The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power

By Roger Price | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
The context for opposition

INTRODUCTION

The success or failure of a regime can be measured in relation to the level of opposition it arouses and also in terms of its ability to calm, institutionalise, and contain that opposition. The changing characteristics of regime and opposition were the result of a continuous dialectic — restrained by the unequal distribution of power and made possible by the inability of the regime entirely to set the terms under which the various social and political groups operated. The conditions for political activity were also established by changing socio-economic conditions, as industrialisation, urbanisation, the commercialisation of farming, and migration from the countryside gathered pace and as improved communications and rising literacy affected social relationships, the techniques of government, and the potential for organisation. The balance between continuity and change decisively shifted, presenting many with new opportunities for self-improvement but also involving much of the population in a confusing crise d'adaptation. These processes of social and cultural integration inevitably affected both collective identities and the mechanisms for political mobilisation.

The attempt to analyse political behaviour, in a transitional society, soon after the introduction of manhood suffrage raises all manner of analytical problems. The historian's constant efforts to explain politics in terms of ideological commitment or social allegiance are all too likely to lead to over-simplification, if only because every individual exercises a multiplicity of roles and is torn between competing loyalties. The respective weights of administrative or opposition influence on voters, the relative importance of national or local issues and personalities, the significance of the various means of informing opinion, and the perceptions and responsiveness of potential audiences all need to be taken into account. Levels of political awareness and commitment are difficult to

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