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Electoral Manifiesto of Frederic Ozanam

by | Aug 24, 2020 | Formation, Reflections

Through his writings, we invite you to discover Frederic Ozanam, co-founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and one of the most beloved members of the Vincentian Family (and about whom, perhaps, we may still know very little).

Frederic wrote much in his 40 plus years of life. These texts — which come to us from the not too distant past — are a reflection of the family, social and ecclesial reality lived by their author and which, in many aspects, bears similarities with what is currently lived, especially as regards the inequality and injustice suffered by millions of impoverished men and women in our world.

Commentary:

From the time of the 1789 revolution until today, the French parliament has been made up of two chambers, although, depending on the country’s political situation, their names, method of electing their members and their powers have varied significantly over time,

  • The Senate (upper chamber).
  • The National Assembly (lower chamber).

After the revolution (February 23 to 25, 1848), King Louis Philippe de Orléans, the last French monarch, abdicated and fled to England. France had suffered an intense economic and social crisis for several years, which was aggravated by the repression and conservative measures of François Guizot (1787-1874), then president of the council of ministers.

The Second French Republic was proclaimed (February 25, 1848) and a provisional government was established to guide the country for two months. Calls were made for elections to the National Assembly, which were finally set for April 23 [2].  They were the first elections with universal[3] male[4] suffrage in France: all men, 21 years and older, could vote.

Frederic lived with hope with regard to the political changes that were taking place in the country, since the fall of the Monarchy, in July. He associated those changes with the popularity of Pope Pius IX, elected just two years earlier, on June 16, 1846:

I do not know if I exaggerate, but I think I see the beginning of the divine plan that is unfolding. Louis Philippe sustained the material order of the world, while the moral order was being organizing. Now that Pius IX has become the primary support of the moral order, and the world can rely on him. The provisional support that continued for seventeen years has just been removed because it was already useless. Today it can be stated that the popularity of Pius IX has served, in a great way, to maintain respect for religion. Now I hope that God, who has given us this great pope, has also given us a first sign of his plans for the regeneration of Christendom[5].

Neither Frederic nor the other members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul wanted to distance themselves from the political and social movement that was being created:

We try not to abandon ourselves nor to emigrate. We try to participate in everything that is taking place around us, and we use all the honest weapons that are at our disposal. We are establishing, with Father Lacordaire, a newspaper publication [l Ére nouvelle] from which I will send you the prospectus. We are going to open public classes for the workers. We are going to participate in the meetings of the various political parties in order to oppose the subversive ideas that might propose. We will participate in the elections. We will agree to have proven, dedicated, religious representatives. You can have all the honest people you meet commit to this position. No pusillanimity, no laziness, no discouragement. Deep down, your motto “freedom, equality, fraternity” is the same gospel. Nothing is lost as long as we are not disregarded. Everything is lost if we are not present in the midst of all of this[6].

Frederic followed with interest everything that was happening in France, especially in Paris:

Here the political conditions are quite satisfactory, and the citizens, who are willing to maintain the republic (but they want an honest, moderate, enlightened, beneficent republic) seem to have command of the situation so that they can be expected to impose silence on the parties of the legitimists [7], the orleanists[8], and the anarchists[9] who would lead us into civil war. The only serious concern is the financial situation. The worst matter, however, is fear and the panic that affects financiers, bankers, as well we large and small merchants [10]. Money is hidden everywhere, and there will be a time when it will be very difficult to pay the workers. But, as soon as there is a favorable event to raise public confidence, it will be seen that the stock markets are reopened and that capitals reappear[11].

Not for a moment did Frederic consider himself to be one of the candidates for the new Assembly. The proposal came from various groups of friends. The first insinuations appear in his correspondence on March 22 (less than three weeks after the elections were announced):

You are quite wrong, my dear friend, in thinking that I am one of the men of the moment[12]. I have never been so keenly aware of my weakness and my ineffectiveness. I am less qualified than almost any other, to deal with those questions which are agitating men’s minds! I mean question of labor, wages, commerce, administration, which are more important than any political controversy … I am not a man of action nor am I suited for Parliament or for the public square [13].

A few days later, a group of people from Lyons formally requested that he present himself as a candidate:

I have received with much emotion the kind letter informing me that a number of my fellow citizens offer me the honor of representing my hometown in the constituent National Assembly. I already knew that I had left many friends in Lyon, and I have always counted on their affectionate memory. But I have no right to rely on their trust in the matter of politics, especially at such an important time when it comes to serving the designs of Providence by working for the advent of that new society that arise out of this chaos. You will understand that your proposal has surprised me as much as it has moved me, and that you have found me unprepared to respond without delay. […] Give me the few days to clarify my position and make a decision. […] The mission that you propose to me is formidable. I have not wanted it. I do not want it. I know too well that it will present difficulties and dangers in which I can be viewed as another one of those of candidates who see nothing but a career in national representation … an honest and lucrative career. But, precisely because there are dangers to run and because it could be viewed as cowardice if I backed down, I could decide to accept the dangerous honor to which you call me, if I saw in it a will of God manifested by the general will of my fellow citizens[14].

Other groups of citizens, this time from Paris, proposed the same idea:

Several electoral groups have honored me by placing my name among the number of candidates who intended to take a seat in the constituent National Assembly, and your group was kind enough to place my name on a provisional list [in Paris. […] If we can unite to those political names two or three persons who are closer to us and who represent more clearly the interests of religion and charity, all our wishes would be fulfilled. But it is necessary that those names, spoken for a long time with respect and love, have a notoriety that extends beyond our ranks for we are too few in number. […] Those are the reasons […] that impel me to remove my name from the list, thanking the voters who were so kind as to have thought of me at such a solemn moment in which it is a matter of supporting the designs of Providence for the salvation of the country, at the same time as for the outcome of one of the most surprising and, I dare hope, of the most beneficial revolutions that have changed the world[15].

He rejected the idea of representing Paris, but had some hesitations about the requests from Lyons which seemed to multiply:

When closing that letter a most insistent appeal reached him from a Catholic committee in Lyons, to allow his name to go forward as Deputy for that city. A division of parties offered a good chance of getting a sufficient number of votes  … but I am not roboust enough to face the storms of the National Assembly. My style of speaking does not suit the Chamber. My friends here are divided. Several advise me to wait until the next Assembly. What is your opinion?[16]

During the second week of April, Frederic made a decision and accepted the request to become a candidate for the National Assembly … although with some reluctance:

Among my concerns this week, one of the more serious ones is to make a decision regarding the proposal of many people from Lyons who have requested that I present myself as a candidate for the National Assembly. My first inclination was to refuse a trust, which is ill-suited to my habits and studies. However, having considered the matter in the presence of God, and taken counsel with those who have claims on my conscience and my affection, having weighed together the advice of my family and of my friends, I have decided to make the sacrifice. I could not refuse it without failing in honor, in patriotism, and in Christian devotion. I am to stand for Lyons. I hope that I shall get only an average number of votes, and that Providence may spare me the dangerous distinction of being a representative of the people[17].

A few days later, on April 15, Frederic published his “electoral platform,” the text which we are concerned with here. This was a circular letter addressed “to the voters of the Department of the Rhône”. It is not long but it is practical:

Frederic’s political program is brief and effective. His basic concepts begin with a surprising statement: the revolutionary events that led to the fall of the monarchy and the elections are nothing more than the temporary advent of the Gospel, which is expressed with the revolutionary motto “freedom, equality, fraternity” It is precisely these three revolutionary cornerstones that here are reduced to a Christian vision and translated into the virtue of charity: freedom, an ally of Christianity, which guarantees the natural rights and sovereignty of individuals and families; equality, beginning with universal suffrage and rejection of the federalist form of the State, but also of any form of centralization, so as not to harm the development of the countryside; finally, fraternity, guaranteed by the defense of property, but governed by a fair system of progressive taxes and labor rights, with the establishment of workers associations of workers, and associations of  workers and employers together[18].

In this manifesto, Frederic advocates on behalf of:

  1. The “freedom of people, expression, teaching and worship” [19]. Federico promises to work for individual liberties. We must remember, in this sense, that:
    • the right of assembly had been canceled by the government of Guizot in 1846;
    • llfreedom of education remained one of the primary demands of the Church[20];
    • in 1848, slavery was legal in France[21].
  2. A “progressive tax system” that does not tax basic necessities and, therefore, that does not punish the poorest. The payment of taxes was to be calculated on a sliding scale, that is, in accord to the income of each individual.
  3. The “rights of laborers, […] the workers “associations”, not avoiding the social question, that is: all the problems that arose from the Industrial Revolution (at all levels: political, intellectual, religious…), especially the question of poverty and the lack of rights of the working class, of the workers.
  4. Justice and social security measures to alleviate the suffering of the people.

Frederic, to his relief, was not elected. However, during all those intense months, beginning in March 1848, he wrote many letters and many newspaper articles that were published in l’Ếre Nouvelle. Those texts that reveal his integrity as a citizen and a Catholic, his fine thinking and his concern for the society in which he lives, especially his concern for most disadvantaged classes.

It was a truly innovative program for a Catholic. But Catholic voters did not understand it and Ozanam was not elected. However, his genuine and rigorous vision of political commitment remains an exhortation for all politicians, those of yesterday and those of today[22].

Questions for personal reflection and group dialogue:

  1. In the society in which you live, which of Frederic’s proposals have been completely achieved? Have these been achieved in other parts of the world?
  2. Frederic’s other proposals, are they still valid today? Those which are not valid, can they be adapted in some way to preserve their spirit and to respond to present-day problems? Give some examples.

Notes:

[1] Today it is the official motto of the French Republic. It originated during the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century. Its use was made official, for the first time, in a decree of the Directory of the Department of Paris, which urged citizens to paint on the facades of their houses the phrase: “Unité, Indivisibilité de la République; Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la Mort” [Unity and Indivisibillity of the Republic; Freedom, Equality, Fraternity or Death]. In the 19th century it became the slogan of republicans and liberals who favored democracy, calling for the overthrow of oppressive and tyrannical governments of all kinds.

[2] On March 5, 1848, the provisional government decreed that elections be held on April 9 by universal suffrage. On March 17, in Paris, a republican demonstration forced the government to postpone the elections for two weeks. Elections finally took place April 23 (a note: the elections coincided with Federico’s 35th birthday and Easter Sunday).

[3] Until then, French elections were held by census suffrage: only nationals (or residents under certain conditions), over 25 or 30 years of age (according to historical moment) and who paid taxes had the right to vote. The number of voters, then, was very limited. For example, in the last census elections of 1847 some 246, 000 men voted (out of a total population of approximately 36,000,000). Voters had to pay a fee to vote: 300 francs (from 1814 to 1830), 200 francs (from 1831 to 1847), 100 francs (from 1847 until the first elections with universal

[4] France was one of the last western countries to grant women the right to vote and for women to be elected under the same conditions as men. That right was not be approved in France until April 21, 1944, by means of a decree signed by General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970). Women would exercise their right, for the first time, on April 29, 1945 (in municipal elections) and on October 21, 1945 (in national elections).

[5] Letter to Alphonse Ozanam, March 6, 1848.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Supporters of the return of the House of Bourbon to the throne.

[8] Supporters of King Louis Philippe of the House of Orléans.

[9]French anarchism originates from the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century. One of the fathers of French anarchist thought was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), who proposed a stateless society, where ownership of the means of production was individual or collective, and the exchange of goods and services represented a cost of equivalent work.

[10] In 1848, the industrial crisis in Paris was also accompanied by a particular consequence: manufacturers and wholesalers could not export their products, and opened large establishments, whose competition ruined small merchants, so they became involved in the February revolution.

[11] Letter to Alphonse Ozanam, March 15, 1848.

[12] Events have proved you right, beyond what you expected, if I am not mistaken. Be that as it may, Father Lacordaire and you are the men of the moment (Letter written by Theophile Foisset and addressed to Frederic Ozanam [March 11, 1848]).

[13] Letter to Theophile Foisset, March 22,1848.

[14] Letter to Louis Gros, March 30, 1648. This same group of citizens proposed the candidate of l’AbbeNoirot, who refsued: “I am very grateful for your desire to place my name in nomination but I have stated very clearly that my intention was to reject that nomination” (Letter of l’Abbe Noirot to Frederic Ozanam, April 1848 [the Archives of Laporte]).

[15] Letter to Jacques Lecoffre, April, 12, 1848.

[16] Letter to François Lallier, April 12, 1848.

[17] Letter to Alphonse Ozanam, April 12-21, 1848.

[18] Mauricio Ceste (ed.), Federico Ozanam, volume II: Scritti sociali e politici, Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino editore, 2019, pp. 179-180.

[19] Regarding freedom of worship and expression, it is interesting to observe the manner in which Frederic distanced himself from some past papal statements, in particular those of the previous pontiff, Gregory XVI, who, in his encyclical Mirari Vos, refers to freedom of conscience as a “madness” and a “runaway pestilence”, and disapproved of freedom of the press, which “was never sufficiently condemned” Furthermore, the same encyclical spoke about those who promote “seditions everywhere, preach all kinds of freedoms, promote disturbances against Church and State and try to destroy all authority … however holy it may be they try to “separate Church and State” and break “the harmony between the priesthood and civil powers”.

[20]The Church would attain many achievements in this regard with the approval of the so-called “Falloux Law” of March 15, 1850. Félix Esquirou de Parieu (1815-1893) was the Minister of Public Instruction and Worship (he was a member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in his youth). This law restored a good part of the influence that the institutional Church had held in the educational field before the French Revolution. Until 1850, the entire educational system was under the supervision of the public university and state-trained teachers. The new law enabled diocesan clergy and members of male and female religious orders to teach with no other qualification than a “letter of obedience,” while other teachers were required to pursue a university degree in order to teach in those schools where secondary education was provided. The law is named after the Catholic, Alfred de Falloux (1811-1886), historian, and politician. He was the minister of Public Instruction and Worship before De Parieu. The law, designed by him, was passed six months after his resignation (October 1849). He was also a member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Angers.

The Falloux law divided Catholics. Father Lacordaire was very enthusiastic about the law, comparing it with the Edict of Nantes (a law passed in 1598 which granted Protestants in France freedom of conscience and worship, with some restrictions). Frederic, however, remained silent. In the correspondence that has been preserved, there is only passing mention of the new legislation, and it is not favorable:

“Nos since the clergy have been given the chair of bishops on the University Council, since the parish priests have become mere electoral agents, we are losing ground in Paris, and the priests, who were respected in February 1848, are once again insulted on the streets (Letter to Alexandre Dufieux, June 5, 1850).

[21] In Frederic’s time there were still slaves in the French colonies. The trafficking of slaves was abolished in 1794 but was reestablished by Napoleon in 1802. It was definitively suppressed by the Provisional Government of the Second Republic on April 27, 1848.

[22] Mauricio Ceste (ed.), op.cit, p. 180.

Javier F. Chento
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