Via an analysis of men and women’s letters to individual French representatives in parliament (députés) between 1900 and the 1930s, the book seeks to offer unique insights into these citizens’ lived experiences with political religion, republicanism and secularization, democratization without full citizenship, and tensions between left and right, governance and representation, clientelism and politicization. These insights contribute to our understanding of why the war was not necessarily a democratizing factor in France, or at least not on the formal, institutional level. Voters and non-voters, men and women seem to have been under the impression that they could actively contribute to their representation on a micro-political level, through their act of writing letters to deputies, which helps explain the remarkable legitimacy of the French Third Republic, despite its instability on the surface. In sum, Karen Lauwers explores the paradoxes of the regime and how these were (re)imagined by “ordinary” citizens facing rapidly succeeding governments, the Great War, the subsequent economic crisis, political scandals, anti-parliamentary sentiments, and changes in electoral laws that nonetheless still denied women the vote. Helping readers to reflect on the nuances of the politicization process, the book is aimed towards those researching French political history and modern European political culture.
Because the sources are text and thing, object and practice at the same time, Part I focuses on their “thingness” first and the channels they fitted in, before turning to their textual aspect. Citizens’ letters to parliamentary representatives are not only scrutinized as communicative objects that were part of a larger communicational network connecting private and public worlds, but also as a practice that was part of negotiated habits and rules. The first section of the book studies the concrete communication tools (from citizens’ physical presence in the Chamber, over standardized forms to subterranean postal tube systems), as well as less tangible networks and practices. What kind of channels for political communication and participation were available and accessible to ordinary people, aside from the vote? What possibilities did the Palais Bourbon offer to facilitate the contact between citizens and députés? Could this contact be maintained during the First World War, and if so, how? What stages did the requests go through and who intervened on the road to a possible solution? How did citizens know whom to turn to and how did they learn what they could rightfully ask?
Part II of the book draws the reader’s attention to the image(s) and role(s) that citizens co-constructed for and with the députés they contacted. A careful analysis of their letters allows us to break the negotiated image of a parliamentary representative down into various subtypes. How did a deputy’s role(s) take shape in comparison to the role(s) of other institutions—the political group, the government, the Chamber and its other members, the Republic—and the image of the Fatherland? To a certain extent, discursive constructions of what a representative’s task should be and what his place was in these institutions were tactical choices. Citizens wrote to their “deputy-protector” because they needed something from him. However, even the most personal requests often reveal the letter-writers’ broader interpretation of what the ideal political representation and regime should be and which political institutions met their expectations.
Do you want to know more about the political identities that ordinary men and women in early-twentieth-century France construed for themselves and their representatives? Find Karen Lauwers’ book here.