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Police and the Law

Christopher Purvis

    The police and the laws they enforced had major effects on the lives of the French workers. These policies were made by governments that generally did not look out for the workers interests.

    After the fall of Napoleon in 1814, the French government changed repeatedly. During the 1830ís it became clear that the proletariat was capable of rising up and changing governments of which they did not approve. This led to changes in how the working class was viewed by the government and the bourgeoisie.

    The police forces in the cities, such as Paris, were used to keep control of the poor workers. This was not always accomplished due to the small number of police compared to the large number of working class people. The problem of controlling the masses was demonstrated during the February revolution of 1848. Instead of the police and army taking control of Paris, the workers were able to barricade off sections of the city and keep the police forces out. This allowed the workers to gain control of the city and overthrow the government.

    Most laws made during this time were meant to help the rich and employers, not the poor. Labor unions were illegal as was striking during this time. A worker caught in one of these organizations could be arrested. Martin Nadaud mentions that articles 415, 416 and 417 of the penal code allowed the government the right to give workers who struck a prison sentence of two years. (p.244) Agricol Perdiguier talks about this situation on page 174 of The French Workers. Here Perdiguier tells of how workers would organize and present their complaints to the shop master. Either the master would accept the demands or the workers would go on strike. This would be accomplished by workers conversing with one another, and passing along the message that the workers should leave their jobs at a certain time. After this the master either broke down and accepted the demands or called the courts to help him. With the courts involved, many of the leaders of the strike would be arrested and imprisoned. If this happened, the workers would lose their leverage and most likely have to go back to work at a lower rate of pay.

    Vagabondage--beggars and wanderers going on the road in search of work--was also illegal in France at this time. Being on the Tour De France was one of the only acceptable ways for people to legally travel around the country in seek of work. For poorer workers, who were not in the campagnonnages, traveling around for work was illegal. Being a beggar or a vagabond was either illegal or socially unacceptable. Norbert Truquin recounts in much detail his childhood as a vagabond. One example of this was when he met the mayor of a small town. The mayor told him that it was illegal to beg in the town and wanted to know if his friend had a license to sell his goods. After some yelling the mayor kicked both of them out of his house without helping them out.

    These and other laws were meant to help the rich and keep the poor in their place. With the help of the police, the poor were kept from moving into many parts of the cities. They were watched during their travels and while they are worked. In all, the rich were scared of the power of the poor and thus used the police and different laws to try and keep them under control.



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