“Quelques Pages d’Histoire Contemporaine; Lettres Politiques” (by M. Prevost-Paradol,1834).
M. Prévost-Paradol, who has been a conspicuous writer in several French newspapers for some years past, has just republished a second series of his political articles. The present volume contains a selection of those which he wrote in the Courrier du Dimanche from September 1862 to December 1863. They had the distinction of causing the paper in which they appeared to be suspended for two months, and they have many good points; but, unless it was the object of their writer to supply the world with evidence of the amount of liberty allowed to French newspapers in the present day, it is not very easy to understand why he should have republished them. It is always a dangerous experiment to reprint newspaper articles. Even if they are of substantial and permanent importance, the fact of their having been already published is usually a great drawback to their success. If they have the characteristic and appropriate merits of newspaper articles, it is as difficult to read them a year after publication as to eat stale buns. It is the essence of an article to be fugitive, and if it were not read to-day and forgotten to-morrow it could hardly be said to fulfil its natural destiny. M. Prévost-Paradol is aware of this, and he has tried to confine himself to the republication of articles of permanent interest. He has not, we think, been altogether successful. To English readers, at all events, a considerable part of the volume will probably appear rather minute, and the rest will be interesting, not so much for its own sake, as on account of the light which it throws on the state of political opinion in France.
Of the style of the book it is unnecessary to say much. It is the style of a successful French journalist, which is as well marked as that of a successful English journalist. A man whose regular occupation it is to produce so many articles a week gets, after a certain time, to write in a steady, equable way, turning out almost any quantity of matter of one uniform quality. There are some noticeable differences between the style of M. Paradol and that of English writers who stand on the same sort of level. That light-hearted ease which in English journalists is apt to degenerate into slang or grimace appears to be quite natural to him. He is also far more personal than English writers in general are. For instance, in answer to an antagonist who had accused him of belonging to the past because he advocated Parliamentary Government, he observes, amongst other things, that he is only thirty-three years of age. This is perhaps a necessary consequence of the practice of signing articles, but it is no doubt much more natural to French than it would be to English writers,
Passing from the style to the matter, M. Paradol's articles are well calculated to impress upon English readers two important conclusions. The first is, that our popular notion as to the power of the Government in France is by no means exaggerated; and the second is, that the prospects of the Liberal party there are slowly but surely improving. As to the existing state on things, M. Paradol's articles throw upon it that light which nothing but minute evidence as to specific facts can give. He shows us the sort of way in which the Government interferes in elections, and the extent to which, in order to do so, it disregards the law of the land. It appears that the law punishes with fine and imprisonment all interference with elections, and doubles the penalty if the offender is a public functionary. The law of 1848 further provided that, as to offences of this kind, functionaries should be deprived of the protection which they enjoy in other cases, and should be liable to prosecution without the sanction of the Conseil d’Etat. It appears that, by some means or other, and without any express enactment, the latter part of this law has been treated as if it were obsolete, because it is “contrary to the spirit” of Imperial institutions; and M. Paradol, in a series of articles, has contended that a Liberal candidate who has been prevented from succeeding by Government officials ought to apply to the Conseil d’Etat, not merely to annul the election, but also to authorize prosecutions of the functionaries who have interfered. He gives, in different places, illustrations of the sort of influences which are brought to bear upon French elections, and they certainly are calculated to make an Englishman wonder. Take, for instance, the following passage:–
‘You published in your number of the 19th a decree of the Conseil d'État which rejects M. de Montlaur's petition contesting the validity of an election in an arrondissement in the Canton of Mer. M. de Montlaur founded his petition on several facts, some of which have been held to be roved, whilst the others are left in doubt by the recitals of the decree. The Conseil d'État has left it doubtful whether the Garde Champêtre of Mer had or had not torn up the ballots of several electors in order to substitute the name of the Government candidate for that of M. de Montlaur; whether the Commissary of Police had or had not gone about the Canton threatening to turn out the functionaries who failed in zeal in the election, and whether the Garde Champêtre of Suèvres was turned out for this reason; but the Conseil d'État has not been able to throw doubt upon the existence of a circular of the Inspector of the Post-Office in the department of Loire et Cher, ordering the functionaries to vote and canvass for the Government, and warning those who might refuse of the consequences of their opposition.’In another article M. Paradol quotes letters from a candidate and from the préfet who favoured his election, which in so many words call upon the electors to give their votes to a particular person because he had subscribed 300f. to buy a roller for one commune, and a further sum to lay down pipes for a fountain in another: Perhaps, however, the most audacious and unblushing case of all is that of Aix. The town was in great want of a canal; which was sanctioned by the Government. Three days after, a new Procureur-Général came into office, and the first President of the Tribunal, in a speech on his reception, said, “With masses as well as individuals, to solicit and obtain favours is to incur an obligation to those who want them; public decency requires it.” One of the Aix papers, in an article upon the subject, said, without the smallest reserve, “Let us keep our political convictions for another time; to-day, above and beyond all, let us think of Aix. The first patriotism is due to our native place, let us push it as far as fetichism if necessary.” An English town would certainly not be insensible to the advantages of a promised railway or canal; but imagine an English judge in his charge to the grand jury insisting on the moral duty, enforced by a regard to public decency, of returning the candidate supported by the Government which had benefited the town! To complete our notions of the power which the French Government exercises over the Legislature, it ought to be remembered that the Legislative Assembly consists of considerably less than 300 members, and that the Government arranges the constituencies as it pleases, declaring by a mere administrative decree that such and such cantons shall form the “circonscription electorale’’ for the next election. Imagine a state of things in which an Order in Council could throw Marylebone and Finsbury into one, or declare that instead of three ridings in Yorkshire there should for the future be four or five.
Notwithstanding all this, it is impossible not to read M. Paradol's articles without getting a general impression—which it is easier to feel than to analyse — that, on the whole, the prospects of the Liberal party in France are improving. He speaks in one place of “la fin de plus en plus sensible de l'espèce de langueur dans laquelle le peuple français paraissait plongé.” His own style is a sort of proof of the fact. It is hopeful vigorous, and shows a full sense of the nature of the grievances to be complained of and removed. A man whose profession it is to feel the pulse of the public acquires a sort of tact in judging upon the o and is often able to form an opinion which is more important than might appear from the grounds which he is able to give for it.
A considerable part of M. Prévost-Paradol's volume is composed of discussions on discussions on the liberty of the press—a subject which, happily for us, has become rather wearisome in this country. It is curious to see how far a journalist is permitted to go in France, and, to judge from the number of warnings of which his writings have been the cause, M. Prévost-Paradol would seem to have acquired the art of sailing as near the wind as most men. He is acquainted with all manner of contrivances for insinuating censures on the Government, and the probability is that the excitement of trying how far they can manage to go without being stopped not only gives piquancy to the style of French journalists, but strengthens their political opinions. A man must feel doubly indignant against a Government which makes him take so much trouble about criticizing its measures. In the present volume, M. Prévost-Paradol reprints between brackets the passages of his articles which the prudence of the editor led him to strike out in the proofs. One article—which, notwithstanding this pruning, caused the paper in which it appeared to be suspended for two months —contains a suppressed passage which is an excellent illustration of the sort of shifts by which a French Liberal of the present day tries to express his wishes for freedom. It describes at length how the author went to see, at the Odeon, a translation into French of the Electra. He had never before fully understood the grandeur of Sophocles' drama:
‘What a spectacle is that of Electra delivered to the tyranny of her father's murderers, a slave in her home, which she sees invaded and possessed by crime. She constantly announces the return of Orestes. The liberator, the avenger, must come; she predicts it, she affirms it, she swears it; but even whilst she talks of it she has almost ceased to believe.’She scornfully rejects the advice to feign acquiescence:—
‘She will die rather than forego her hatred and her rights. At last she feels a presentiment; she sees, so to say, the shadow of coming events. Orestes lives, though thought him dead, and he approaches. Mysterious signs reveal him. Who poured out the libations? Who laid the hair on the tomb of Agamemnon? Whence comes this threatening homage? It announces punishment, and it comes from him who will inflict it. Here at last is Orestes. They tell him that Orestes is dead, and he answers—What do the living want of a tomb? Leave the urn laid to contain your ashes and draw your sword—your sword glitters. The murderers, once so, confident and proud, are struck dumb. Oh, delicious and terrible spectacle! Have the people of Athens ever been so strongly moved by you as I?’The allegory was considered too daring, and this Passage was struck out. By republishing it, and stating the fact of its previous suppression, its author has made it pointed enough now at all events.
Saturday Review, June 11, 1864.