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France: Popular Culture

France: Popular Culture, Caricature, Festivity Popular culture, caricature, and festivity became more intimately involved in the revolutionary process in 1848 than during 1789 or 1830. A generation of historians has validated Maurice Agulhon's statement that "folklore was ... perhaps more alive in the middle of the nineteenth century than it has even been in ... French history." The 1848 revolution also occurred during what can be described as the golden age of French caricature, when Daumier, to cite only the most accomplished, was at the height of his powers. Revolutionaries, especially in the countryside, but also in the towns, used the sociability, festivity, and the crowds created by popular culture to bring their political message to the populace. Their vision of a social and democratic republic with a high degree of mutualism complemented the communal solidarities of traditional life. Almost all the folkloric forms of association such as the charivari, carnival, the 'farandole', fairs, and 'veillées' became infused with political purpose. At the same time pamphlets, prints, brochures, songs, newspapers, lithographs, and almanacs also used the motifs of popular culture. Finally, the distance between politics and popular culture was also often bridged by the transformation of popular notions of Christianity into the dem-soc ideology. In this instance Christ became the first proletarian and his struggle one for social justice.

From its inception, the 1848 revolution drew on folklore and festivity. Historians have long located the immediate origins of the revolution in the banquet campaign of 1847-1848. Recently Alain Faure has emphasized that the February days (the 22nd through the 24th) in Paris unfolded within the context of the celebrations of Mardi Gras. After the triumph on the barricades, Paris remained in a festive atmosphere for almost a month, with most shops closed and the streets filled with people planting liberty trees and singing the Marseillaise and the Ça ira. In provincial cities too, such as Lyon, we also see festivity fusing with revolution. In this city on the Rhone a drinking society, the Voraces, played a leading role throughout the revolution transforming, itself first into a paramilitary unit and then into a secret society.

Caricature also blossomed in the opening festive months of the revolution. As in 1789, 1814, and 1830, a revolution or a change in government entailed the abolition, temporary in each case, of censorship. The new freedom caused a deluge of journals devoted to visual political satire. During 1848 alone at least eight new caricature journals appeared, equaling the number of caricature journals established in over a decade. The most important and daring of these was La Revue comique, which featured Daumier. Caricature was so popular and powerful because it fused political and folkloric images in a ichnographic mode that appealed equally to the literate and the still substantial semiliterate and illiterate sectors of the French population. One of the most important caricature journals of the nineteenth century, Le Charivari took its name from one of the classic popular rituals of village life that castigated deviants and outsiders.

Newspapers and almanacs also heavily relied upon the folkloric medium to spread the new republican and socialist message. One of the most influential newspaper editors and almanac compilers was Pierre Joigneaux. His paper Feuille du village, which started in October 1849, was especially effective in combining folklore with new republican and socialist ideals.

In general, urban forms of association, such as clubs and electoral committees, were much more explicitly political than their rural counterparts. This contrast stems not simply from a greater folkloric component in rural France but also the product of governmental strategies of repression which first focused on the cities. By the time the "party of order" turned its attention to the countryside, the republican left had learned to hide its propaganda and organizational work under the cover of folklore. Some aspects of this popular culture were ideal as means of indoctrination. These included such sociable occasions as fairs, chambrées, (private clubs usually in semi-urban southern villages), veillées, taverns, and cafés. Others were well suited for mobilization. Charivaris, dances, group singing or music playing, parades, and demonstrations usually drew a large group that could be used to make a collective statement. Still other aspects of popular culture could be either individual acts of defiance or collective statements of values. These included poaching and wood gathering.

After the repression of the June Days (June 22-26 1848) in Paris, the ascendent "party of order" targeted first formal political associations and then, by the summer of 1849, focused on folkloric and symbolic means of expression. The repression of caricature in newspaper was swift and efficient. La Revue comique was suppressed in December 1849, while the renewed press tax, as of July 1850, helped force other periodicals, such Punch à Paris, La Silhouette and La Caricature into bankruptcy. Le Charivari fell under the blows of mounting repression in May 1851. The counter revolution was much less successful, at least until the coup d'état of December 1851, in suppressing popular culture and folklore. Starting in the summer of 1849 governmental authorities focused on symbols nd traditional sociable gatherings. Red flags, caps, ties, and belts were now suppressed whenever possible. Charivari, veillées, chambrées, and cafés were also subject to increasing harassment or closure. However, repression often had the paradoxical effect of politicizing more completely these folkloric forms of expression.

The conjuncture of a rising wave of folkloric expression and political mobilization was one of the unique elements of the 1848 revolution in France. The marriage between popular culture and politics permitted a broader and more rapid diffusion of modern ideologies because of the lack of literacy among a substantial percentage of the French population. Folklore and popular culture connected modern forms of political expression and organization and traditional habits and customs of the French people. However, after 1848, many of these folkloric expressions steadily declined. For example, the charivarideclined as an important vehicle of protest and the veillées ceased to be a vital part of village life. Although cafés and caricature remained extremely vital, by 1900 the national political consciousness had largely dispensed with traditional folkloric forms of village life.

W. Scott Haine


Goldstein, Robert Justin. Censorship of Political Caricature in Nineteenth-Century France. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1988.

Bezucha, Robert J. "Mask of Revolution: A Study of Popular Culture during the Second French Republic," in Roger Price, ed., Revolution and Reaction: 1848 and the Second French Republic. London and New York: Croom Helm and Barnes and Noble, 1975.

Corbin, Alain. Archaisme et Modernité en France au XIX siecle 1830-1880. 2 vols Paris, Riviere, 1975.

McPhee, Peter, "Popular Culture, Symbolism and Rural Radicalism in Nineteenth-Century France," The Journal of Peasant Studies. 5, no. 2 (1978): 238-53.

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