The French National Guard - Bruce Vandervort

The French National Guard - Bruce Vandervort

An article detailing the social make up of the French National Guard and the role it played in the 1848 Revolution.

Founded in Paris after the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, the National Guard passed from the historical stage in the wake of the destruction of the Paris Commune in May 1871. During most of its life, the guard faithfully observed the dual mandate confided to it by the Marquis de Lafayette, its first commander, and its bourgeois founders: to bear arms for political liberty and against social revolution. Sometimes called a "popular militia," the guard only achieved this status twice in its history, both times in moments of crisis and then only briefly and partially. The second and final time the Guard took on the appearance of a popular force was during the short life span of the Commune of 1871; the first time was during the revolution of 1848.

Under the July Monarchy, the guard was a small socially elite force, its membership being drawn largely from the ranks of the pays légal, i.e. those who paid enough tax to qualify to vote. Although an 1837 law opened the ranks to petty bourgeois who did not qualify to vote, this did not dilute the generally conservative politics of the force. Guardsmen still had to pay dues and supply their own uniforms and equipment, and this sufficed to keep out the awkward sorts. Elite companies also existed, such as those who had decked themselves out in tall bearskin buskins (bonnets à poil) reminiscent of Napoleon's old guard. This emphasis on social status, plus general inattention to the requirements of discipline and \readiness during the years of the July Monarchy, meant that when revolution erupted in Paris in February 1848, the guard was poorly prepared to undertake its peacekeeping duties. In addition, some units, especially those from the traditional artisan quartiers in the capital, had lately been infected by anti-establishment or even democratic ideas that predisposed them to fraternization with the rebels.

In February 1848, the Paris National Guard's some 50,000 members were divided into twelve legions, one for each of the city's arrondissements. The legions, in turn, were broken down into battalions, recruited at the level of the quartiers of each arrondissment. The legions were commanded by colonels or lieutenant-colonels, the battalions by majors, captains, and sometimes lieutenants. Of the city's twelve National Guard legions, only one, the first, from the notoriously haute bourgeois Champs Elysée-Place Vendôme district, would prove loyal to the monarchy at the onset of the February revolution. The mass defection of the guard has been seen by many historians as the crucial event in the collapse of the Orleanist regime. Georges Duveau contended that "the insurrection [of the February 1848] could have been brought under control if the National Guard had remained loyal to the system." He added that the morale of the regular army plummeted when the troops "realized that [they] were liable to be struck in the back by the National Guard."

One of the first actions taken by the provisional government, on February 24, was the "democratization" of the National Guard. This initiative, which had been on the agenda of the republican movement for most of the previous decade, called for an end to the taxpaying requirements for membership in the guard, the incorporation into its ranks of all able-bodied males between the ages of twenty and fifty-five, and the election of all officers and non-commissioned officers of the force. Peter Amann has called this reform "one of the truly revolutionary, if transitory, social changes initiated by the Second Republic." But, the "democratization" of what had been a social institution of the bourgeois elite was also, he cautions, "an incalculable gamble that made a mockery of the National Guards's traditions."

Predictably, the "democratization" of the guard quickly became a major bone of contention between the provisional government and its critics of both right and left. All parties to the dispute saw the elections of guard officers, originally set for March 13-16, as crucial to their political fortunes. They recognized the "democratization" would remain a largely meaningless slogan unless the guard acquired new leaders and a new esprit. Just as they urged postponement of the general elections in order to gain time to "republicanize" the provinces, so the left, led within the government by Louis Blanc, demanded that the guard elections be postponed to give the new petty bourgeois and working class guardsmen a breathing space to organize themselves and prepare slates of candidates. The right, correctly ascertaining that speedy elections would favor the status quo, fought the call for postponement. The moderates within the provisional government, caught in the middle, offered a compromise. They would not postpone the elections, but they would agree to the disbanding of the elite Guard units, whose continued existence was perceived by some as an affront to the "democratization" process.

Already upset at the measure taken to "democratize" the guard, the legions in the better-off arrondissements greeted the announcement of the disbanding of the elite companies with an uproar of protest. This led to the bonnet à poil demonstration of March 16, 1848, in which the elite companies paraded not only their anger at losing their privileged status, but the belief that their dissolution was part of a scheme by government radicals (principally Ledru-Rollin) to impose a socialist dictatorship upon France. "The journée of March 16," Peter Amann has argued, "was the first feeble attempt at counterrevolution since February." As such, it provoked a massive working class counter-march the following day. The upshot was confirmation of the ideological fissure introduced into the guard by "democratization," between the old-line units that continued to see themselves as pillars of order, and the new elements, at least some of which saw the guard as an instrument for the construction of a "democratic and social republic."

This split was reinforced by the results of the guard elections, which had been postponed until April 5-7 as a consequence of the turmoil following the bonnet à poil demonstrations. Because of the time-consuming and complex process involved in nominating and electing guard officers, a noticeable reluctance on the part of the lower-class guardsmen to put themselves forward as candidates, and the massive abstentions, the elections resulted in the victory of moderate republicans at command level in most legions. (The more advanced republicans did somewhat better in the elections for noncoms.) Radical commanders were chosen in a few districts in the proletarian east of the city and in the new working class suburbs. The lines of division within the guard hardened over the succeeding months. On April 16, The guard was called out to "contain" a workers march on city hall that some in the government professed to see as a coup d'état. Some of the more conservative guard units greeted the marchers with cries of "Down with the communists!" On April 15, when crowds led by Blanqui and Barbès did attempt a coup d'état, guard legions from the wealthier districts were mobilized and in Georges Duveau's view, "saved the situation" for the provisional government. Believing that General de Courtais, the National Guard commander and advanced republican despite his aristocratic background, had failed to adequately protect the government, the guardsmen assaulted the unfortunate officer, ripped off his epaulets, and broke his sword.

So divided was the National Guard by the time insurrection broke out in June 1848, that General Cavaignac did not even include it in his plan of repression. And, by this time, the government had found a much more satisfactory force of citizen soldiers to do its bidding: the gardes mobiles, often young unemployed workers, operating under army command. Suspicions about the guard's reliability proved to be well-founded. When it was called out on June 23, few units responded. In working class areas, guardsmen either stayed at home or joined the insurrection. Remi Gossez, in his Ouvriers de Paris, claims that the "cadres" of the rebellion were guard units from the poorer districts. In the more affluent central arrondissements, only 4,000 guardsmen responded to the call, while 60,000 remained at home. Even in the solidly bourgeois western districts, the majority of guardsmen never left their quartiers. But an estimated 12,000 guards from the better off arrondissements did take up arms against the rebels, and rendered yeoman service to the government cause. It was, for example, guardsmen who shot the two prostitutes whose deaths on the barricades were so vividly described by Victor Hugo in Choses vues. "[I]n June the National Guard behaved with exemplary valor, wrote Georges Duveau. "Indeed, at time their valor was almost excessive and showed signs of a social vindictiveness which had its origins in the basest instincts. The idea that his strongbox was at stake turned the mildest shopkeeper into a lion".

Despite the "exemplary valor" of its bourgeois units during the June Days, the National Guard emerged from the 1848 revolution in considerable disfavor. Laws of 1851 and 1852 brought it more firmly under government control, while confiding more of its peacekeeping duties to newly-formed police forces and regular army garrisons. The guard's last hurrah came during the Paris Commune of 1871, when it was revived as a large force and groomed as the "army" of the Communards. Its general indiscipline and continued susceptibility to ideological rifts compromised its ability to defend the city against the Versailles forces and, in Bloody Week of May 1871, the National Guard was slaughtered and definitively removed from the historical stage.

Bruce Vandervort

Amann, Peter H. Revolution and Mass Democracy: The Paris Club Movement in 1848 Princeton, 1975.
Caspard, Pierre. "Aspects de la lutte des classes en 1848: le recrutement de la garde nationale mobile." Revue historique 252 (1974): 81-106.
De Luna, Frederick A. The French Republic Under Cavaignac, 1848 Princeton, 1969.
Girard, Louis La Garde Nationale 1814-1871 Paris, 1964.
Gossez, Remi. Les Ouvriers de Paris. I L'organisation (1848-51). Paris, 1967.