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Book History 4 (2001) 49-80

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The Failings of Popular News Censorship in Nineteenth-Century France

Thomas J. Cragin


In 1842, Parisian authorities arrested Antoine Chassaignon for a serious violation of the laws regulating the printing trade. Chassaignon lived and operated a small printshop in the very heart of Paris at 7 rue Git-le-Coeur, within sight of the river on the Seine's left bank. It was a dirty little shop containing a collection of old wooden and newer iron presses and inhabited by Chassaignon's several dogs. He ran the business with the help of one or two master printers, who were unable to obtain the coveted government license to run their own shops in Paris. These master printers, Chassaignon included, directed the work of around two dozen skilled workers, most compositors and typesetters. 1 Possessing the official license of the trade, Chassaignon was secure in hifs profession, though far from the most successful or prestigious Parisian printer.

Like many popular printers in Paris throughout the century, he specialized in the production of canards. The French equivalent of the American and British broadsides (one-page posters) and chapbooks (small multipage booklets), the canards reported sensational events, both current and past. Sold by street peddlers for only a sou (five centimes, the equivalent of one British penny), the canards provided a vast audience of middle- and lower-class, literate and semiliterate, readers with their only affordable [End Page 49] news press. Canard publishers enjoyed growing demand for their products throughout the century, even long after the introduction of the penny newspapers in 1863. 2 Although Chassaignon's patrons lacked the education and wealth that brought a printer prestige and prosperity, the influence he exercised over such a large audience brought him to the attention of government censors.

Chassaignon's arrest resulted from Parisian policemen's discovery of two thousand copies of a work previously banned by the Paris police prefect's censors, titled Aventures de Roquelaure. Chassaignon had printed four thousand copies in all, so two thousand must have already been distributed to peddlers when the police arrived. The Tribunal correctionnel de la Seine sentenced Chassaignon to one month in prison and a fine of one hundred francs. 3 This was no small penalty, since one hundred francs was probably close to the printing costs of his initial investment in the banned copies. The fine, then, would effectively double his losses. Worse still, a month in prison could seriously undermine his business.

Such harsh penalties should have inspired popular printers such as Chassaignon to comply with all press laws and to keep their products nonpolitical and moral. Most historians have asserted that the threat of state sanctions silenced what might otherwise have been a radical press and muted the criticisms of the political-opposition presses during most of the first eighty years of the nineteenth century. 4 Censorship laws suggest the enormous power governments commanded, provided their censors possessed both the will and ability to enforce the laws. Memoranda of the interior minister's office and the police prefects' offices indicate the will to enforce these laws, although the priority given to particular laws varied. Records of arrests, trials, fines, and prison sentences seem to demonstrate effective enforcement as well. The muzzling of political opposition publications, a few printers' and newspapers' bankruptcy caused by fines, and the punishment of well-known political spokespersons and daring writers and caricaturists suggest effective and sometimes brutal enforcement of censorship across the century. In their landmark work on the history of the French press, Claude Bellanger, Jacques Godechot, Pierre Guiral, and Fernand Terrou describe the history of some of these nineteenth-century newspapers as a "martyrology." 5 Censors certainly attempted to achieve such successes; they suppressed a good deal of political opposition, or at least drove it underground, and banned news and literature deemed socially or politically dangerous by the bourgeois standards of the day. Censors paid particular attention to political newspapers: censoring articles, fin- ing publishers, and imprisoning editors. No wonder so many historians assert that state censorship gave rise...


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