Cane and Stripes

Reflections on First-Degree Authority in France from 1830 to the First World War
By Jean-François Chanet

A productive comparison can be made between nineteenth-century French schoolmasters and warrant officers. Both were entrusted with what this article describes as “first-degree authority”. Such a comparison illuminates in both groups a twin obedience to democratic rule and patriotic discipline. Before 1880, their common subaltern position found expression in their low standard of living, their unflattering public image, and their frequent recourse to brutality in daily relations with students/recruits. In the wake of the French defeat and the Paris Commune in 1870-1871, the nation underwent an examination of conscience which triggered contradictory expectations. On the one hand, the army was expected to become a school for the nation, but on the other hand, schoolmasters had to distinguish themselves from warrant officer instructors. It was their duty to inculcate proper moral and civic values in children of modest backgrounds, keeping in mind that the majority of them would one day be drafted into the army. Compulsory school attendance finally succeeded in confronting the problem of literacy. As military service shortened, the role of warrant officers changed. Their first duty was to act as intermediaries with those in charge of the recruits’ first technical training sessions; at the same time, they took up a “social role” which complemented that of the officers. The First World War both demonstrated and undermined the power of this national pedagogical approach. After 1918, schoolmasters increasingly contested the ideological and social functions of authority which they had embraced, and which had linked them to army training for working-class children.


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