Victor Hugo - his reasons for leaving France

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Why Victor Hugo left France

This article by Robert Sabourin was first published in the 1985 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Victor Hugo.jpg

Turning point

The year of Our Lord 1848, when the second Revolution broke out in Paris, was a turning point in the life of Victor Hugo although, by 1848, he had not yet taken his stand on politics.

Most of the measures he voted for at the French House of Commons were, in fact, reactionary (military expedition to Rome; maintenance of the purchase of 'substitutes' for military service; etc.). His conversion to the Republic happened in about June 1849, when he realized that the Republic was stricken to death by a coalition made up of Bonapartists and Royalists who wanted to 'build a throne upon its death'.

'It is only in 1849', he wrote much later (Guernsey, 1869) 'that I became a republican. I recognised Liberty when I saw her vanquished. I reached the party of the Republic at the eleventh hour, just in time to receive my share of exile'.

Now there was a point, a capital point about which Hugo never changed his opinion - the right of every man to live in his own native land. Exile was therefore hateful to him.

It was then logical that when, at the beginning of the Revolution, the question came before the House (Chamber of Deputies) of removing the sentence of exile that still weighed on Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Victor Hugo should vote for the return of the Prince.

It is, however, interesting to note that he had never seen him, that he knew him as a 'rather strange man, a little ridiculous'. But in his prison at Ham, Louis Napoleon had matured. He had, in particular, written a famous book called The Extinction of Pauperism, a book which indeed could have been written by Hugo himself, who came to consider the Prince as a 'well-intentioned man' with a 'visible quantity of intelligence and aptitude'.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in December 1848 the poet voted for the Prince's election to the Presidency of the French Republic, naming to the highest post in the State a 'revolutionary Prince'. On Thursday 20 December 1848 the Constituent Assembly, surrounded at that moment by an imposing display of troops, heard the report of one of its representatives.

Bonaparte's election

Amid the deep silence of the 900 representatives, the President of the Assembly said: :”In the name of the French people whereas the Citizen Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Paris, fulfils the conditions of eligibility prescribed by Article 44 of our Constitution; whereas in the ballot opened throughout the territory of the Republic, for the election of its President, he has received an absolute majority of votes, in virtue of articles 47 and 48 of the Constitution, the National Assembly proclaims him President of the Republic from this present day until the second Sunday in May 1852.”

The president of the Assembly then added:

”In the terms of the decree I invite the Citizen President of the Republic to ascend the Tribune and take the oath'.

'It was about four in the afternoon', said Hugo, 'it was growing dark, and the immense hall of the Assembly, having become enveloped in gloom, the chandeliers were lowered from the ceiling'.

The President made a sign and the door on the right opened. A man, still young, attired in black, having on his breast the badge of the Legion d'Honneur, entered the hall and ascended the tribune. All eyes turned towards him. 'His face wan and pallid, its bony emaciated angles developed in prominent relief by the shaded lamps, his nose large and long, his upper lip covered with moustaches, a lock of hair waving over a narrow fore-head, his eyes small and dull, his attitude timid and anxious, bearing in no respect any resemblance to Emperor Napoleon I.

This man' said Hugo, 'was the Citizen Louis Napoleon Bonaparte'.

Prior to being elected President of the Republic, Louis Napoleon had been a Repre-sentative of the people for several months, and though he had rarely attended a whole sitting, he had been frequently seen in the seat he had selected (upper benches of the 'left').

Victor Hugo

Unknown future

This man, then, was no new face to the assembly, yet his entrance on this occasion produced a deep emotion. It seemed to everybody, and to Victor Hugo in particular, that 'the future had entered upon the scene', an unknown future.

An immense murmuring was heard through the whole house. His antagonists recalled to each other his adventures, his coups de main, his proscription, his imprisonment and, impressed with a certain degree of liberal, democratic, and 'socialist' spirit, the maturity of middle age at which he had now arrived; and those who recalled his follies also recalled his misfortunes.

'I will now read the form of the oath' said the President, and once more we should listen to Hugo as he tells us, in his own words, of this very important moment in his life, the taking of an oath which was to be broken by the coup d'etat, a forfeiture which Hugo never forgave.

There was an almost religious halo about this moment. The Assembly was no longer an Assembly, it was a temple. The immense significance of this oath was rendered still more impressive by the fact that it was the only oath taken throughout the territory of the Republic.

Its words run: 'In the presence of God and before the French people represented by the National Assembly, I swear to remain faithful to the democratic Republic, one and indivisible, and to fulfil all the duties imposed on me by the Constitution.'

After taking the oath, the Prince President then read a speech (recorded for us in the newspaper Le Moniteur), a speech in which he said that he wanted to 'consolidate Society upon its true basis, to establish democratic institutions and earnestly to devise the means calculated to relieve the sufferings of the generous and intelligent people who had just bestowed on him such a wonderful proof of their confidence.'

To such a programme what could Hugo do but approve wholeheartedly. Indeed, Hugo'S own paper L' Evenement had run a surprisingly fervid campaign in support of the Prince, 'Napoleon is not dead' it said, 'The day of great achievement has dawned'.

Victor Hugo, Napoleon's dinner guest

Hugo at dinner party

On 23 December there was an official dinner party at the Elysee Palace, given for the first time by the Prince President. Hugo was invited - after dinner Louis Napoleon asked him what he thought of the general situation. Hugo was rather reticent, but when he talked, he talked big.

The President apparently did not like it, and Hugo notes in Chases Vues that he left the Palace with his mind full of 'this hasty moving in, this improvised ceremonial, this mixture of the bourgeois, the republican and the imperial'.

It seems to me that, in fact, Victor Hugo was hoping to be asked by Louis Napoleon to become a member of his cabinet, and get an important ministry. He was never asked.

There were new elections in May 1849 and Hugo was returned second in the Paris Constituency; amazingly enough he had figured on the electoral list of the 'Right Majority'. But his position was becoming more and more false - Hugo's political views were changing very rapidly.

He had made a point of going to the 'well-known' Faubourg St Antoine in Paris and also to Lille in the north of France, to see what genuine misery meant. He was, in fact, starting to think about the admirable novel which he was to publish while in Guernsey, Les Miserable. 'I am one of those who believe that poverty can be done away with' he said openly at the Assembly.

In August 1849 a Peace Congress was held in Paris at which all main nations of Europe were represented. Victor Hugo was elected President. The speeches he made were not accepted by both left and right wings. In spite of his eloquence they produced very little effect.

This led Hugo to utter his saying: 'I am not a man of politics - I am only a free man'.

The President had sent an expedition to help the Pope against the Roman Republic and restore the temporal power of the Holy See. Hugo at first agreed with the idea. His newspaper, L' Evenement, went as far as to say that 'the French flag will protect the liberties of Italy'.

Hugo's speech

But very soon, realizing that, in fact, the French army was only helping the clerical party, Hugo disagreed. He made a very fine speech at the National Assembly against this expedition, but only the left applauded, which led President Montalembert to say that 'this applause was M Victor Hugo's punishment'.

Hugo replied: 'That punishment I accept. I regard it as bringing me honour'.

From this day Hugo passed over to the opposition. We know from the same paper, L'Evenement , that since 22 October 1849 Victor Hugo had not set foot in the Elysee, nor had he been in communication with the President of the Republic. Being unable to approve a Prince once supported, a Prince who became the opposite from what Hugo had hoped, led him to become a leader of the opposition. This was no volte face but simply that Hugo had to remain true to himself.

Then, between the years 1850 and 1851, followed some very important battles (political battles) which reached their climax at the coup d'etat on 2 December 1851.

In January 1850 Hugo said: 'Five years ago I was on the point of becoming the favourite of the King (Louis-Philippe I). Today I am on the point of becoming the favourite of the People. I shall never be the one anymore than I was the other, because a time will come when my feelings of independence will rise to the surface with the result that my loyalty to my conscience will exasperate the man in the street no less than it once shocked the 'Other' in the Tuileries'. And how right he was.

Victor Hugo

Hatred grows

A strange thing happened during that year 1850. Hugo, so universally benevolent, began to look on the Prince President with a sort of instinctive hate, and could already see the shadow of the one who was to become Napoleon Le Petit.

He could no longer see in him the revolutionary Prince, the apostle of future democracy. 'Hybrid of the Middle Ages with the decadence of Rome', 'Sinister Somnambulist': these are some of the epithets which Hugo heaps on the President after the coup d'etat. Once more, let us listen to Hugo:

”Let us forget this man's origin and his 2nd of December and look at his political capacity. Shall we judge of it by the months he had 'reigned'? On the one hand, look at his power, on the other look at his acts. What can he do? Everything. What has he done? Nothing.
”With his unlimited power a man of genius, in seven months, might have changed the whole aspect of France and of Europe. By dint of material improvement he could have succeeded, perhaps, in masking from the Nation his moral abasement. It must even be admitted that for a dictator of genius the thing was not difficult.
”A certain number of social problems, elaborated during these last few years by powerful minds, seemed to be ripe for relative and actual solution, to the great profit and satisfaction of the Nation. Of this Louis Bonaparte does not appear to have had any idea. He has produced nothing. He has absolute power with no result.
”He does not remain quiet for an instant. He sees with affright gloom and solitude around him. People 'sing' who are afraid in the night, but he keeps moving. He gets into a fuss, he goes at everything, he runs after projects. Being unable to create, he decries. He endeavours to mask his nullity: he is the 'perpetual motion' but alas! the wheels tum in empty space.”

Such was the terrible judgement given by Hugo on the man who once was one of his friends. But that was after the coup d'etat. Nothing, however, foreshadowed a military revolution. In spite of turmoil at the House (Chambre des Deputes) and unrest in the streets of Paris, Louis Napoleon had calmed suspicion.

Paris in turmoil in 1851

Government proclamation

On Monday evening (2 December 1851) he held a reception at the Elysee Palace. Paris was wrapped in sleep when, a little before dawn, the walls of the city were placarded with the proclamation of the change of government and people could read at the corners of all the streets of Paris this notice:-

In the name of the French people, the President of the Republic decrees:-
Article I The National Assembly is dissolved.
Article II Universal suffrage is re-established.
Article III The French people are convoked (Plebiscitum).
Article IV The state of siege is decreed throughout the extent of the 1st Military division.
Article V The Council of State is dissolved.
Article VI The Minister of the Interior is charged with the execution of the present decree.
Done at the Palace of the Elysee, 2 December 1851
(signed) Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte

At five in the morning two regiments, quartered near Les Invalides, proceeded to occupy the Palace of the National Assembly and at the same time, swiftly, the infantry issued, each regiment to its appointed place. The cavalry came an hour later.

Out of the 750 members of the National Assembly 250 were arrested. All the printing presses were 'occupied' by the troops and all newspapers suppressed.

On the morrow there was an insurrection in Paris which lasted about three days, in which Hugo played an important part. By the end of 4 December the Prince President had triumphed. The popular force and fury were extinguished.

Hugo, hunted down by the police as one of the prominent members of the insurrection, wandered for several days from hiding place to hiding place. Then on 14 December Hugo, the great outlaw, arrived in Brussels with a passport bearing the name of Lanvin.

This was but the beginning of a long exile - almost 19 years - that took him from Brussels to Jersey (Marine Terrace) and from Jersey to Guernsey and Hauteville House, exile which was to end on 5 September 1870 when Hugo returned at last to Paris.

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