« PreviousContinue »
prevent, as far as depends on you, by a friendly intervention, the quarrels which might disturb it.
“I am, &c.,
The French Chambers were opened on the 18th of January, when the Emperor delivered the following speech :
“MESSIEURS LES SÉNATEURS, MESSIEURS LES DEPUTÉS. -- The speech which I address to you every year at the opening of the session is the sincere expression of the thoughts which guide my conduct. To explain frankly to the nation before the great bodies of the State the progress of the Government is the duty of the responsible chief of a free country. The task which we have undertaken together is arduous; it is not, indeed, without difficulty that on a soil shaken by so many revolutions a Government is founded sufficiently impressed with the wants of the age to adopt all the benefits of liberty, and sufficiently strong to bear even its excesses. The two laws which you passed during the last session, and the object of which was the development of the principle of free discussion, have produced two opposite effects, which it may be useful to point out. On the one hand the Press and public meetings have created in a certain quarter a factious agitation, and have caused the reappearance of ideas and passions which were believed to be extinguished; but on the other hand the nation, remaining insensible to the most violent incitement, and relying upon my firmness for the maintenance of order, has not felt its faith in the future shaken. Remarkable coincidence! the more adventurous and subversive minds sought to disturb public tranquillity, so much the more profound became the peace of the country ; commercial transactions reassumed a fruitful activity, the public revenues increased considerably, the public interest reassured, and the greater part of the recent elections gave a new support to my Government. The Army Bill and the Subsidies Bill, granted by your patriotism, have contributed to strengthen the confidence of the country, and in the just consciousness of its pride it experienced a real satisfaction the moment it learnt that it was in a position to confront every eventuality. The land and sea forces, strongly constituted, are upon a peace footing. The effective strength maintained does not exceed that which existed under former systems ; but our armament rendered perfect, our arsenals and our magazines filled, our reserves exercised, the National Garde Mobile in course of organization, our fleet transformed, and our strongholds in good condition, give to our power a development which was indispensable. The constant object of my efforts is attained, and the military resources of France are henceforth on a level with its destiny in the world. In this position we can loudly proclaim our desire to maintain peace. There is no weakness in our saying so when we are ready to defend the honour and independence of our country. Our relations with foreign powers are most friendly. The revolution which has broken out beyond the Pyrenees has not altered our good relations with Spain, and the Conference which has just taken place to stifle a threatening conflict in the East is a great act, of which we should appreciate the importance. This Conference approaches its termination, and all the plenipotentiaries have agreed upon the principles calculated to bring about a reconciliation between Greece and Turkey. If, therefore, as I firmly hope, nothing shall arise to disturb general harmony, it will be our fortune to realize many projected improvements, and we shall endeavour to solve all the practical questions raised by the agricultural investigations. Public works have been sufficiently endowed; parochial roads are being constructed; education of all classes continues successfully to be developed ; and, thanks to the periodical increase of the revenue, we shall soon be able to devote all our solicitude to the diminution of public burdens. The moment is drawing nigh when, for the third time since the establishment of the Empire, the Legislative Body will be constituted afresh by a general election, and each time it will have attained the limit of the legal duration, a thing unknown hitherto. This regularity is due to the harmony which has always existed between us, and to the confidence which I felt in the sincere exercise of universal suffrage. The popular masses are staunch in their faith as in their affection, and if noble passions are able to rouse them, sophism and calumny scarcely ruffle the surface. Sustained by your approbation and your concurrence, I am thoroughly resolved to persevere in the path which I have laid down—that is to say, to adopt all real progress, but also to maintain, without discussion, the fundamental bases of the Constitution, which the national vote has placed under shelter from all attacks. A good tree is known by the fruit it bears, says the Gospel. Well, if we cast a glance at the past, which is the Government that has given to France seventeen years of ever increasing quiet and prosperity ? Certainly, every Government is liable to error, and fortune does not smile upon all enterprises, but that which constitutes my strength is the fact that the nation does not ignore that for twenty years I have not had a single thoughtI have not done a single deed—of which the motive was other than the interest and greatness of France. Nor is it ignorant of the circumstances that I was the first to desire a rigorous control over the conduct of affairs; that I with this object increased the powers of the deliberative assemblies, persuaded that the real support of a Government is to be found in the independence and patriotism of the great bodies of the State. This session will add fresh services to those which you have already rendered to the country. Soon the nation called together in its comitia will sanction the policy which we have pursued. It will once more proclaim by its votes that it does not desire revolution, but wishes to rest the destinies of France upon the intimate alliance of power with liberty.”
In February an interpellation was put in the Legislative Chamber by Baron de Benoist to the Government, on the question of the application of the law relative to public meetings. He said that he was well aware that in free countries the citizens had the right to meet together to discuss all questions which are of interest to the community at large-corn law reform, electoral reform, reform of the Established Church-all these he would willingly accept. “But,” he added, “in no free country is it permitted, under the pretext of the right of meeting, to tolerate incitements to regicide and to civil war. Such a privilege has never been allowed to the professors of insurrection and the poets of the barricades.”
In the course of his reply, M. Baroche, as Minister of Justice, observed that the law on public meetings gave sufficient power to the Government to check the abuses complained of. One clause authorized the Commissary of Police, who was always present at these meetings, to dissolve them whenever the chairman allowed questions foreign to the object of the meeting to be proposed, or in case of the meeting becoming tumultuous. This clause has never been acted upon, simply because, though there were questions discussed foreign to the subject proposed, the Government was desirous of acting with moderation throughout. The 13th clause authorized the suspension or dissolution of the meetings in certain contingencies; but the Government, trusting that better sentiments would prevail, abstained from having recourse to any extreme measure. As, however, it could not but admit the existence of danger, it was now resolved to make use of all the means which the law placed at its disposal. Another motive for hitherto abstaining was that, though the attendance was large, the speakers were comparatively few; some of them were already in the hands of justice; and the question the Government had to consider was whether their theories were not less dangerous when exposed to the light of day than when they were left to ferment among the secret societies.
M. Emile Ollivier was decidedly opposed to any official interference with these meetings. He did not think that even when they were extravagant they were dangerous to social order. The real danger is not what is said above board, but what is said in low whispers and murmurs, and among those who make their appearance only in days of terror. Restrictions on meetings existed under former Governments. M. Ollivier observed,
“You have alluded to 1848 and the July Government. This last should serve as an example to us. Under Louis Philippe the right of meeting inspired such fear, that one day a manufacturer was forbidden to assemble his own workmen, with whom he used to divide his profits, in order to lay before them his accounts. There was no question whatever of coalition. When the July Government imposed silence it thought it had established complete security, and at the moment it was congratulating itself on the monarchy being as solid as the diamond, the revolution of 1848 broke forth, and then the multitude that had long been plotting in secret places started forth from their hiding-places.”
He implored the Government to do nothing against these persons, who were worthless so long as they were not prosecuted. Prosecution only would give them a power which they now had not.
M. Baroche regretted that the Government could not adopt the advice of M. Ollivier. It had no desire to interfere with the other class of réunions which were alluded to, where lectures were delivered by eloquent speakers on the influence of literature, on manners, &c. Such meetings were always free. But it was impossible to deny that danger to public order existed when, in the presence of 1200 working men, speakers of a far different description, preached subversive doctrines in the style of the fish-market, and in the language of the convict prison. "If I wished to make quotations," he said, “ the Chamber would be shocked at the abandoned licentiousness of the expressions, and the doctrines addressed to an excitable audience, who tolerated no contradictions and allowed of no reply.” The accuracy of M. Baroche's account of the revolting language sometimes used, and of the intolerance of these places, cannot be denied. The debate ended, however, by Baron de Benoist declaring himself satisfied with the explanations of the Minister, and withdrawing his motion.
A few days afterwards the Minister of the Interior, M. Forçade de la Roquette, issued a circular with respect to the right of public meeting, in which he said, that until the present day the Government considered it a duty to confine its functions to vigilantly watching that no abuses of the newly granted liberty occurred, without even interfering with those speakers who might discuss matters legally prohibited. Nevertheless, the Government could no longer tolerate such contraventions, and intended thenceforth to repress all licence, and thereby separate from the right of free meeting those excesses which could only have a compromising tendency.
In the course of a debate in the Legislative Body in March, on the Bill relative to the army contingent, Marshal Niel, the Minister of War, said, “ The reorganization of the army is nearly complete. If any pressing danger were to arise we should speedily be prepared to face it, but we are not hastening in our task because there is not any reason for our so doing ...... I regret that the Opposition in their endeavours to weaken our military institutions should choose the very moment when we have before us a spectacle of countries annexed, of Powers overthrown. Our military organization is no doubt expensive, but it is the most democratic in Europe. It must not be forgotten that France, which knows no hatred, is at the same time the Power which will the least submit to insult, and that in her eyes the greatest misfortune that could happen would be to find herself outraged while unarmed. The French people would overthrow with indignation a Government that exposed it to such a disgrace.” Marshal Niel's speech was loudly cheered. The amendment of the Left, demanding that the contingent should be reduced to 89,000 men, was rejected by 195 votes against 23, and the first two clauses of the Bill under discussion were adopted.
In consequence of a proposed amalgamation between a French and a Belgian railway company, whose lines were continuous, the Belgian Chamber, apprehensive of inconvenient consequences which might ensue from French influence within Belgian territory, passed a measure prohibiting concessions of railways without the authority of the State. This caused great irritation in France, and the press of that country charged the Belgian Government with fear or dislike of France, as if a union of railway systems was the first step towards annexation. The matter was, however, afterwards amicably settled by a mixed Commission.
At a meeting of the Council of State, presided over by the Emperor, on the 23rd of March, his Majesty said,
“ Gentlemen,-I have felt anxious to preside this day over the Council of State in order to explain to you in what order of ideas I had placed myself in inviting the Ministers to submit to you a Bill relative to the suppression of workmen's livrets. Society in our time, all must admit, comprises many opposite elements. Do we not see, in fact, on one side, certain legitimate aspirations and just desires of improvement, and on the other subversive theories and culpable cupidities? The duty of the Government is to resolutely satisfy the first, and to firmly repudiate the second. When the present state of the greatest number is compared with what it was in the last century, there can be only congratulation for the progress obtained, the abuses destroyed, and the improvement in public manners. Nevertheless, if the social plagues of the most flourishing populations be probed, there will be discovered, under the appearances of prosperity, many unmerited grievances which call for the sympathies of all generous hearts, and many unsolved problems which solicit the co-operation of all intelligent minds. It is with such feelings that laws have been elaborated by you and adopted by the Legislative Body-some entirely philanthropical, like those of public relief, mutual aid and insurance in case of accident or death; others, authorizing the workmen to unite their savings, to oppose the solidarity of wages to that of capital, allowing them at the same time to discuss their own interests at public meetings, and, in fine, accrediting their testimony in the courts of justice. The suppression of the livrets, an act demanded above all as a moral satisfaction in order to relieve the workmen from vexatious formalities, will complete the series of measures which place such persons within the sphere of the common right, and exalt them in their own estimation. I do not suppose that in following that policy I shall dissipate all prejudices, disarm all animosities, or augment my own popularity. But of one thing I am well convinced—that I shall derive from it a fresh energy for resisting evil passions. When all useful ameliorations have been accepted, when every thing that is right and just has been done, order is maintained with the more authority that