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The French Worker During the Second Empire

Sam Whisman

    In 1848, France undertook the reestablishment of the Napoleonic bloodline with the ascent to the presidency of Louis-Napoléon, Napoléon I’s nephew. He overthrew the elected government of the Second Republic in December 1851, and on November 20, 1852 a plebiscite paved the way for the official restoration of the Napoleonic Empire. Napoléon I’s son had died in 1832, so Louis-Napoléon took the title of Napoléon III. His reign would soon prove to be one of many ups and downs.The purpose of this essay is to examine some of the manifold facets of the treatment of this class, primarily through the sources in Mark Traugott’s The French Worker: Autobiographies From The Early Industrial Era.

    There are two selections in Traugott’s book that examine the Second Empire: those by Norbert Truquin and Jean-Baptiste Dumay. Truquin offers a glimpse into the poverty experienced by unskilled workers when the Second Empire actually came to power. Traugott, in his introduction to Truquin’s essay, gives an account of Truquin’s status: "Truquin was an unskilled laborer whose childhood was spend in incipient vagabondage and who, as a young adult, found himself trapped in a succession of poorly paid, menial, unhealthy, short-term, and dead-end jobs." (250) From the descriptive adjectives used by Traugott, one can sense the conditions surrounding Truquin’s period. This essay also provides a glimpse into attitudes toward the Second Empire. Truquin offers his viewpoint on the latter on page 290 when the old man with whom he is speaking declares: "No one cares about politics any more. A veritable reign of terror has taken hold of the country since 2 December." This is a direct reference to Louis-Napoléon’s crowning of himself emperor. The industrial viewpoint is also established in Truquin’s work on the railroad system, which he despised due to the conditions under which he had to work. Long hours and the inadequacy of the lodgings made the work horrible. Lastly, the title of Truquin’s essay also sheds some light on the Second Empire. "A proletarian in times of Revolution" indicates that the work force was beginning to mobilize and come together in a more cohesive manner. The term proletariat succeeded in unifying the work force under a common term for a common goal which leads us to the selection by Dumay.

    Dumay’s memoir is the most informative on the Second Empire, since the latter reached its peak during his lifetime. The influence of the factories is apparent with the Schneider factory in Le Creusot. The dwindling of skilled labor, brought about by the importance of output and not quality, sharply contrasts with the previous essays. His working conditions were horrible, just like Truquin’s, which is a direct result of the Second Empire. It is true that Napoléon III succeeded in restructuring Paris and provided many short-term jobs, but this restructuring benefited mostly the elite bourgeois classes and pushed the lower class to the outskirts of the city to live in shanty towns. We also see again the importance of the railroad system as Dumay temporarily finds employment there and again the working conditions were horrid. Napoléon III insisted on furthering the system in order to keep France in competition for the right to claim to be the central power of Europe and also to keep up with England’s free trade system that pushed France even further behind in industry. During his military service, we find an important element that was slowly gaining popularity with the proletariat: socialism. We see this in the office of Baloch, Dumay’s lieutenant : "I would see on the night table that stood near his bed the works of Cabet, Victor Considérant and especially Proudhon." All of these were well-known socialist writers. Socialism helped the proletariat gain the courage to demand better conditions; in fact, Dumay’s whole story exemplifies this. He was a rebel who sought these equal rights and despised the wealth being accumulated by the bourgeois elite to which the Second Empire catered.

    From these essays, one can reasonably deduce the sentiments and conditions that French workers felt and endured over the years in spite of the one-dimensional effect of having only the worker’s viewpoint considered. Napoléon III’s Second Empire did bring prosperity, but workers got little of it. During his reign, France solidified its intentions to remain a power in Europe. Napoléon III succeeded in easing the tension between England and France. However, these essays show that the French worker’s life had not really changed for the better. The working conditions, as well as the wages, were still atrocious. Also, the overall place of workers in the government was still weak as evidenced by strikes in Paris. One would think that the industrial revolution would have brought about a higher appreciation of the proletariat and their importance to French industry instead of mere sympathies not carried out fully by Napoléon III.



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All essays copyright students of History 541,  University of Kentucky 2002

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