- L’identité politique de Lyon: entre violences collectives et mémoire des élites 1786–1905
The subject of historical memory in France has been so extensively treated in Pierre Nora’s seven-volume series, Les Lieux de mémoire (1083–1992), that one must commend Bruno Benoît for finding an unstudied aspect of it to write about. Although they saw French memory as multiple and paid attention to numerous minority traditions, the contributors to Nora’s collection omitted constructions of memory specific to particular regions and cities, which would have swelled the project to an unmanageable size. Benoît, who has made numerous contributions to the local history of Lyon and its region, has attempted to show that historical events gave France’s second largest city a specific identity, and that this identity explains why the city’s political orientation was always out of phase with national trends.
Benoît argues that Lyon’s political identity throughout the long nineteenth century and even beyond was shaped by the city’s experience during the French Revolution, and especially by the memory of the local uprising against the Montagnards in 1793 and the brutal repression that followed it. Under the Restoration, local conservatives used the memory of the 1793 uprising as evidence of Lyon’s loyalty to the monarchy, but, after 1830, bourgeois elites reasserted its character as a moderate protest against revolutionary radicalism and made it into an object lesson of the dangers of political extremism of both left and right. This glorification of moderation and the corresponding rejection of class warfare [End Page 481] explains, in Benoît’s view, why Lyon proved relatively resistant to radical doctrines imported from Paris and why Lyonnais voters eventually made Edouard Herriot, the incarnation of moderate republicanism and the author of what is still the standard French account of the 1793 uprising, a virtual mayor for life after 1905.
By putting so much emphasis on the memory of 1793 and its manipulation, Benoît diminishes the significance of the episodes of collective violence for which Lyon is usually remembered: the urban insurrections of 1831, 1834 and 1849. Outside of Lyon, these upheavals were interpreted as precursors of a generalized class war between bourgeoisie and proletariat, but in Lyon itself, as Yves Lequin showed in his Les ouvriers de la région lyonnaise (1977), radical leftist movements failed to take strong root in the region after 1850, and workers’ loyalties to the republic and the nation proved stronger than their sense of class consciousness. Benoît’s argument reproduces the difference between local and Parisian interpretation of the Lyon uprisings at the time of their occurrence. Lyonnais chroniclers, including the arch-bourgeois municipal historian Jean-Baptiste Monfalcon, whose importance Benoît correctly underlines, pointed out that the city’s silkworkers were small entrepreneurs and artisans, not proletarians, and that the Lyon insurrections were largely quarrels specific to the city’s dominant industry, whereas Paris journalists were quick to turn these events into evidence of a world-historical class struggle.
Benoît makes an effective case for the existence of a distinctive Lyonnais political identity, but he is less persuasive in explaining how it was transmitted. How was memory of the trauma of 1793 kept alive in a growing population made up mostly of immigrants? Was family tradition sufficient to maintain this paradigm’s hold on the minds of the city’s bourgeois elites? Was the subject regularly treated in the local press? And did recollections of 1793 really overshadow memories of the nineteenth-century uprisings? Benoît’s unsystematic presentation of the evidence leaves room for doubt, and the repetitious and sometimes confusing structure of the book also weakens its persuasive power. The subject of municipal political cultures and their relationship to local history is obviously a rich one, but Benoît’s volume raises more questions than it answers.