Even at the Risk of Official Suppression, L’Univers Exposes the French Empire’s Anti-Papal Policies

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Even at the Risk of Official Suppression, L’Univers Exposes the French Empire’s Anti-Papal Policies
Napoleon III with his family.

Napoleon III’s political reversal, which supported the Italian revolutionaries, was carefully prepared in secrecy. At the same time, articles in government newspapers gradually shaped public opinion to accept that radical change.

Two episodes suffice to show the Emperor’s disloyalty toward Pope Pius IX.

In 1859, an anonymous book titled Emperor Napoleon III and Italy advocated unifying the Italian Peninsula. Further, it announced that France’s government would not oppose it. Later, it was learned that its author was the government’s official censor, Arthur de La Gueronnière.1 Given his close relationship with the Emperor, he certainly would not have taken such an initiative without his consent.

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In January 1858, Napoleon III, on a water spa vacation at Plombières, sent an unofficial invitation to Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Cavour was a leading advocate of Italian unification. The Emperor explained he would be pleased to receive Cavour privately. The Prime Minister accepted the invitation and met his new ally under the name of Giuseppe Benso. With this display of French support, the first step toward Italian unification was taken during that interview. They developed a plan to incite an insurrection in Massa Carrara, a region ruled by Duke Francis V of Modena. Under attack, the Duke would undoubtedly ask Austria for help. The revolutionaries would appeal to King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia to resist the Austrians. Under such conditions, a war would break out, and France would side against Austria, its traditional adversary.

On his return from Plombières, Napoleon III began acting more openly. He assumed the longstanding Franco-Austrian animosity would attract widespread sympathy for his plans. But he encountered tremendous opposition both in public opinion and among his immediate aides. On the other hand, the great powers approved of the development of the French policy. England took advantage of the situation to propose general disarmament and proposed a conference where England, France, Russia, Austria, and Piedmont (Sardinia) would regulate Italy’s affairs.

Faced with his policy’s unpopularity, Louis Napoleon had to agree. But Piedmont refused to hold the conference, threatened to publish the secret agreements with France, and announced that it would march against Austria alone. An angry Austria sent an ultimatum demanding that Piedmont disarm within three days. The ultimatum was rejected, and war broke out just as Napoleon III and Cavour planned. Austria’s impatience had helped facilitate Sardinia’s unification plans. However, to Cavour’s great disappointment, ill-prepared France took the first opportunity to end the fighting, even after achieving some victories. Even so, the result favored the cause of Italy’s unification. Austria lost Lombardy, and Napoleon III took a significant step forward in his revolutionary policy.

Knowing about these developments is indispensable to understanding Louis Veuillot’s position correctly. He absolutely opposed unification and unconditionally defended maintaining the Papal States. Thus, he was in complete opposition to the French government.

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During the Second Empire, the imperial regime severely supervised the press. According to the laws in force, the government could suppress a newspaper after giving it two warnings and a temporary suspension. Hithertofore, the prestige of l’Univers had ensured its freedom of expression. In normal situations, the government was reluctant to cross Catholic opinion. But now, France was rapidly moving toward a most radical opposition to the Holy See. The newspaper could have no illusions: either it renounced its glorious past and gave up the fight or risked being closed down. Louis Veuillot decided to continue his support of the Pope. He openly set himself against imperial policy.

The situation of l’Univers became even more delicate as it had already suffered the first of two warnings that could lead to suppression. In 1857, l’Univers‘s Melchior du Lac contested the legality of proceedings brought by the government against Pierre-Simon de Dreux-Brézé, the Bishop of Moulins. The bishop took certain measures against some priests of his diocese. The official government mouthpiece, Moniteur, sought to justify a penalty against the bishop. Veuillot’s response to the charges almost brought a second reprimand. At that moment, however, Napoleon III still hoped to win over l’Univers to his new policy and intervened to prevent it.

As the war between Sardinia and Austria took shape, a mediocre writer, Edmond About, was in Rome on an ill-defined but official mission. From the Medici Palace, the headquarters of the French embassy, he wrote travel impressions for the Moniteur Universel. They were nothing but satire against the government of the Papal States.

About’s articles forced a reaction from the official organ of the Papal States. The Journal of Rome published “One reads in the Paris Moniteur Universel, articles by Edmond About in the Contemporary Italy section. His articles stand to reality just as exaggeration, lies, and slander stand in the face of truth.” L’Univers reproduced this note. The Interior Minister, the Duke of Padua, immediately warned Veuillot that the government would not tolerate his opposition. The minister was a practicing Catholic, but even a stauncher Bonapartist.

The Moniteur stopped publishing Edmond About’s articles. Still, a book he had published in Belgium, The Roman Question, written with the same sectarian mentality, was allowed to circulate in France. L’Univers protested again. The Duke of Padua sent for Veuillot, telling him he had prevented an unofficial warning from being issued. On the same occasion, the Moniteur published this notice: “Mr. About’s book, The Roman Question, has been forbidden, and its author deferred to the courts.” The book disappeared from bookstores, but the lawsuit never happened.

During the war with Austria, a revolt broke out in Perugia, in the Papal States. This was promptly suppressed. Italian liberals indignantly accused the papal troops of firing on defenseless people. French government newspapers echoed these calumnies. Veuillot took up the defense of the papal government. He ironically wrote that some people needed to fire on others in a revolution. Such accusations from liberal revolutionaries were commonplace.

Then, Veuillot took direct aim at the Napoleon III. He recalled, “The same accusation was made against French soldiers when the Second Empire was established, as one can see from excerpts from Belgian newspapers of the time, transcribed at the end of this article.”

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As a result, a second warning was issued, signed by the Duke of Padua and Councilor La Gueronnière. It read:

“Given the article published by Univers in its July 10, 1859 issue, signed by Louis Veuillot and beginning with the words ‘there is great affinity;

“Whereas this article gives culpable publicity to pamphlets printed abroad, which contain most hateful attacks against the French people, the government, Religion, and the army;

“Whereas extracts from these publications inserted in the Univers excite hatred between the population and the army, united in a shared feeling of order and national glory;

“Finally, considering that the same article attacks and insults the origin of the power which the Emperor received from universal suffrage;

“Decrees: Art. 1-A second warning is hereby issued to the newspaper Univers in the person of its manager, Mr. Taconet, and Mr. Louis Veuillot, signatory of the article.”

All of the penalties against l’Univers were issued by practicing Catholics. The latest one was so patently unfair that the Duke of Padua felt obliged to apologize. He wrote the newspaper, unconvincingly explaining that he had not written the decree but was forced to sign it.

With the victory of France in the war against Austria, Napoleon III granted a general amnesty, which entailed the cancellation of the two penalties. Thus, l’Univers could begin again with a first warning, which gave it some respite. Nonetheless, it continued defending the rights of the Holy See against the encroachment plotted with the Empire’s disloyal complicity.


  1. M. de La Gueronnière’s official title was Director General of the Bookshop and Press—a part of the Ministry of the Interior.

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