ON 15 August 1865, like every town and village in France, the commune of Leers (Nord) prepared itself for what had become a familiar joint celebration: the commemoration of the national festivity, the Saint-Napoleon, together with the Catholic festivity of the Assumption, in honour of the Virgin Mary. Everything seemed in place for the traditional religious ceremony of the morning. The civic procession, to be led by the mayor of Leers and including a variety of local associations, had arranged to convene in front of the municipality, and to stride out from there to the nearby church.
But Abbe Dubray, the cure of Leers, shared little of this civic enthusiasm for the celebration of France's national festivity. For him, this day marked the Catholic festivity of the Assumption; 'the other fete', as he put it dismissively, was an unnecessary distraction. A week earlier, his parishioners had received an intimation of this attitude when his sermon referred to the celebration of 15 August as a purely religious festivity; he pointedly made no mention of any special ceremony or prayer in honour of Napoleon III. Furthermore, on the eve of the festivity, Dubray went to the municipality to inform the mayor that the Musical Society would not be allowed into the church: 'we have our own music' he said laconically.
Things got worse on the day itself. Breaking with established custom, the church bells did not ring, either at dawn or at the time of the morning mass. When the civic procession arrived in front of the church (without the unfortunate musicians) there was no one to greet them. As they entered, it became immediately clear that there had been no preparations for their arrival; there were no reserved seats for the municipal authorities. Indeed the religious ceremony itself was almost over by the time the mayor and his colleagues appeared; the priest was singing the final verses of the Te Deum as the hapless local notables scrambled around trying to find a place. No mention was made of the Emperor in the prayers. Even so, when they heard their priest begin the sacred chant, and thinking that they were doing the right thing, the church attendants began to ring the bells to honour the ruler of France. The Abbe Dubray immediately ordered them to stop; local rumour had it that he later dismissed them for this overzealous display of Napoleonic patriotism.
Word of this disastrous ceremony at Leers quickly reached Paris. The prefect of the Nord was ordered to investigate its causes, 'with the greatest possible discretion'. One of his subordinates was sent to the area, and he reported back a few weeks later. The official had found a commune bitterly divided between two clans, one religious and the other secular. The envoy laid most of the blame upon the priest, whose 'irascible character' had brought things to a head. The mayor, incensed at having been received in the church 'like a dog in a game of skittles', was demanding the sacking of the priest. The account concluded by noting the striking difference between Leers and the neighbouring commune of Lannoy, where the religious ceremony of 15 August had been officiated with 'good-will, pomp, and solemnity', and all those present had been 'struck with wonder'. (1)
Harmony and entente between ecclesiastical and civil authorities in one commune, savage conflict in another: between 1852 and 1870 this dualism was mirrored across the whole of France during the festivities of the Saint-Napoleon. In some places, the religious dimension of the celebrations brought communities together; in others, they served to highlight underlying conflicts between secular and religious camps. We shall explore the nature of these battles, and attempt to ascertain what they tell us about the State, the Church, and the Kulturkampf between the religious and secular worlds in nineteenth-century France.
An essentially untranslatable expression well sums up the typical French republican view of the sort of conflict which ocurred in Leers in 1865: a 'querelle de clocher'. Reflecting the positivistic contempt for such manifestations of primitive social behaviour, Littre's Dictionnaire defined such conflicts as 'petty local, village jealousies, or from one small town to another; they are of no general interest'. (2)
But the religious dimensions of the national celebrations, and the conflicts to which they gave rise, take us well beyond these manifestations of local insularity. In the first instance, they bring back into historical focus the Bonapartist fete du 15 aout, 'the first successful attempt at a national festivity in France before 14 July'. (3) In the literature on civic festivities the importance of this event, which was celebrated throughout France under the Second Empire, is now increasingly recognized. However, there is still a tendency to view these celebrations through the consensual prism of the aspirations of the Bonapartist elites (and from a Parisian vantage point), thus undervaluing the substantially different dynamics to which they often gave rise in provincial (and especially rural) France. Rosemonde Sanson's account of the festivities thus emphasizes their successful stage-managing by the authorities, and the strict subordination of the clergy. (4) Similarly, Matthew Truesdell's analysis stresses the harmony between State and Church during the national celebrations, arguing that incidents opposing local officials and the clergy were 'rare'. (5) Our evidence, gathered from national and departmental archives, will show otherwise: religion was not only a source of harmony, but also of conflict at the local level. (6) Beyond the dynamics of this specific clash, we shall also find echoes here of a much wider phenomenon: the repeated difficulties encountered by all modern French regimes after 1800--whether Napoleonic, Bourbon, Orleanist, Bonapartist, or republican--in establishing a successful 'civil religion'. (7)
These disagreements have much to reveal about Church--State relations in nineteenth-century France. The Bonapartists often turned to the Catholic Church to celebrate important moments of the reign of Napoleon III, and especially in its early years, the regime regarded the cultivation of religious sentiment as an important aspect of the 'moralization' of society. This was one of the many reasons why Victor Hugo and his fellow republicans railed against the celebration of the Saint-Napoleon--a national festivity tainted by the coup d'etat of 1851, which would thus 'stain the altar with blood and the national flag with holy water sprinkler'. (8) But although warmly welcomed in Paris, the 'religious capital of the Second Empire', (9) these Napoleonic religious feelings were not always reciprocated by the Church, especially at the lower levels of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. (10) Through the Second Empire's handling of these conflicts over the celebration of the Saint-Napoleon we shall observe the changing institutional and ideological vocations of the regime, and the problems encountered by the Bonapartist state in controlling religious institutions. In this sense, this article argues that the 1860s represented a defining moment in the conflict between Church and State, preparing the terrain for the battles which would lead to the 1905 separation.
The religious celebrations of the Saint-Napoleon also take us into the heart of the Catholic Church. The Second Empire represented a period of religious militantism in the French countryside--'the apogee of the rural priesthood' according to Pierre Pierrard. (12) These were the years of numerical expansion and rejuvenation of the lower clergy; years when crosses were planted, innumerable processions created, and solemn prayers organized; years also when many religious edifices were erected, often at the expense of the commune. This was the period of Lourdes, of the Sacre Coeur, and of Mary, mother of God--especially with the proclamation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, celebrated in many communes with processions and illuminations. Combined with these grass-roots phenomena was the emergence of an assertive form of ultra-Montanism, reflected in strong support for the Vatican and the Papal States. It is against the backdrop of this 'externalization' of the Catholic faith (the proliferation of marches, pilgrimages and the cult of shrines) and the affirmation of Papist ultra-Montanist sentiment that many of the local religious conflicts of 15 August have to be appreciated. (13) These Saint-Napoleon clashes provide further evidence to break down the conventional dichotomy between a 'traditional' Catholicism and a 'modern' State. As Ruth Harris showed in her study of Lourdes, nineteenth-century French Catholics were very much aware of modernity and were capable of using elements of it to further their own ends; (14) the same broad conclusion will emerge with respect to the Catholic opposition to the fete imperiale.
These conflicts also afford key insights into the (re)construction of the communal order in nineteenth-century France. The Second Empire's religious revival was mirrored in many senses by the resurgence of local political institutions, especially those centred around the commune. (15) This resurgence was driven by several factors, most notably the adoption of male universal suffrage for municipal elections, which stimulated the development of adversarial politics at a local level; the liberalization of the regime in the 1860s, which further encouraged the development of local opposition forces and, above all, the emergence of the municipality (and in particular the mayor) as the emblem of a revived sense of civic autonomy and pride. The clash between religious and state authorities at a local level was, thus, in many respects a conflict between two rival institutions, the Church and the mairie, each hunting on the same pastures. (16)
Behind all of this lie the issues of laicite and anticlericalism, and their diverse causes and manifestations in the nineteenth century. (17) Rene Remond has reminded us that anticlericalism was a pluralistic phenomenon, cutting across the classical left--right divide and revealing itself in a variety of forms. (18) The republican anticlericalism which became a central component of French political culture under the Third Republic was of a distinct 'Voltairian' variety: it was mostly urban and rationalist, and defined itself largely over the issue of education. (19) But there was an older, more deeply entrenched, and more intense anticlericalism which continued to resonate in France throughout the nineteenth century. (20) This sentiment was an important underpinning in the enduring 'local patriotism' of provincial and rural France: it was based more on interest than on ideology, and typically represented a reaction of local populations against the perceived material and social power of the Church, and especially the latter's attempts to regulate social and moral life (most notably through its austere imprecations against all forms of pleasure). (21) This 'popular' anticlericalism was also a reaction against a certain style adopted by the clergy, perceived by many to 'set itself apart and hold itself aloof'. (22)
Through their consensual and conflictual aspects alike, these celebrations raise central questions about the social interpretation of religiosity in nineteenth-century France. From a wider historical perspective, the period which spanned the signing of the Concordat in 1801 to the separation of Churches from the State in 1905 has generally been portrayed in terms of a decline in religious violence and the mutation of 'religious wars' into political conflicts. (23) But these clashes also had a creative dimension, most notably in terms of the interface between religious and national identities. The Saint-Napoleon provides a perfect vantage point for exploring the connection between these two phenomena, as between 1852 and 1870 it was celebrated both as a national and a Catholic festivity. Religion played a central role in the day's events, both in the morning church ceremony and in the processions which took place in many communes in the afternoons. At the same time, through the secular aspects of the Saint-Napoleon (civic processions, military parades, fireworks displays, banquets and evening dances) local populations were exposed to a wider world of the French nation, its Army and its rulers, with which they were invited to identify. This allegiance with the 'national' sphere, as we shall see, was often reinforced through the conflicts between religious and secular communities, effectively turning the festivity into an instrument for socializing the commune into broader principles and values. In this sense we shall find further evidence in the festivities of 15 August to reverse the long-held view that the formation of national identity in France was carried out by emissaries of the centre, and imposed on a weak and passive periphery; 24 through their harmonious collaboration as well as their confrontations, Catholic and secular groups demonstrated that religious and national identities in nineteenth century were not antithetical but complementary. (25)
Religion occupied a central role in the ceremonial landscape of the Second Empire, especially in the first decade of the regime. In some respects, this was merely a continuation of the festive practices of earlier nineteenth-century regimes, from the Restoration through to the Second Republic (the latter's iconography notably incorporated images of priests giving their blessings to the trees of liberty'). (26) But after 1851 there appeared to be a qualitative upsurge in the number of celebrations--a reflection, partly deliberate and partly unconscious, of the regime's desire to tap into the upsurge in popular religiosity to create a new symbolism to replace the defunct republican order. (27) Most of the important moments of the authoritarian Empire were officially marked by the organization of a Te Deum in Paris, often matched by similar ceremonies in the provinces. Prayers were offered to celebrate the successful vote of December 1851, which gave a semblance of political legitimacy to the coup d'etat; the birth of the Imperial Prince in 1856; the military successes of the Crimean and Italian campaigns in 1855 and 1859; the Emperor's survival of the attempted assassination by Orsini in 1858 and the annexation of Nice and the Savoie in 1860. (28) The only notable exception was the proclamation of the Empire in December 1852 in all the communes of France, which was intended as a purely civil ceremony--although even here this official injunction was ignored in many parts of the country.
It was not surprising, in this context, that religion was given a prominent role in the ceremonial when the Saint-Napoleon was instituted as France's national festivity in 1852. In all communes, after the morning mass, Church authorities were required to sing a Te Deum in honour of the Emperor, followed by a Domine Salvum. Instructions to this effect were sent out each year from the Minister of Public Instruction to all bishops, who in turn wrote to all the priests under their jurisdiction mandating them to hold these public prayers in honour of the ruler of France. Prefects, for their part, were required by the Minister of the Interior to ensure that local religious and civil authorities coordinated their efforts, so that the different phases of the festivity could unfold seamlessly.
Religion was intended to serve a number of functions in the fete du 15 aout. Before we explore these, however, it is worth noting that for many Bonapartists--starting with their leader Napoleon III---the promotion of religious sentiment was regarded as intrinsically valuable. As the future Emperor put it in his Bordeaux speech of October 1852, which in many senses set out the defining principles of his new political order: 'I wish to win over to religion, to morality, to well-being those sections of society, still so numerous, which, in the midst of a country of faith and belief, barely know the precepts of Christ.' (29) This aspiration was of course entirely consistent with the regime's institutional goal of cementing Church--State relations. The incorporation of religion into the festivities could thus be presented by the regime as a token of its commitment to the wider dissemination of the Christian faith.
At the same time, religion was traditionally seen by the Bonapartists as a valuable instrument of political rule. This 'functionalism' was most eloquently articulated under the First Empire by the Minister of Cults, Portalis:
Civil ceremonies and pomp are nothing, unless they are connected to the pomp and ceremonies of religion. Religion fills the immense space which separates the heavens from the earth; it communicates to all celebrations a mysterious and sublime sense; it provides to these ceremonies this imposing gravity and this touching character which command respect; it links the transient actions of men …