haine


Maurice Agulhon. La République au village: les populations du Var de la Révolution à la Séconde République. (Paris: Plon, 1970).

Ron Aminzade. Class, Politics, and Early Industrial Capitalism: A Study of Mid-Nineteenth Century Toulouse, France. (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1981).

Edward Berenson. Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France, 1830-1852. (Prince ton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

W. Scott Haine. "The Regulation of Taverns, Cabarets, and Cafés in France from the Old Regime to 1880," MA Thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1980.

John M. Merriman. The Agony of the Republic: Repression of the Left in Revolutionary France, 1848-1851. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

Ted W. Margadant. French Peasants' Revolt: The Insurrection of 1851. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979) .

Philippe Vigier. La Séconde République dans la région alpine: étude politique et sociale 2 vols. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963).

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© 1997 James Chastain.