Account of the events in June 1848 when the workers of Paris rose up against the conservative republican government and its plans to abolish government supported workshops.
The euphoria that set in after the revolution in February was short-lived among the workers in Paris. Promised a right to work, they found almost no employment in the private sector since the depression had severely hurt or bankrupted businesses. The National Workshops were established under Emile Thomas to provide jobs, but only menial tasks were available and those were insufficient to keep all the unemployed and hungry applicants busy. No suitable work was available for artisans and craftsmen. The pay (two francs for workers; one and a half for those whom no work could be found; and 12 sous for women) was hardly enough to keep food on the table.
The populace became restless. Nearly 200 new clubs were formed. Newspapers were born and died daily. The Provisional Government that had held out so much promise became progressively unpopular and ineffective. Street disturbances erupted in March and April. Universal manhood suffrage, decreed in February, brought out for the April 23 election 84% of eligible voters who supported, in general, conservative candidates. The five-man Executive Committee which replaced the Provisional Government included only one radical, Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who was included only because Lamartine insisted on it.
On May 15 unhappy workers and club members staged another demonstration, marching to the Assembly where they demanded a new Provisional Government that would include socialists. The government sent them packing, arresting several leaders and curbing the activities of many clubs.
Turmoil increased in the city and an expectant air of things to come hung over the streets. The National Workshops were overwhelmed by workers seeking employment. With people streaming in from the provinces, and other countries even, the rolls of the workshops included the names of more than 100,000.
A worried government called in General Eugène Cavaignac to start preparing for a defense of the city. As minister of war he recalled troops that had been dismissed in February and started planning his strategy.
Meanwhile, on hearing that a banquet for workers being planned for June would launch massive demonstrations, the government on June 21 considered and planned for the closing of the workshops. On June 23 the Comte de Falloux's committee presented a decree to dissolve them in three days. The workers would be given three choices: 1) The young men would go into the army; 2) provincials would return home, with a small grant for expenses; 3) dismissal. The following day a convoy was scheduled to leave for Sologne where workers were to drain the unhealthy marshes. They were convinced that the government was sending them to their death.
As the turmoil increased, a restive population descended on the Hôtel de Ville, on the Place du Panthéon and the Place de la Bastille on June 22 (day of the Fête Dieu ) and June 23. Areas of the city saw 250 barricades spring up, shutting off communication and leaving only small holes through which residents and insurgents could pass. Defenders were local people as a rule. Battle lines were drawn and fighting erupted about mid-day on June 23. Shops were closed and shuttered.
De Tocqueville calls the ensuing struggle "...the most extensive and most singular insurrection that has occurred in out history..." He said that there was no war cry, no leaders and no flags, but that there was harmony and tremendous military experience. Even Karl Marx agreed.
Peter Amann disagrees, saying that the war cry was "The social and democratic republic." Among the leaders were Professor Léon Lacollonge and Louis Pujol, a workshop member. There were also flags--the red as well as the tricolor.
The insurgents who tore up the paving stones for the barricades were not the radicals--Ledru-Rollin was on the side of the government and other radicals were in prison. They were primarily those who had worked with their hands for wages and many unemployed; also landlords, artisans, shopkeepers, factory workers and railroad employees. They were prepared to die rather than to sink back into misery.
Cavaignac had under his command over 40,000 men. No accurate figures are available for the number of insurgents, but it is believed that they outnumbered the military. Going from house to house, local leaders recruited non-combatants for construction of the barricades, threatening to shoot those who refused to help. Many military men joined the insurgents.
Ammunition shortages hurt the fighters despite their seizure of armories. Sympathetic druggists made gunpowder in their pharmacies. A republican club made cartridges at a foundry for them.
Paris lived in fear and anguish. All over France all classes of society wanted the defeat of the insurgents. Meanwhile, Cavaignac was making his plans, based on the experiences of February, to keep the troops in the center of Paris, dispersing them in groups to various areas where needed. The Executive Commission disagreed with his plans but was brought around to his views by Lamartine. On June 23 a worried Constituent Assembly declared a state of siege and made Cavaignac the absolute head of government. On the 24th the representatives conferred on him dictatorial powers.
Blood ran in the streets, more even than in the 1830 Revolution. The troops, including the Garde Mobile, fired on the barricades and lost many men themselves. Msgr. Affre, archbishop of Paris, lost his life on Sunday in an attempt to persuade the insurgents to stop fighting.
Finally, on Monday, June 26, it was all over. Victory, but not peace, was achieved. Counted among the dead were about 1,500 military and 3,000 insurgents. Still camped out in the streets were military men from the provinces who had not arrived until the fighting was over. This provincial participation was, for the first time, made possible by the railroads.
General Cavaignac gave up his dictatorial powers on June 28 but his popularity and success during the June Days influenced the assembly to name him premier. President Sénard thanked God and the assembly cried out "Vive la République!" Cavaignac recognized the authority of the assembly and named his ministers who were to be their own men.
The state of siege lasted until October 10. The Workshops were now gone, nearly 4,000 insurgents had been deported to Algeria and most revolutionary clubs had bee closed.
It was not Cavaignac who benefitted most from the bloody conflict. It was Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, returned from exile, who had won a seat in parliament in the June and September supplementary elections. He quickly acquired a following of monarchists, Catholic leaders and notables, as well as peasants who considered life during the Empire as much better than life in 1848. On all sides cries of "Vive Napoléon" and "Vive l'Empereur" were heard.
A June 4 police report stated: "We are informed that the popularity of Citizen Bonaparte seems to be rising rapidly. His name is very often on the workers' lips. Many say he should be made head of the Republic."
Napoleon's popularity continued to build until his runaway election as president in December.
Amann, Peter H. Revolution and Mass Democracy: The Paris Club Movement in 1848. (Princeton, 1975).
DeLuna, Frederick. The French Republic under Cavaignac (Princeton, 1969).
Girard, Louis. La IIe République: "Naissance et Mort". (Paris, 1968).
Price, Roger. 1848 in France: Documents of Revolution. (London, 1975).
Stern, Daniel (Comtesse d'Agoult). Histoire de la Révolution de 1848. (Paris, 1862). Second edition.
De Tocqueville, Alexis. Recollections. Translated by George Lawrence. J.P. Mayer and A.P. (Kerr eds.) (Westport,1979).