The Working Classes in Revolutionary France

1848: The Triumph and Failure of the Workers' Republic



  • 1830 / 1832

  • 1848

    Works Cited


    • Victor Hugo felt that the Revolution of 1848, which culminated in June, "was, let us hasten to say, a thingapart, and almost impossible to class in the philosophy of history. . . . But at the bottom, what was June, 1848? A revolt of the people against itself." -Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, Book I

    In order to understand why Hugo felt that the June insurrection was a revolt against the people by the people, we must look at the Revolution as a whole, which spanned five months, and many political upheavals.

    The May 15, 1848 invasion of the National Assembly. (Amann, 193)


    The Months Between


    • The Background of the Revolution of 1848:


    Economic troublesof 1847-1848 led to the February Revolution. However, the economic crisis can be traced back a few years
    • In 1845, there was a devastating potato blight
    • 1846 a disastrous wheat harvest caused the price of grain to double. This led to tax and food riots, and an increase in begging.
    • The argricultural crisis "had an adverse effect on French industrial production," and "between March and June, the level of unemployment among Parisian workers attained 54 percent overall, surpassed 70 percent fro entire sectors . . ., and reached as high as 90 percent in specific trades" (Traugott, 11, 12).
    Political troubles aslo played a part in effecting the revolution.
    • In 1847, the French bourgeoisie called for liberal reforms, and wanted to extend the vote to 200,000 middle class citizens. On February 22,1848, workers paraded the streets to protest the reform movement.
    • The next day, February 23, a crowd approached the fourteenth regiment line. When a rifle was discharged, the soldiers opened fire, killing about 50 unarmed protesters and beginning the Revolution of 1848.
    • By the next day, the people had set up 1,500 barricades. Louis Phillipe believing that a military solution was impossible called for the formation of a new government. The crowds shouted "with enthusiasm for the declaration of a republic" (Traugott, 16).
    • So, on February 25, the Republic was formed.

      It was evident from the beginning that the working class played an important role in the formation of the Republic.

      • Four members of the Assembly were representatives of the working class, and "though they were a minority . . . their views initially carried considerable weight because they coincided more closely with the demands of the armed workers who now controlled the streets of the capital" (Traugott, 17). The government was beginning to see the power of the working class.

        In February, the newly established Second Republic decreed:

        • Universal suffrage, which gave the vote to male workers for the first time
        • Freedom of the Press
        • The rights of Free assembly and association
        • The National Gaurd open to all male adults
        • The Mobile Gaurd would be a people's militia

    The government also addressed pressing social concerns

    • They "responded to the insistent demands of the workers who had made the revolution by gauranteeing the right to work
    • and moving to establish 'national workshops' in which the unemployed could find an assured source of livelihood" (Traugott, 18).

    Although the spirit of the revolution and of the Republic was initially strong, it began to diminish rapidly as the political influence of the radicals diminished, and peaceful protest gave way to increased reliance on armed force.

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    The Intermediate Months

      On March 17, the Parisian democratic clubs organized a massive demonstration against the bourgeois forces trying to reverse the revolutionary momentum, which is illustrated in the picture to the left.
      • Over 100,000 workers marched in protest, and demanded the removal of all troops from the city and the postponement of elections.

    The workers' and "the left's ability to mobilize the masses and extract concessions from a government in which moderites predominated gave telling evidence of the power it then wielded" (Traugott 20).

    • On Easter Sunday, April 23, the elections for the Constituent Assembly were held which the radical workers had been preparing.
      • There was an 80 percent voter turnout
      • Out of the 900 members of the Constituent Assembly landlords, clergymen, and aristocrats held the largest percentage of seats.
      • Only 34 representatives were from the working class.
      • The largest percentage were Republicans.


        This caricature represents a cynical view of the National elections held in April. The caption stated, "Many are called, but few are chosen." The man in the background is climbing up the pole to reach the money bags. The moneybags refer to the elected representative's 25 franc daily allowance. The men are pushing and pulling to win the race to the top of the pole. As it is depicted in this cartoon, the electees are in it for the money, not the politics.

        (Amann, 153)

    Throughout April and May the working class became increasingly frustrated by the Republic that was "set in place by universal suffrage, [but] seemed intent on dismantling even those modest reforms introduced since February," which had benefited the working class (Traugott, 24).

    On May 15, the frustrated workers invaded the Assembly, and brought the social conflict into the forefront. The invasion ended practically all possibilities of a resolution by peaceful means.

    • The invasion was not well organized by the workers and, though they had set the stage for insurrection, they did so prematurely. They failed to meet their immediate objectives and alienated a large portion of the working class.

    The Assembly continued to dismantle the programs set out to help the workers.

    • The Assembly planned to phase out the National Workshops, which employed 100,000 workers

    For the workers, the changes made by the Assembly "symbolized the government's lack of commitment to a program of social and economic reforms" (Traugott, 27). With the failure of the government to support their needs, the working class prepared for the final insurrection of the Revolution of 1848.

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    June:"A Revolt of the People Against Itself"
    "The two most memorable barricades . . . . do not belong to the period in which the action of [Les Miserables] is placed. These two barricades, symbols both, under two different aspects, of a terrible situation, rose from the earth at the time of the fatal insurrection of June, 1848, the grandest street war which history has seen."
    - Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, Book I
    The workers protesting (Amann, 106)

    The Assembly's decision on June 17 to immediately dissolve the National Workshops outraged the workers.

    • On June 22, 1,500 workers assembled on the Place de la Bastille to protest shouting "Bread or Lead" and "We won't Go!"
    • On June 23, a crowed of 100,000 filled the Hotel de Ville, and the slogan had changed to "Liberty or Death!"
      • By afternoon, the streets were crowded with 1,000 barricades, the insurgents controlled half the surface area of the city.
      • However, the insurrection only mobilized a small percentage of the Parisian working-class. Out of the 300,000 workers in Paris, only around 50,000 participated in the revolt.
    • By Sunday, June 25, the resistance was overcome, for the insurgents were no match for their opponents, the National Gaurd and the Mobile Gaurd. The Picture to the right depicts the capture of the insurgents.
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