2018 Volume 127 Issue 4 Pages 1-40
Parliamentary Studies in the French Third Republic, called the Parliamentary Republic, have focused almost exclusively on the two national assemblies. In contrast, this article aims to situate local assemblies within the politics of the Parliamentary Republic, focusing on the department of Bouches-du-Rhône in the early French Third Republic.
The scope of the law governing the prefectural assemblies (conseils généraux), hereafter, the 1871 law, loosened the limits on their administration in a general context of increased decentralisation. However, the deputies at that time considered the prefectural assembly an ‘administrative agency’ (corps constitué) and not a ‘political assembly’, and hence the then Conservative Republican government did not legalise their political petitions (vœux politiques). As the 1871 law makers had intended, prefectural assemblies in the 1870s were regarded as ‘administrative agencies’ by the prefects and the government, and they functioned within that boundary.
The situation, however, changed as a consequence of the founding of the Parliamentary Republic in 1879. The prefectural assemblies began to recognise themselves as ‘political assemblies’ representing ‘public opinion’, so they even began issuing political petitions that had been considered illegal by the 1871 law, or, in order to avoid violating this law,they expressed the political opinions in their informal meetings.
In contrast, the central bodies (the Republican government and parliaments) did not formally allow, nor did they stringently prohibit, this transformation, because, for them, the prefectural assemblies functioned to mould and also represent ‘public opinion’. The deputies or senators, in particular those who were simultaneously members of the local assembly, contributed in the local assemblies to moulding ‘public opinion&rsquo to suit their or their party’s policy. In brief, the formalisation of this transformation permitted on the one hand the inclusion of the public opinion of political enemies, and, on the other hand, the more stringent interdiction of the transformation resulted in the exclusion of its political collaborators. Thus, the government and the majority in parliament decided to maintain the status quo that enabled them to deal with prefectural assemblies ambiguously according to their political composition in the context of the transformation of prefectural assemblies.
In this process, the prefectural assembly was included in the politics of the Parliamentary Republic as a ‘political assembly’ moulding and representing ‘public opinion&rsquo. Thus, the illegal or informal political sphere emerged gradually between the central and the local assemblies under the Parliamentary Republic.