FIGAROVOX/MAJOR MAINTENANCE – In The invention of “at the same time”the young historian Jean-Baptiste Gallen retraces the life of Élie Decazes, who ruled France between 1818 and 1820. He draws a striking parallel between his political strategy and that of the current President of the Republic.
Jean-Baptiste Gallen is a historian. Specialist in restoration, published The invention of “at the same time” (Cerf, 2022, 152 p., €18).
FIGAROVOX. – You draw in your book the portrait of an “ambitious” who led France for three years, but left few memories in our collective memory. Who was Elie Decazes?
Jean Baptiste GALLEN. † Élie Decazes is a real Balzac character. This young provincial arrived in the capital in 1800, in his twenties, at the beginning of Bonaparte’s personal power. Decazes climbed the ladder one by one and mingled with the imperial political elite. On the definitive return of the monarchy in 1815, he became a monarchist and managed to find a place for himself with King Louis XVIII. He even became his favorite: every day they talked for a long time, wrote each other constantly… And in 1818, at the age of only 38, Decazes became head of government.
Decazes pleases the king with his charisma and good looks. He is only 38 years old: he accepts his political immaturity and perceives it as a force within this aging political class that has constantly betrayed all successive regimes. At the same time, Decazes is ambitious: his political thinking is flexible and mobile. A network man, the Prime Minister is at the head of an extremely powerful political system that allows him to incline the ministry’s policy to one side or the other according to his particular interests at the moment.
In 1818, the king wrote to Decazes this sentence that perfectly defines the policy that will be implemented: “Let’s walk between right and left, reaching out to them and telling ourselves that whoever is not against us is with us.” The head of government will make this his maxim.
Élie Decazes does not offer a new vision of the world. He just tries to bring together the disillusioned right and left to make a policy that wants to be pragmatic and thus becomes opportunistic.
Jean Baptiste Gallen
His book immerses us in political life under the Restoration. You remember that it was during this period that the right-left division that appeared in 1789 was reborn; what then are the main lines of opposition between the two camps?
In fact, the restoration of the monarchy is paradoxically the return of a true political division. Previously, Napoleon had thought and designed the institutions of the Empire in such a way as to preclude discussion and debate. He didn’t like people discussing his politics. The seats of parliamentarians were previously decided within the chambers to avoid the constitution of a right-wing and a left-wing bloc.
The Restoration, in turn, created two parliamentary chambers where debate (and positioning) was completely free. We go to the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Peers as we go to the Opera. Chateaubriand, Benjamin Constant debate in these rooms that are the occasion of real parliamentary disputes. In this context, politicians fall into families of thought.
On the one hand, the right is divided in two: on the one hand are the supporters of a return to the principles of the Ancien Régime, called the ultra. They want “unfold the revolution in the opposite directionaccording to an expression of the time. But there is also a moderate right that, conversely, considers a return to the past impossible. For her, not everything should be thrown away in the revolutionary heritage.
For its part, the left is deeply divided. It is very discreet, as a significant part of its members supported Napoleon Bonaparte when he returned from the island of Elba in March 1815. It is made up of Bonapartists who await the return of the Emperor – still alive in Saint Helena – from supporters of a parliamentary monarchy and some republicans.
Faced with the resurgence of a bipartition in French political life, Élie Decazes does not seek to propose a third way, but rather to bring together moderates from both sides. What does this “in-between” policy consist of?
Élie Decazes does not offer a new vision of the world. He just tries to bring together the disillusioned right and left to make a policy that wants to be pragmatic and thus becomes opportunistic. So he forms his ministry by hunting people on both sides.
Therefore, your policy is unclassifiable. Depending on the context, it alternates between right and reform of clumsy. But making the connection is tricky. The contradictions and twists are numerous, amplifying the feeling of frustration of most voters.
There is a Jupiterian style to the Decazian way of exercising power. Decazes does not appreciate opposition, preferring efficiency to dialogue. Does the Chamber of Deputies not suit him? It dissolves the Chamber and modifies the electoral law.
Jean Baptiste Gallen
It is thus difficult to know what Decazes’ convictions were, and this imprecision allows for flexibility. Majority deputies do not know which position they will have to defend before studying the text. The moderate right and left try to exist but struggle to be heard. They denounce the betrayal of their former members who joined the ministry. They point the finger at the inconsistency of the colleague who one day defends the liberalization of the press and who two years later defends the opposite.
You make Elie Decazes the inventor of “the same time”; what are the outstanding characteristics that allow us to compare him to Emmanuel Macron?
Aside from the physique and young age, political methods are similar. There is a Jupiterian style to the Decazian way of exercising power. Decazes does not appreciate opposition, preferring efficiency to dialogue. Does the Chamber of Deputies not suit him? It dissolves the Chamber and modifies the electoral law. Does the House of Peers oppose your policy? He nominates 60 pairs that overthrow the majority of the House. Oppositions denounce the insignificant role of ministerial deputies who would only have to raise their arms to vote on ministerial laws, turning the Chamber of Deputies into a simple registration chamber.
In terms of electoral strategy, the methods are similar. Decazes personally takes care of the nomination of candidates. Because his politics flirt with both the right and the left at the same time, he varies the color of candidates according to territories. In left-wing departments, ministerial candidates come from the left, and conversely, in right-wing-friendly territories, the ministry features right-wing figures.
This is perhaps basically the whole paradox of this “at the same time” policy. Far from appeasing a country, it arouses resentment and brings violence to the surface.
Jean Baptiste Gallen
Over time, rallies are rarer because the novelty he has incorporated is losing steam. To maintain power, Decazes declares that if he loses the elections, the extreme right will replace him. “Me or the Ultras”, here is the dangerous and surprisingly modern rhetoric that Decazes resorted to 200 years ago. It makes the radical right the only alternative to its politics and all those who try to have a moderate speech against Decazes find themselves crushed by the extremes.
Decazes and the doctrinaires around him choose to trust the inner-city bourgeoisie and exclude the popular classes from the political system to maintain order, you say. Do you also see a parallel here with the current situation?
Yes, I also see one of the many parallels there. France was already fragmented when Decazes came to power, but his policy was to make the situation worse.
Decazes is convinced that the big winners of the last decades, of the Revolution and of the Empire, are the bourgeois of the city centers. He will thus stroke them in the direction of the hair. The liberals of the center and the ultras of the countryside represent two Frances who do not rub shoulders, who do not dialogue anymore. The country was already fragmented, it becomes an “archipelago” to use Jérôme Fourquet’s formula.
You insist on the exasperation aroused by the “balanced” policy of Elie Decazes, who, by alternately seeking to satisfy moderates on the right and then on the left, contributes to the radicalization of both camps. How does this rise to extremes translate?
This is perhaps basically the whole paradox of this “at the same time” policy. Far from appeasing a country, it arouses resentment and brings violence to the surface. With this strategy, any form of debate becomes impossible because one cannot intelligently exchange with those who say everything and the opposite. The debate presupposes clarity and honesty of convictions: Decazes’ strategy lacks these two conditions. And when ideas fall silent, special interests take over and the country sinks into a war of all against all.
Political debate is nothing more than appointments, poaching or electoral strategies in a situation where political crises follow one another.
The far right took power soon after him. The emptiness of his thinking could only give way to an extreme radicalism, which seemed to respond to all the fears of the time.
Jean Baptiste Gallen
In this context, only the most radical can make their ideas heard. Decazes has only an extreme right and a radical left in front of him.
Chateaubriand described Decazes as a man who “because he deceived all, deceives no one,” and his ministry ended after three years, in 1820. What precipitated his downfall?
Working this period is having the pleasure of reading politicians like Chateaubriand or Benjamin Constant.
In February 1820, the Duke of Berry, the King’s nephew, the only one capable of giving descendants to the Bourbons, was assassinated on leaving the opera. This event is thunder. Decazes cannot be in charge: he is blamed for this political climate in which a prince of the blood is brutally murdered in the street.
Because his downfall became inevitable, because his person and policy were vilified, the extreme right seized power soon after him. The emptiness of his thinking could only give way to an extreme radicalism, which seemed to respond to all the fears of the time.