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France: Second Republic (1848-1852)

Last modified: 2006-05-06 by ivan sache
Keywords: second republic | tricolore | army colours |
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French national flag - Image by Željko Heimer

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History and institutions of the Second Republic

The birth of the Second Republic

On 24 February 1848, following a week of riots in Paris, the Roi-Citoyen ('King-Citizen') Louis-Philippe abdicated. A provisional government was immediatly constituted and the (Second) Republic was proclaimed in the city Hall as follows:

Le gouvernement provisoire déclare que le gouvernement actuel de la France est le gouvernement républicain et que la nation sera immédiatement appelée à ratifier la résolution du gouvernment du peuplede Paris.

("The provisional government states that the current government of France is the government of the Republic, and that the nation shall immediately be asked to ratify the resolution of the government of the people of Paris."]

On 23-24 April 1848, an Assemblée Constituante was elected, including c. 300 Monarchists, 500 moderate Republicans and 100 Radicals and Socialists, and was therefore dominated by the conservatives.
On 4 May 1848, during the first session of the Assembly, the Republic was proclaimed again au nom du peuple français et à la face du monde ("in the name of the French people and to the whole world"). An "Executive Commission" of five members (Arago, Garnier-Pagès, Marie, Lamartine and Ledru-Rollin) and a government, with General Cavaignac as the Minister of War, replaced the provisional government.

On 24 June 1848, following street riots in Paris, the Assembly proclaimed the state of siege and gave full powers to General Cavaignac. The Executive Commission was dissolved. On 26 June 1848, the riots were stopped and a violent repression took place; Cavaignac was asked by the Assembly to constitute a new government with moderate Republicans.

The Constitution of 1848

On 4 November 1848, the Constitution, on which the Assembly had been working for months, was adopted.
The executive power should be exercised by a President of the Republic, elected for four years by direct universal suffrage, and non re-eligible. The President should appoint and dismiss the Ministers and the high-ranking civil servants.
The legislative power should be exercised by a single Assembly of 750 members, elected for three years by direct universal suffrage according to list system.
The judicial power should be exercised by independent, irremovable judges.

The Presidential election of 1848

The election of the President of the Republic took place on 10 December 1848. Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoléon I's nephew, who had just came back from exile in England and had been considered as unsignificant by his rivals, triumphally won with 5,454,000 votes (c. 75%) against General Cavaignac (1,448,000 votes), Ledru-Rollin (371,000 votes), Raspail (36,000 votes) and Lamartine (17,000 votes).
On 20 December 1848, the newly elected President took the oath to respect the Constitution in the Assembly.

The end of the Second Republic

On 20 July 1851, a proposal of revision of the Constitution which would have allowed the President to compete for a second mandate, was rejected.
On 2 December 1851 (the anniversary of both the battle of Austerlitz and Napoléon I's coronation), the President proclaimed the dissolution of the Assembly.

On 14 January 1852, a new Constitution was proclaimed, which claimed to preserve the Republican institutions but in fact prepared the establishment of the Second Empire. The President should be elected for ten years, propose the laws, appoint the Ministers and could canvass the people's opinion by holding a plebiscite. A "Legislative Corps", elected by universal suffrage, should vote the laws. A Senate, constituted by admirals, marshalls, cardinals and other members appointed by the President, should check if the laws were in agreement with the Constitution and could amend them by senatus-consultum. A State Council of 40-50 members appointed by the President should elaborate the laws.

On 7 November 1852, a senatus-consultum reestablished the title of Emperor (Napoléon III) for Louis-Napoléon. On 21-22 November 1852, a plebiscite (7,824,000 / 253,000) approved the senatus-consultum.
Napoleon III was crowned on 2 December 1852, one year after his constitutional coup.

Source: B. Melchior-Bonnet. Restauration et revolutions, 1815-1851. Histoire de France Illustrée (Larousse, 1988)

Ivan Sache, 9 July 2001

The flag error

A short-lived blue-red-white tricolore flag is documented by Whitney Smith in Flags Through The Ages And Across The World [smi75c] (pages 137-138 and image on page 135). According to his evidence the blue-red-white arrangement was decreed by the government on Feb. 26, 1848, and rescinded by another Decree on March 5, which restored the more familiar blue-white-red arrangement. The Feb. 26 Decree also provided that a red rosette was to be added to the tops of poles bearing the national flag.
The blue-red-white tricolor is also shown in Banderas y Escudos del Mundo [alv86] on page 216.

It is not clearly stated why the order was changed. The Feb. Decree said it was because "the form of the flag should be fixed in an invariable manner", but that obviously doesn't answer why that particular manner was chosen.
It was known that the more radical revolutionaries in 1848 were demanding that the flag be changed to solid red. The red rosette was added to placate them. My own personal conjecture is that the blue-red-white ordering was a further compromise, so that the flag of the Republic would not be identical with the flag of the recently overthrown Orleanist monarchy. But then the new authorities quickly switched back to the blue-white-red as soon as they realized that popular sentiment was still attached to that flag, and regarded it as the flag of the Nation, not just the flag of the former regime.
I didn't see any evidence offered on whether the variant flag ever actually flew or not, but given how rapidly new flags can appear in revolutionary situations I wouldn't be surprised if it did.

Ned Smith, 29 February 2004

Pierre Charrié (Drapeaux et Etendards du XIXe siecle [chr92]) says:

Sous la IIe République, après la circulaire erronée du ministre de la Marine Arago prescrivant "le bleu à la gaine, le rouge au milieu, le blanc au battant" du 5 mai 1848, rectifiée deux jours après, le pavillon tricolore est maintenu.

According to Charrié, the weird arrangement of the colours was simply a mistake in the Decree, which was corrected two days later. It can be assumed that no erroneous flag was ever manufactured.

There are therefore some discrepancies between Smith and Charrié's accounts of the flag error. Smith mentions a government Decree from February whereas Charrié refers to an Order by the Minister of the Navy from May.
The onset of the IInd Republic was a kind of enthusiastic improvisation. Therefore, it is possible that the Minister of the Navy released an Order without really knowing that there was already a government Decree on the same topic. Concerning the arrangement of the colours, we must remember that the French Tricolore was less than a century old, had been legally prescribed in 1814 only, and had suffered a severe ban during the Bourbon restoration. There are examples of paintings showing Tricolore flags with the colours erroneously arranged. The definitive adoption of the Tricolore flag took place only with the Third Republic and Count of Chambord's renunciation. The flag became then the patriotic symbol and was one of the most important elements of the Union Sacrée that united all political forces against Germany during the First World War.

Ivan Sache, 2 March 2004

French Army Colours, model 1852

[1852 Colours, reverse]    [1852 Army Colours, obverse]

Army colour, model 1852; left, reverse; right, obverse - Images by Tom Gregg, 9 February 2002

Source: Warflag website

This flag is an exemple of the army colours called Drapeaux et Etendards Modèle 1852.

By Decree dated 31 December 1851, Prince-President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte reestablished the French eagle (aigle) and all flags which had been prescribed in 1848 were suppressed. The new flags were manufactured by Ets. Marion, 13, rue de Grammont, Paris. The flags were solemnly given to the units by the Prince-President on Champ-de-Mars in Paris on 10 May 1852.
After the proclamation of the Second Empire, a Decision dated 10 November 1853 prescribed new flags for the Army units. A Decree dated 24 April 1854 prescribed the incineration of the former flags.

Those flags and the distribution ceremony are described in detail by P. Charrié (op. cit.).

Ivan Sache, 9 February 2002