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Provisional Government of the Second French Republic

Provisional Government of the Second French Republic was the product of the Parisian revolution of February 1848. It came into existence on February 24, the last of the three days of fighting that brought down the monarchy of King Louis Philippe, which was itself the product of the three July Days of 1830. The Provisional government was actually only the first of three different provisional executives that succeeded one another in France in 1848, until the election of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte as constitutional president in December, 1848.

The provisional government was made up of eleven men, most of whom were named on lists drawn up at the offices of the two leading republican newspapers, Le National and La Réforme, shortly before the abdication of Louis Philippe at noon on February 24. But the actual selection was made by acclamation of insurgents during that afternoon in two different places, the chamber of deputies and the Hôtel de Ville. The first and larger group consisted of deputies acclaimed by jubilant crowds in the assembly hall immediately after the failure of Orleanists to create a regency for the grandson of Louis Philippe. The insurgents roared their approval of seven names read out by the aged Jacques Charles Dupont de l'Eure, a veteran of the first republic, and Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a young firebrand deputy who also directed La Réforme. Besides these two, the new provisional government included Alphonse de Lamartine, Françoise Arago, Louis Antoine Garnier-Pagès, Alexandre Marie, and Adolphe Crémieux, all well-known republican or independent opposition deputies. But during the same afternoon activists at the offices of La Réforme named a provisional government consisting of most of the same deputies (who had been on the list of Le National) together with the journalists Louis Blanc, Armand Marrast and Ferdinand Flocon, as well as a worker named Alexandre Martin but known as Albert. The men chosen at the chamber of deputies then went to the Hôtel de Ville, where later that evening demonstrators also acclaimed the three journalists and Albert, who thereby became members of the provisional government.

Despite its improved nature, the provisional government was accepted as the successor to Louis Philippe, and it presided over a remarkable period of revolutionary change before surrendering its power to a newly-elected national assembly in May. The provisional government was remarkable first in its composition, for though most members were experienced politicians, several were journalists and in Louis Blanc and Albert a socialist and a workingman held power for the first time in a European government; in this sense it was a more progressive group that even the "great" Committee of Public Safety of 1793-94.

Almost immediately, the new government was faced with a controversial decision, whether or not to proclaim the republic. Some wanted to do this immediately as an imperative demand of the victorious insurgents, but others argued that the decision must be made by popularly-elected assembly. As a compromise, the Provisional government declared that they "desired" the republic, subject to ratification by a national assembly, but insurgents and the public at large took the decision as a proclamation of the republic.

The other fundamental goal of the republican "party" under the July Monarchy had been the introduction of political democracy in the form of universal and direct manhood suffrage, and this the provisional government immediately planned to implement. On this point too, there was controversy; Louis Blanc, supported in the streets by other renowned activists such as Louis Auguste Blanqui, wanted to postpone elections until the voters could be educated in republican principles, but the majority agreed only to a delay until April 23 in the election of a national constituent assembly. Meanwhile, the provisional government also officially adopted the hallowed principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, abolished titles of nobility, opened the national guard to all adult males, and, to assuage fears that a new Terror would accompany the new republic, proclaimed the end of the death penalty for political offenses.

The political changes were revolutionary enough, but almost immediately the movement of 1848 in Paris took on a strong "social" and even socialistic coloration. Scarcely was the republic in existence than many working-class demonstrators began to demand "the democratic and social republic," which though vague meant they wanted significant social and economic change. Some even wanted to supplant the national tricolor with the red flag, but settled for a red rosette on the flagstaff after a flamboyant speech by Lamartine. As early as February 25, however, when a group of armed workers interrupted a session of the provisional government to demand "the organization of labor" and "the right to work," the provisional government implicitly endorsed these principles in a decree hastily drawn up by Louis Blanc. Soon afterward, the government created "National Workshops" for the unemployed and convened a new "Commission du government pour les travailleurs" under the leadership of Louis Blanc and Albert to examine proposals for social and economic reform. A week later, in response to another demonstration, the provisional government abolished a detested labor practice called marchandage and decreed a maximum working day, to be ten hours in Paris and eleven in the provinces.

In France as a whole, the overthrow of Louis Philippe was accepted with a calmness that revealed the moral bankruptcy of the July Monarchy as well as a surprising degree of enthusiasm far beyond the few towns where republicans had enjoyed some popularity. There were no attempts to rise in defense of the Orleanist system, and the world of the notables, though profoundly shocked, ostentatiously rallied to the new regime. As Marx put it, "All the royalists were transformed into republicans and all the millionaires of Paris into workers."

But the economic depression that had in part provoked the February revolution was in turn deepened by its consequences, and in Paris the continuing social distress was manifest not only in the thousands of unemployed workers who flocked into the National Workshops, but also in the hundreds of new clubs and newspapers that sprang into existence and in sporadic demonstrations in the streets of the capital. On March 16 the old bourgeois units of the national guard demonstrated against the democratization of the guard and seemed to threaten the provisional government. The following day witnessed and counter-demonstration by clubists and workers who also wanted to postpone the elections then scheduled for April 9; the provisional government granted a delay, but only for two more weeks. On April 16 another massive demonstration in Paris seemed to threaten a possible purge of moderates from t he provisional government, but Ledru-Rollin sided with his colleagues in the government and contained the demonstration by calling out the national guard.

Before the national assembly met, the provisional government introduced a number of other important policies. It suspended the laws of 1835 against the press, abolished imprisonment for debt, and proclaimed the abolition of slavery in the colonies. It also promised to end the indirect taxes, particularly those on wine and salt, but to meet the immediate needs of the state resorted to the traditional expedient of a surtax on the existing direct taxes. Resistance to this 45-centime tax began to generate serious opposition to the new regime, particularly among the peasantry.

The elections of April 23 took place in a mood of calm enthusiasm, with little overt opposition to the new republican regime, and there was a massive turn-out, 84 percent of the eligible voters. Most of the successful deputies had campaigned as republicans, but only 285 of the 851 deputies had been republicans before 1848, and of these most were moderates, the radicals and socialists from but a small minority of 55. Former monarchist politicians numbered 439, including 56 Legitimists; the premier overturned in February, François Guizot, did not stand, and Adophe Thiers was defeated. All of the members of the provisional government were elected as deputies in Paris, and several were successful in a number of other departments as well. In the opening session on May 4, the assembly declared that the republic proclaimed on February 24 would remain the form of government of France.

Members of the provisional government formally handed over their powers to the national assembly on May 9, and the assembly acknowledged their historic role by choosing five of them -- Arago, Garnier-Pagès, Marie, Lamartine and (at the insistence of Lamartine) Ledru-Rollin -- to form the new executive commission, from which, however, they excluded Louis Blanc, Albert and the others. The retreat from the February revolution had begun.
Frederick de Luna


Agulhon, Maurice. The Republican Experiment, 1848-1852. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Amann, Peter H. Revolution and Mass Democracy: The Paris Club Movement in 1848. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

McKay, Donald C. The National Workshops: A Study in the French R evolution of 1848. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933.

Price, Roger. The French Second Republic: A Social History. London: B.T. Batsford, 1972.

Seignobos, Charles. La Révolution de 1848 -- Le Second Empire (1848-1859). Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1921.

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