History of Europe

The providential man, a figure in French political life

French political life was born in the debates that marked the revolutionary period of 1789. They gave birth to a political division, which has become traditional, the separation between left and right. Over the course of the evolution of French society through the 19th and 20th centuries, new characteristics were to be added to this French political life, and one of these particularities resided in the figure of the Providential Man .

The Providential Man, a persistence of monarchical representation

Whether through the figure of Napoleon, Adolphe Thiers, General Boulanger, Raymond Poincaré, Gaston Doumergue, Marshal Pétain or General de Gaulle, all these men embodied the hopes of the French by responding to specific aspirations, in a difficult context, through the crisis of a society and the feeling of an undecided and uncertain future. This figure of the Savior is reminiscent of the fact that France lived for centuries under the regime of absolute monarchy, whose neuralgic point of political power resided in the figure of the King, "the representative of God on Earth", endowed of divine powers and guiding the subjects of the kingdom of France.

This monarchical representation will ultimately endure and prosper within French political life and whatever the nature of the political regime in France, from the Monarchy to the Republic via the Empire. The providential man will be the object of a real cult on the part of the French, thus oscillating between myth, that is to say facts, representations, which are given to him simply falling under the invention, the imaginary and thus modifying the reality of the facts. The History of France shows that this figure of the Providential Man emerged in very different contexts.

Napoleon, between the figure of the warrior and that of the legislator

The perception of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, of his military exploits as well as of his actions while he was still a general during the Revolution, will build the image of the "Saviour" in the minds of the French people. A vision that will last throughout the territory through the prolific industry of "Images d'Epinal" that we will find during "the long 19th century". These "cliches" then reveal the traditional, naive vision and only reveal the good side of certain historical figures as well as certain events. These "images of Epinal" will serve the imperial propaganda in order to magnify the acts of the Emperor and those of the imperial army, whose objective is to make the population accept the greatness and the power of his Emperor and his army through, among other examples, the pictorial representation of the battle of Austerlitz.

As a young captain, Bonaparte embodied "the conquering boldness of young captains eager to rush into glory" (Raoul Girardet). Indeed, it drew its legitimacy not from the past, nor from the future, but is part of the brilliance of immediate action. In this perspective, the young Bonaparte and his victories in the two Italian campaigns of 1795 and 1800 built the mythology of a Bonaparte, transformed into a Savior. Within the arts of painting and literature, such images will be reused. This was the case of the painter David, presenting the very famous image of a Bonaparte crossing the Mont Saint-Bernard pass, pointing out his future conquests in Italy. Writers such as Stendhal, Balzac or Maurice Barrès wrote and participated in this way to mythologize the person of Bonaparte. Barrès was able to write that Bonaparte was “thoughtful, fierce, with the bluish complexion of young heroes who dream of the Empire”. Napoleon Bonaparte then finds himself crowned with a certain form of sacredness which will endure through the Napoleonic legend promised to a long posterity.

War exploits should not, however, hide the importance of an Emperor as legislator, an element that participated in the construction of this image of the Providential Man. Napoleon is the one who was the founder of a new institutional order. Adolphe Thiers, French politician commented on the laws of the First Empire by revealing that they were "the bases of modern society". He extends his remarks by revealing that Napoleon endowed French society with “order, our civil status and our administrative organization”. Through his legislative acts, Napoleon is not only considered a providential man for his feats of arms, his brilliant exploits, but he is also considered for his work in the administration of France, acts which place him in the long time of the life of the country.

Through these great deeds, Napoleon settled into the imagination of the French as the hero of France. A vision that will feed itself, despite the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. His return from the island of Elba, the place where he was exiled, helped to further magnify his image. From his landing at Golf Juan to his arrival in Paris in the space of two weeks, the population overwhelmingly rallied to the Emperor. He had taken care to take a route without major risk, of which the Bonapartist sentiments of the population left little doubt. He thus voluntarily abandoned the royalist noon, which was more threatening.

The warlike exploits, the work of the legislator, his return from the island of Elba, and his death on the island of Saint Helena in May 1821 contributed to build the Napoleonic legend.

This attachment to Napoleon is expressed, in at least two important events, through the return of Napoleon's ashes in December 1840, accompanied by genuine popular jubilation, as well as during of the election of the President of the Republic on December 10, 1848 which consecrates the victory of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I to the great surprise of his opponents, since the latter won the election with a total of 7.5 million votes. A sociological study of the votes has shown that these votes essentially came from the rural population. Universal (male) suffrage brought to light the longevity of the Napoleonic legend that lingers in the minds of the French.

Thereafter, another man, imbued with the Bonapartist heritage, will emerge in the imagination of the French in a totally different context, that of the nascent third republic, in through the episode of General Boulanger.

General Boulanger:"gatherer of the discontented"

The emergence of General Boulanger's popularity is above all due to the economic, social and political situation in France between 1886 and 1889, two dates that frame this ephemeral episode of Boulangism from the rise of Boulanger to his downfall by the Republican Defense Act.

French society then found itself plunged into a veritable economic and social slump. With the bankruptcy of the banks and in particular that of the General Union in 1882, there was a stock market panic which had repercussions on French production. The direct consequence of this stock market crisis lies in the slowdown in economic growth, the entry of the agricultural and industrial sectors into a deep crisis, affected, in the first case, by phylloxera, this insect harmful to vine plants, then in the second case, by series of bankruptcies affecting the textile and metallurgical sectors, among others.

From this economic situation, protectionist demands emerge in order to fight against competition from foreign products. The company entered a period of social revolt, clearly visible through the Decazeville strike which took place from January to June 1886 against a background of wage demands on the part of the workers and a reduction in working hours.

In this situation of economic and social crisis, an identity crisis is emerging. Society then seeks a scapegoat, which it finds in the person of the Jews. This is the period that marks the rise of anti-Semitism not only in France but also more widely in Europe. Edouard Drumont, the author of “Jewish France” published his work during the year 1886, a book which found a wide echo in public opinion. Another phenomenon directly linked to this identity crisis is through the rejection of immigration and the asserted desire to withdraw into oneself. The immigrant then constituting a second scapegoat responsible for the situation in which the French population finds itself and which gives rise to a strong feeling of xenophobia.

The paroxysm of this crisis is to be found in the political sphere, the Republic is then a regime discredited by the division of the Republicans, and especially by the opprobrium cast on the institution and the representatives of parliamentarism, deemed impotent and incapable of resolving the crisis. This discredit is reinforced by corruption scandals, in particular the affair of the decorations, involving the son-in-law, Daniel Wilson, of the President of the Republic, freshly reelected in December 1885, Jules Grévy, forced to resign. This affair was revealed in October 1887 by a newspaper close to General Boulanger.

Finally, France has been experiencing a national crisis since the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the idea of ​​revenge will rock generations of French people, convinced to resume a day, "the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine". The French are then educated in the cult of the Fatherland, symbolized by the formation of "school battalions", shooting and gymnastic societies, supposed to prepare revenge.

The providential man

From this situation of generalized crisis, emerges the figure of General Boulanger. A career soldier, he took part in the wars of the Second Empire and in particular the battles which took place in the colonies, in Kabylia and in Indochina in particular. He entered politics on the occasion of the creation of the new Freycinet ministry as minister of war. Republican general, he opted for reform measures within the army, with in particular, the introduction of the Lebel rifle, the wearing of a beard among a multitude of other decrees. He undertook to republicanize the army by driving out the royalist and Bonapartist elements from this institution. He takes a position in favor of the Decazeville strikers and strictly enforces the law of expulsion targeting the princes in June 1886, imposing exile on them.

The importance of his popularity was revealed in broad daylight during the military parade of July 14, 1886, where he eclipsed the President of the Republic, Jules Grévy, the population singing " long live baker”. Boulanger also presents himself, on the occasion of the Schnaebele affair, accused of espionage in April 1887, as the promoter of revenge against Germany. He then affirmed his patriotism and his policy of firmness vis-à-vis Germany. After this affair, the formation of the new government took place without the person of Boulanger, who was sent to garrison Clermont-Ferrand to keep him away from the capital and public affairs of France.

Supported by his supporters, numerous and refusing his "exile", they began a period of intense propaganda promoting through songs, photographs and objects the personality of General Boulanger . He then became fiercely involved in electoral struggles and won a series of elections against the Republicans, bringing together politicians and voters, from both right and left, proof of a certain confusion, a scrambling and a loss of identity of the political families of that time.

Boulanger was perceived as a providential man, military, attached to the revenge of France, supports the most deprived by his rhetorical qualities, combining populism, the ideology which consists in speak for the people and demagoguery. Omnipresent in the minds of the French, it is ultimately his desire to maintain republican legality, that is to say the election, which will cause his downfall, many of his supporters wishing that the general undertake a coup to seize power, which he refused. From this confusion emerges the Republican defense, which accuses General Boulanger of attacking the security of the State, which earned him a prison sentence which he did not serve since he went into exile in England, then in Belgium before committing suicide from heartbreak in 1891 in Belgium. His funeral was attended by around 150,000 people, proof of his great popularity, a death which his movement did not survive.

The Providential Man therefore constituted a particularity of the French political system in the 19th century. Through the personalities of Napoleon and Boulanger, reappears the old monarchical background that France retained after the period of the Revolution, despite the destruction of the institutions of the Old Regime. The 20th century will also know other providential men, through Marshal Pétain and General de Gaulle among many others.


- Raoul Girardet, Myths and political mythologies. Point. History, 1990.