Good Intentions Gone Wrong—The Count de Falloux Explains His Role in Destroying the French Catholic Movement

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Good Intentions Gone Wrong—The Count de Falloux Explains His Role in Destroying the French Catholic Movement
Frédéric Alfred Pierre, comte de Falloux

In 1835, two close friends from France met in a London hotel. One was a Legitimist returning from a visit to old King Charles X. The other was a Bonapartist at the service of the ex-King Joseph, brother of Napoleon I. They were Frédéric Alfred Pierre, Count de Falloux and Jean Fialin, Duc de Persigny. In their conversation, Count de Falloux dismissed his friend’s hopes for a Bonaparte restoration to the French throne. De Persigny prophetically told him: “Your eyes will yet be opened. Prince Louis will reign, and you will be part of his first cabinet.”

In 1840, Persigny was arrested for his part in one of Louis Napoleon’s attempted revolutions. The Count de Falloux visited him in prison. As he left, Persigny slipped a piece of paper into his hand. It contained the address of a house. There, uniforms had been stored in hopes of Louis Napoleon’s triumphal entry into Paris.

Had these uniforms been discovered by King Louis Philippe’s police, they would have been overwhelming proof of guilt against Louis Napoleon and his friends. To assist Persigny, the Count de Falloux made those uniforms disappear.

In 1849, Louis Napoleon became France’s president with the full support of the Party of Order. Louis Philippe’s one-time Prime Minister, Adolphe Thiers, intended to dominate the prince-president. He guided the negotiations to form a cabinet. However, Prince Louis demanded the Count de Falloux be one of his ministers. Prince Louis had two motives behind his insistence. First, he was paying a debt of gratitude and fulfilling a wish of his loyal supporter, Persigny. Second, the Count of Falloux was one of the “Rue Poitiers Notables.” As a Legitimist with a respected political name, he would bring the support of the Catholic Party to the government.

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At first, Count de Falloux formally refused. Then, Father Dupanloup entered the scene. The priest convinced the young Legitimist leader to join the cabinet. In his memoirs, Falloux explained how Father Dupanloup overcame his resistance.

“I had at my service a Vendean, Marc Séjon, whom all my friends knew and esteemed simply as Marquet. The son of a gamekeeper of my father’s, he had been born and raised in my house. His political passion and personal dedication could not be outdone. Against my will, he followed me during the July insurrection. I was sure of his inviolable respect for my orders. So I entrusted him with my campaign plan, recommending that he send me a cab to Madame Swetchine’s home in the Rue Saint Dominique at nine o’clock, forbidding her to reveal my secret hideout to anyone.

All went well until half past eight. I was talking happily like a man who had just escaped great danger when the hall door, which I knew was strictly closed, burst open, and Father Dupanloup appeared. He excused himself with Madame Swetchine in a few words and said to me:

‘I have been at your house since six o’clock begging Marquet, in the name of most serious interests, to tell me where I might find you. Ruthlessly, he left me without dinner, but seeing the time for your return approaching, he put me in the cab coming for you, and here I am.’

‘Very well, what do you want of me?’

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‘I want to make you feel the weight of your responsibility. They took your refusal to Prince Louis, and he replied coldly: ‘I understand what that means. One does not voluntarily refuse a ministerial portfolio at the Count of Falloux’s age. It is his party that does not allow him to accept. Therefore, it is a declaration of war. I wanted to have a foothold in the conservatives. As he fails me, I must look for someone elsewhere. Today, the Legitimist party raises a flag; tomorrow, it will be the turn of the Orleanist party. I cannot be left unaided, so I’m going to ask the left for the help that the right doesn’t want to give me. I will see Mr. Jules Favre this afternoon.’

‘There you have, my ‘friend,’ added Father Dupanloup, ‘the situation your stubbornness has created. You will abandon Italy to its convulsions, leave the pope helpless and handed over to his worst enemies, throw France back into the wants to break free from and cover with confusion the most eminent representatives of the Conservative Party.’

I was terrified by the situation pictured by Father Dupanloup. Madame Swetchine said nothing.

‘But who has said all this?’ I asked

‘First, Mr. Molé, then Mr. Montalembert, who is having dinner two steps away at Madame Thayer’s home and begs to see you.’

‘Very well, take me to him.’

I left Madam Swetchine in tremendous anxiety because she knew the depths of my soul well enough to understand the extent of my sacrifice. Madam Thayer, daughter of General Bertrand, combined great distinction with great piety. She was in significant synchrony with the actions and desires of Catholics. As soon as he saw me enter, Mr. Montalembert exclaimed:

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‘We were wrong to give in. We should have foreseen this. Please fix this situation if there’s still time.’

The entire hall echoed his words.

‘Very well,’ I replied, ‘I will no longer fight on my own but must impose conditions on both and me. Let’s go immediately to Mr. Thiers while Father Dupanloup returns to Mr. Molé.’

The hall in the Place Saint Georges was beginning to fill up. Mr. Montalembert entered alone and whispered to Mr. Thiers that I was waiting for him in the next room. He came right away with both hands outstretched.

‘Don’t thank me yet,’ I told him. ‘I came to look for you because the priests sent me (I used this expression on purpose to put the problem right away). I accept the ministry if you promise me to prepare, uphold and vote with me on the freedom of teaching law. Not otherwise.’

‘I promise, I promise,’ Mr. Thiers replied effusively. ‘And believe me: it’s not a promise hard to make. Count on me because my conviction is the same as yours. My liberal friends and I were on the wrong track in the religious area, and we must frankly acknowledge it. But now let me immediately go to Prince Louis, who is receiving detestable advice, so it might no longer be possible to free him from these disastrous influences after a few hours.’

Mr. Thiers hastily excused himself from his visitors. Mr. Montalembert wanted to take it upon himself to inform Mr. Molé on my behalf of what had happened at Mr. Thiers’ house. I took my carriage and arrived home saying:

‘Well, poor Marquet, you’re going into the cabinet. Who could tell?!’

‘Certainly not I,’ he replied sadly. ‘However, as you did, I’m sure it’s for good, so we need to resign ourselves.’”

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Curiously enough, Falloux, a faithful friend of the Bonapartist Persigny, was 37 years old. At this age, he was naturally inclined to desire a great career. Nonetheless, he obstinately refused a cabinet post. He also refused to collaborate with Prince Louis Napoleon to repress the disorder that led the Conservative Party to support the Prince’s presidential candidacy. However, despite the tragic colors in which Father Dupanlou depicted the pope’s situation, Falloux only agreed on the condition that the freedom of education law was approved. Yet, at the Chamber of Deputies, he refused to be part of the education committee on which that law’s approval depended.

Eventually, the Count de Falloux became Louis Napoleon’s first Minister of Public Instruction. He drafted the law on freedom of teaching in such a way that Catholic France still suffers its consequences. This law completely liquidated the Catholic Party.

On taking office, the Count of Falloux found a beautiful red Morocco folder on his desk. The card on top of it said, “From Mr. de Persigny. Remembrance of London, 1835.”

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