Strange Bedfellows: Literary and Popular Culture in 1870s France

By Susanna Barrows

The Third Republic’s triumph was not only the result of the language and practices of the bourgeoisie, but also those of ordinary people, who fought conservatism with the weapons of Rabelaisian popular culture – laughter, jokes, obscene gestures, tricks, scatology and deliberately vulgar language. This trend was particularly visible during the 16 May 1877 crisis. When President MacMahon pushed the republican government of Jules Simon to resign, then decided to appoint a minority government of monarchists and Bonapartistes and to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies, he and his partisans came up against an energetic movement of popular resistance, which used humour and mockery to oppose this grab for power. Most striking is the fact that a majority of French writers of the 1870s, often described as indifferent to politics, echoed the language and watchwords of this popular resistance to the ‘Bayard of modern times’ (as MacMahon was known to those who viewed him favourably). The convergences between literary culture and popular culture thus sketched an unexpected camaraderie between these two worlds.

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