Meeting with Thibault Gandouly, history-geography teacher in a high school in the Oise. Originally from Toulouse, he was passionate about Napoleon III, the Second Empire and Bonapartism under the Third Republic. For his first biography, released this month by Via Romana editions, he chose the very little-known character of Paul de Cassagnac , whose turbulent life is nevertheless worthy of a swashbuckling novel… And politics too. You know it now, dear readers, I love those forgotten by history. So I'm not the only one and that's good.
- Where did you get this passion for the Second Empire?
I discovered Napoleon III around the bicentenary of his birth (2008) through a biographical press article in a mainstream newspaper. Knowing almost nothing about this character with the strange mustaches, and interested in the article, I bought a biography shortly afterwards (that of Raphaël Dargent) and that's when a love story began... intellectual!
- The lovers of Napoleon III are not legion! We can say that the Emperor was not in the odor of holiness for very long...
Indeed, Napoleon III remains misunderstood and mistreated, associated with the coup d'etat of December 2, 1851 and the war of 1870, while it was under his reign that France of the industrial revolution was born. In 1848, France was then a second-rate European power; in two decades he made the country the second largest economy in the world, while carrying out audacious social reforms for his time, the best known being the authorization of the right to strike. The III th République needed a foil to assert itself, hence a systematic demonization that left lasting traces. I think this unfair fate helped to ignite my passion for him.
- How did your path cross that of Paul de Cassagnac? What immediately appealed to you about this character?
My interest in Napoleon III led me to take an interest in the fate of the Bonapartist cause after 1870. Crossing paths with Paul de Cassagnac was then inevitable:he established himself as a a prominent figure in the party during the 1870s. It was his talent as a polemicist that first appealed to me:he wrote incredibly well, in a very colorful style. Before being deputy of the Gers - from 1876 to 1902 with a break from 1893 to 1898 - he was a widely read journalist and he was moreover the most widely read monarchist personality at the end of the 19th century, through his newspaper The Authority .
As for the rest, he's a character who seems to have come straight out of a novel:twenty duels from which he has never emerged defeated, numerous mistresses, numerous trials also for press offences, three expulsions from the Chamber of Deputies because of his behavior …
- How do you explain that no one before you deemed it worthy of a full-fledged biography?
Cassagnac has already been the subject of biographical work but... in the United States! It was the subject of a thesis in the early 1970s which has been published (not translated into French):Paul de Cassagnac and the Authoritarian Tradition in Nineteenth-century France by Karen Offen. However, this work has the major flaw of completely leaving out the last ten years of his life (after 1893). And since the 1970s some new sources and finding aids have appeared.
In general, I observe that the right-wing personalities of the III e Republic, defeated in history, have long been shunned by historians. It is only since the 1990s that a certain number of biographies have appeared on these personalities, I am thinking for example of the biography of Déroulède by Bertrand Joly, that of the sulphurous Édouard Drumont by Grégoire Kauffmann or that of Baron Eschassériaux (large Bonapartist figure) by François Pairault. It was also around the same time that Napoleon III was rediscovered. By writing on Cassagnac, I bring my stone to the building in a way.
- What was your journey in designing this biography? I guess the time spent researching records has been extensive…but exciting!
I first worked on the press from the end of the XIX e century … I thus consulted several thousand issues of the Figaro , from the 1860s to 1914, thanks to Gallica, the BNF’s digital platform. But also other newspapers like Le Gaulois and Time , and of course The Country and The Authority , Cassagnac newspapers.
I also went very quickly to the archives of the Prefecture of Police, which keep five large boxes of snitch notes, i.e. several thousand notes, which relate both to the Cassagnac's public and private life. I have not seen such a large amount of police notes for any other character of the period, which shows that he was considered a man to be watched carefully, posing a danger to institutions. A snitch even became a correspondent for L’Autorité , Cassagnac diary …
These notes should be taken with some caution:many echo rumors (but a rumor is information in itself), some contradict each other, but many also are confirmed by other sources. Apart from the press and police notes, which constitute the main sources, a certain number of letters from Cassagnac of a political nature are kept in the National Archives, equally useful archives are kept in the departmental archives of the Gers concerning the elections in particular:minutes, reports of police commissioners, sub-prefects, etc.; and I had the chance to meet members of the Cassagnac family who very kindly made their private archives available to me.
- I imagine that you have made some surprising discoveries… Any anecdote you would like to tell us?
It's hard to pick just one. I'll take an amusing one, although not historically significant. In January 1879, Paul de Cassagnac had to be re-elected deputy of Gers following a wave of invalidations of deputies from the right (reprisals from the left following the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies carried out in 1877 by Mac-Mahon, president of the Republic to monarchist opinions). The re-election of Cassagnac, which did not seem certain, visibly annoyed the Republican villagers of the Gers who decided to go and bawl La Marseillaise under the windows of the Château du Couloumé, residence of Cassagnac in the Gers. The anthem was then closely associated with the Republic (it was banned under the Second Empire). Cassagnac managed to put an end to these nuisances by asking a small brass band to perform La Marseillaise for him. at the castle, which must have surprised the villagers in question since they never reappeared! Little anecdotes like this abound.
- What do you hope to bring out of this book and the character of Paul de Cassagnac?
I hope to bring this character out of the utter oblivion that struck him by giving him a biography. Thus, today we retain the pejorative nickname "la Gueuse" which was given to the Republic... but who knows that it was Cassagnac who invented it? Beyond the character, I also hope to rediscover the political history of France from the end of the Second Empire until the very beginning of the XX th century, from the point of view of the right … an exciting time when the question of the political regime is still at the center of political debates and where royalists, Bonapartists and republicans are waging a merciless struggle. It didn't take much to make France a monarchy!
I invite you to delve into this biography to discover a colorful character! Click here to get the book or run to buy it directly from your bookstore.
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