Against the Falloux Law

Victor Hugo
Friday 2 March 2007
popularity : 31%

After the workers’ riots were quelled in June 1848, the Second Republic, under Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew) presidency, slowly moved towards clerical reaction. Victor Hugo, who was already a well-known poet and although he was elected as a conservative
representative, joined the Republicans («Republicans, open your ranks, I am on your side»). That was the time when Hugo wrote : «I will say one word about this government : the police are everywhere and justice nowhere.»

In a speech made on January 15, 1850, he fought against the draft of the Falloux Law which was to establish the Church at the core of the school system. [As it is the tradition in the French Parliament, every reaction of the audience is carefully noted between brackets.]

Victor Hugo’s speech In the debate on the draft of the Law on Education (January 15, 1850)


When a debate is open on what is the most serious matter in the country’s fate, you must go at once, without hesitation, to the core of the issue. (Movement of attention) I shall begin with what I like, I’ll say afterwards what I do not want. In my opinion, gentlemen, the aim, which is hard to achieve and which is doubtlessly far away, but yet that you should strive to implement in this important matter of education is as followed. (Louder, louder !)

Gentlemen, every issue has its own ideal. As for me, the ideal on this education issue is this : free and compulsory education. (Very good, very good). Compulsory in primary schools, free at every level. (Applause on the left). Compulsory primary instruction, this is the child’s right (Movements) which, don’t be mislead, is more sacred than the father’s right and which merges with the right of the State. I repeat. Here is according to me, the ideal of the issue : free and compulsory instruction as far as I have just mentioned. An immense public teaching provided and regulated by the State, starting from the village school and coming up one degree after the other until the College of France, even higher until the Institute of France. The doors of Science wide open to every mind : everywhere where there is a field, everywhere where there is a mind, there must be a book. No commune without a school, no town without a secondary school, no city without a university college (Prolonged applause). A vast body, or, to put it more accurately, a vast network of intellectual workshops, schools, colleges, gymnasiums, university chairs, libraries, uniting their light over the country, wakening abilities everywhere and warming vocations everywhere ; in a word, the ladder of human knowledge firmly erected by the hands of the State, resting in the shadow of the deepest and darkest masses, and leading to the light. No solution of continuity : the heart of the people in connection with France’s brain (Immense applause).

That is how I would understand national public education. Gentlemen, along this magnificent free instruction, inviting the minds of every order, offered by the State, giving to all, for nothing, the best teachers and the best methods, a model for science, and for discipline, normal, French, Christian, liberal, which would rise, undoubtedly, the national genius to the highest summit of intelligence, I would place without hesitation the freedom of education, the freedom of education for private schoolmasters, the freedom of education for religious corporations ; the freedom of education , fully, completely, absolutely, subject to general laws like any other liberty, and I would not have to give the unquiet power of the State to supervise it because I would give the free education of the State as a counterweight. (Bravo ! Bravo !) That, Gentlemen, I repeat, is the ideal of the issue. Do not get confused about that, we are not near to achieve that, for the solution problem contains a considerable financial question, like any social problem of modern time.

Gentlemen, it was necessary to show this ideal, for you must always say where you want to go ; it offers innumerable view-points, but time is not ripe to develop that. I am careful of the Assembly timetable, and I address the issue immediately in its current positive reality. I take it where it is today, at the point of relative maturity where the events, on the one hand, and the public reason on the other hand, have brought it. From this restricted point of view, though practical, of the current situation, I want, I declare, the freedom of education ; but I want the supervision of the State, and as I want this supervision to be effective, I want a secular State, purely secular, exclusively secular. The Right Honorable Mr. Guizot said it before me, in matter of education, the State is not, cannot be but secular. I want, I said, the freedom of education under the supervision of the State, and I do not admit, in order to personify the State in this supervision, so delicate and so difficult, which demands the coalition of all the living forces of the country, only men certainly belonging to the sternest careers and yet who have no other interest, either of conscience or of politics, different from the national coalition. (Very good ! on the left). That is to say I do not introduce, neither in the superior council of supervision, any bishops, any bishop’s delegates.

As to me, I intend to maintain, and if necessary make if deeper than ever, this ancient and beneficial separation of the Church and the State, which was our fathers’ wisdom, and that in the interest of the Church as well as in the interest of the State (Applause).

I have just said all that I wanted ; now, here is all that I do not want : I do not want the law which is brought before us. Why ? Gentlemen, this law is a weapon. A weapon is nothing in itself ; it exists only through the hand that seizes it. And what is the hand that will seize the law ? That is the question (Moves). Gentlemen, this is the hand of the clerical party (That is true !).

Gentlemen, I fear this hand ; I want to break the weapon, I reject the draft. (Very good !Very good !). Having said that, I’ll come to the core of the debate. I address immediately and head-on an objection that is being made to the opponent facing my point of view, the only objection that appears to be serious. We are told : You exclude the clergy from the supervision council of the State ; do you want to ban religious education ?

Gentlemen, I must explain. I will never let me be misunderstood, by my fault, neither about what I say, nor about what I think. I am far from willing to ban religious education, do you understand me clearly ? As for me, it is more necessary than ever. The greater humankind, the more they have to believe. The nearer God, the better they must see God. (Movement).

There is a great misfortune, nowadays, I would rather say there is but one misfortune, it is some tendency to put all in this life. (Sensation). When you give humankind the terrestrial and materialistic life as the purpose and as the aim, you worsen every misery by the negation which is at the end, you add the unbearable weight of the void to the despondency of the poor ; and what was only suffering, that-is-to say God’s law, you make it despair, that-is to say Hell’s law (Long movement).

Hence, deep social convulsions (Yes ! Yes !). Indeed, I am among those who want, and in this place no one doubts, I am among those who want, I won’t say sincerely, the word is too weak, I want with an inexpressible warmth, and by all possible means, to improve in this life the material fate of those who suffer ; but the first of all improvement is to give them hope (Bravo ! on the right). How little are our miseries when you add an infinite hope (Very good ! Very good !) It is our common duty, whatever we are, legislators as well as bishops, priests as well as writers, to spread , to be lavish with, under all forms, all the social energy to fight and to destroy misery (Bravo ! on the left), and at the same time to make all heads turn to heaven (Bravo ! on the right), to lead all the souls, to turn all hopes towards a life to come when justice will be made and where justice will be delivered. Let us say clearly, no one will have suffered unjustly or uselessly. Death is a restitution (Very good ! on the right and movement). The law of the material world is balance ; the law of ethics is equity. God is to be found at the end of everything. Let us not forget that, and let us teach that to all, there won’t be any dignity in life, and it would not be worth it, if we had to die completely ; what levies the hardship, what sanctifies the labor, what makes humankind strong, good, wise, patient, benevolent, fair, humble and at the same time great, worthy of intelligence, worthy of liberty, it is to face the perpetual vision of a better world glowing through the darkness of this life (Strong approbation).

As for me, since as luck would have it I am speaking at the moment and I am putting so solemn words in a mouth of little authority, let me say and claim, I proclaim from this platform, I deeply believe in this better world ; it is for me much more real than this miserable chimera which we eat up and we call life ; it is always in front of our eyes ; I believe in it with all the powers of my conviction, and after many struggles and many troubles, it is the supreme certainty of my reason as it is the supreme consolation of my soul (Profound sensation).

Indeed I want, I want sincerely, firmly and warmly, religious education, but I want religious education from the Church, and not religious education from a party. I want it to be sincere and not hypocritical (Bravo ! Bravo !). I want it with the aim of heaven, not the earth (Movement). I do not want a throne to invade another ; I do not want the priest to interfere with the teacher. Or, if I accept this interference, I being a legislator, I supervise it, I open the eyes of the State on seminaries and on congregations, and I insist, of a secular State, only jealous of its greatness and its unity.

Until the day, that I call with hope, when complete freedom of teaching will be proclaimed, and I told you at the beginning what were the prerequisites, until that very day, I want the teaching of the Church inside the Church and not outside. Above all I consider as a derision to supervise, in the name of the State, the teaching of the clergy by the clergy. In a word, I want, I repeat , what our fathers wanted, the Church at its place, and the State at its place (Very good !) The Assembly can already see clearly why I reject this bill ; but I’ll finish to explain.

Gentlemen, as I told you before, this bill is something more, worse if you like, than a political law; it is a strategic law (Murmurs). Indeed I am not talking to the venerable Archbishop of Langres, nor to any member in this place, but to the party that has inspired if not written this bill, to that party extinct as well as burning, to the clerical party. I do not know whether it is in the government, I do not know whether it is in the Assembly (Movement); but I feel it somehow everywhere. (Movement again). It has a keen ear, it will hear me (Laughs). So, I will address the clerical party , I say : This law is your law. Well, frankly, I distrust you. To teach is to build. (Sensation). I distrust what you build. (Very good ! Very good! ). I do not want to entrust to you the teaching of the youth, the children’s souls, the development of new minds that open to life, the younger generations, that-is-to say France’s future. I do not want to entrust to you France’s future, because to entrust it to you would be to surrender it to you (Movement). It is not enough that younger generations succeed us, I want them to continue us. That is why I do not want neither your hand nor your breath on them. I do not want all that was done by our fathers be undone by you ! (Very good !) After that glory, I do not want that shame. (Prolonged movement). Your law is a law which has a mask. (Bravo !) It says one thing and it would do another. It is a thought of slavery that looks like liberty. It is a confiscation called donation. I do not want it. (Applause on the left). It is your habit. When you forge a chain, you say : Here is a liberty ! When you make a prohibition, you shout : Here is an amnesty ! (Applause again)

Ah ! I do not mistake you for the Church, neither do I mistake the mistletoe with the oak-tree (Very good !) You are the parasites of the Church, you are the illness of the Church. (Laughs) Ignatius is the enemy of Jesus. (Strong approbation on the left) You are, not the believers, but the sectarians of a religion which you do not understand. You are the directors of holiness. Do not involve the Church in your business, in your combinations, in your strategies, in your doctrines, in your ambitions. Do not call the Church your mother in order to make it your servant. (Deep sensation) Do not torment it under the pretence to teach politics ; above all do not identify it with you. You can see the wrong you have done to it ! The Bishop of Langres told you so (Laughs) You can see how the Church has been withering since it has had you ! You make yourself loved so little that you will make it hated in the end ! Indeed, I tell you (Laughs), it will do very well without you. Let it in peace. When you are not at it, we will be back. Let this venerable Church, this venerable mother, in its loneliness, in its abnegation, in its humility. All that makes its greatness ! Its loneliness will bring the crowd ; its abnegation is its power, its humility is its majesty. (Profound agreement)

You are talking about religious education ! Do you know what is true religious education, the one before which you must bow down, the one you must not disturb ? It is the sister of charity waiting the dying man. It is the brother of mercy freeing the slave. It is Vincent de Paul welcoming the foundling. It is the Archbishop of Marseilles among the plague victims. It is the Archbishop of Paris coming with a smile into the terrible Faubourg Saint-Antoine, lifting his crucifix above civil war, not worrying to receive death as long as he was bringing peace. (Bravo !) That is true religious education, real religious education, profound, efficient and popular, the one which, fortunately for religion and humanity, makes far more Christians than you have unmade. (Long applause on the left)

Ah ! We know you very well ! We know the clerical party. It is an old party which has service records. (Laughs). It is standing guard at the door of orthodoxy. (Laughs). It is the one which found those two marvelous props for truth : ignorance and error. It is the one which forbids science and genius to go beyond the prayer book, which wants to shut up thought in dogma; Every step froward that the mind of Europe has made, it was made in spite of it. Its history is written in the history of human improvement, but it is written on the back of the page. (Sensation). It has opposed itself to everything. (Laughs) It is the one which ordered Prinelli to be flogged for having said that the stars would not fall. It is the one which ordered Campanella to be tortured seven times for having asserted that the number of worlds was infinite and having perceived the secret of creation. It is the one which persecuted Harvey for having proved that the blood was circulating. In the name of Joshua, it shut up Galileo ; in the name of Saint Paul, it sent Christopher Columbus to prison. To discover the law of heavens was an impiety ; to find a new world was a heresy (Very good ! Very good !). It is the one which declared Pascal anathema in the name of religion, Montaigne anathema in the name of morals, Molière anathema in the name of morals and religion (Very good ! Very good ! ). Oh, yes, indeed, whoever you may be, who call yourself the Catholic Party and who are the clerical party, we know you quite well. For a very long time, Human conscience has been revolting against you and has been asking you : What do you want of me ? You have tried to muzzle Human mind (Acclamation on the left).

And you want to be the masters of education ! And there is no poet, no writer, no philosopher, no thinker whom you might accept ! And everything that has been written, found, dreamed, inferred, illuminated, imagined, invented by the genius, the treasures of civilization, the ancient heritage of generations, the common heritage of the bright minds, you reject everything ! If the human brain were here in from of your eyes at your disposal, open like the page of a book, you would cross things out (Yes ! Yes !) you must agree upon that ! (Prolonged movement)
Finally, there is a book, a book which seems to be from beginning to end a superior emanation, a book which is for the universe like the Koran is for Islam, what the Vedas are for India, a book that contains all human wisdom enlightened by all divine wisdom, a book which the peoples’ veneration calls the book, the Bible ! Well, your censorship has come up there ! Unbelievable ! Some Popes advised against the Bible ! What an astonishment for the wise, what terror for simple hearts, to see the index of Rome on the book of God ! (Hearty cheers on the left). And you demand the freedom of education ! Well, let’s be honest and agree on the freedom you demand : it is the freedom of not to teach ! (Applause on the left - Loud objection on the right) Then, you want to be given people to teach ! Very well. Let’s see your pupils. Let’s see your produce. (Laughs) What have you done to Italy ? What have you done to Spain ? For centuries, you have been holding in your hands, at your disposal, in your school, under your ferule, those two great nations, illustrious among the illustrious : what have you done of them ? (Movement). I’ll tell you. Thanks to you, Italy, of which no thinking man can only pronounce the name with an indescribable filial pain, Italy, this mother of genius and nations, which has spread all the most dazzling marvels of poetry and fine arts over the universe, Italy, which taught Humankind to read, Italy cannot read today ! (Profound sensation)

Yes, Italy is of all the states in Europe the one where there are the fewer natives who can read (Objection on the right. Violent shouts). Spain, lavishly provided, Spain which received its first civilization from the Romans, its second civilization from the Arabs, America from Providence and in spite of you, Spain has lost, because of you, because of your mind-numbing yoke, that is a yoke of degradation and weakening (Applause on the left), Spain has lost this secret of power that came from the Romans, this genius of arts that came from the Arabs, this world that came from God, and for a change of all that was lost because of you, Spain received the Inquisition from you (Movement).

The Inquisition, that some men from the party are currently trying to rehabilitate with a chaste shyness for which they should be praised (Long laughs on the left - Objection on the right). The Inquisition that burned alive five million men ! (Denial on the right). Read History ! The Inquisition which unearthed the dead to burn them at the stake as heretics (That is true). Urgel and Arnauld, the Count of Forcalquier, are testimonies of that. The Inquisition, that declared heretics children, down to the ninth generation, infamous and incapable of any public honor, excepting only those, as it was termed in the sentence, those who had denounced their father (Long movement). The Inquisition, which, while I am talking to you, is still hiding in the Vatican library Galileo’s manuscripts, closed and sealed under the seal of the Index. (Agitation) Indeed, in order to comfort Spain for what you took from it and what you gave, you nicknamed it : the Catholic ! (Rumors on the right)
Well, don’t you know ? You forced a scream of pain out of one of its greatest men who accuses you : «I prefer it to be great instead of Catholic» (Shouts on the right. Long interruption. Many members violently hail the speaker). That is your master-piece ! This fire that was called Italy, you have put it out. This giant that was called Spain, you have undermined it. One is in ashes, the other is ruined. That is what you have done of those two great peoples. What do you want to make of France ? (Prolonged movements)

Well, you come from Rome : congratulations. You have had a great success there ! (Laughs and bravos on the left). You have just muzzled the Roman people ; now you want to muzzle the French people. I understand : this is much more beautiful, it is exciting ; the trouble is you should take extra care : it is uneasy this one is a real living lion (Agitation).

Who are you after, then ? I’ll tell you : you are after human reason. Why ? Because it brings light (Yes ! Yes ! - No ! No !). Indeed, do you want me to tell you what bothers you ? It is this enormous quantity of free light that France has been radiating for three centuries, this light completely made of reason, brighter than ever today, a light that makes the French nation the enlightening nation, in such a way that everyone can see the light of France on the faces of all the peoples of the universe. (Sensation) Well this light of France, this light of freedom, this direct light, this light that does not come from Rome, that comes from God, this is what you want to put out ! (That is true !) This is what we want to keep ! (Yes ! Yes ! Bravos on the left) I reject your law. I reject it because it confiscates primary schools, because it degrades secondary schools, because it lowers the level of science, because it diminishes my country (Sensation). I reject it because I am one of those who feel a pang of anguish and a shame on their face every time France has to suffer, whatever the reason, a diminution whether territorial, such was the case with the 1815 treaties, or a diminution of intellectual grandeur such as your law. (Warm applause on the left)

Gentlemen, before I finish, let me address the clerical party, the party that is invading us, from this platform, (Hear ! Hear !) a sound piece of advice (Rumors on the right). It is not the skill that it is lacking. When circumstances help it, it is strong, very strong, too strong ! (Movement) It knows the art to maintain a nation in a terrible mixed state which is not death, but which is not life. (That is true !) It calls it to govern (Laughs). It is the government by lethargy (Laugh). But it must take care, nothing of the like can fit France. It is a dreadful game to let France catch a glimpse, only a glimpse, of the following ideal : the sovereign sacristy, liberty betrayed , intelligence vanquished and fettered, books torn, sermons instead of the press, night over the minds by the shadow of cassocks , genius humbled by vergers (Acclamations on the left). That is true, the clerical party is cunning ; but this does not prevent it to be naive (Laughs) What ! It fears socialism ! What ! It sees the rising tide, so it says, and opposes to it, to this rising tide, God knows what open-worked fence ! It sees the rising tide, and it fancies that society will be safeguarded because it will have combined, in its defense, social hypocrisies with material resistances, and it will have put a Jesuit everywhere there is not a police constable ! (Laughs and applause).

What a pity ! I repeat, it must take care, the nineteenth century is opposed to it ; it should not be obstinate, it should renounce to master this great era full of new and profound instincts, or else it will only lead to anger, it will heedlessly develop the dreadful side of our time, and it will cause terrible events to spring up. Indeed, with this system that causes, I insist, education to come out of the sacristy and the government out of the confessional ! (Long interruption; Shouts : order ! Some members from the right stand up. The President and Mr. Victor Hugo exchange words that do not come to us. Violent tumult).

(The speaker resumes his speech, turning to the right).

Gentlemen, most of you want the freedom of teaching, so you say ; will you please enjoy the freedom of this platform. (Laughs. The noise fades)

The speaker continues.

With those doctrines that a strict and mortal logic entails, in spite of the men themselves, and fruitful for evil, with those doctrines that fill people with horror when you look at them in History ! (New shouts : Order !)

The speaker stops

Gentlemen, the clerical party, as I told you, is invading us. I fight against it, and when this party comes with a law in its hand, it is my right as a legislator to examine this law and to examine this party. You won’t keep me from doing so ! (Very good !). I continue. Indeed with this system, with this doctrine, with this history, let the clerical party know it, everywhere it will be, it will give birth to revolutions ; everywhere, to avoid Torquemada, they will jump to Robespierre. (Sensation)

There is what makes of the party that calls itself Catholic a serious public danger. And those who, like me, also fear the anarchic upheaval and the sacerdotal loosening for the nations, raise the alarm while we are thinking of it ! (Rumors on the right) You are interrupting me. Shouts and whispers are drowning my voice. Gentlemen, I am talking to you, not as an agitator, but as an honest man ! (Hear! Hear !) Upon my word, gentlemen, should I be suspected, by the way ? (Shouts on the right : Yes ! Yes !)

Mr. Victor Hugo : What ! I am a suspect to you ! Do you say so ? (Shouts on the right : Yes ! Yes !) (Indescribable tumult. A part of the right stands up and calls out the speaker who remains motionless on the platform)

Well ! We have to explain on the subject. (Silence is restored). This is in a sense a personal case. I suppose you will listen to an explanation you have provoked yourselves. Well ! I am a suspect to you ! And what of ? I am suspect to you ! But last year, I was defending endangered order, in the same way as I am defending liberty threatened today ! as I will defend order tomorrow, if danger comes again on this side ! (Movement) I am a suspect to you ! But was I a suspect when I fulfilled my mandate as a representative of Paris, in avoiding a bloodshed on the June barricades ? (Bravos on the left. New shouts on the right. Tumult resumes)

The speaker goes on.

Indeed ! You do not want to hear even a voice in resolute defense of liberty! If I am suspect to you, so you are to me. The country will judge between us (Very good, very good !). Gentlemen, one last word. Maybe I am one of those who were honored to help the cause of order, in some obscure manner, in difficult times, in a recent past. Maybe that help is forgotten, I won’t recall it. But at the very moment when I am speaking, I have a right to rely on it. (No ! No ! - Yes ! Yes !). Well, relying on that past, I declare, in my opinion, what is needed in France is order, but a living order, which is progress ; it is order such has resulted from regular and peaceful growth, natural to the people ; it is order that was made in facts as well as in ideas through the full movement of national intelligence. It is the complete contrary of your law. (Warm support on the left)

I am one of those who want for this noble country liberty instead of compression, continuous growth instead of diminution, power instead of slavery, grandeur instead of void ! (Bravo ! on the left) So, those are the laws you are bringing ! So, you rulers, you legislators, you want to stand still ! You want France to stand still ! You want to petrify human thought, to blow out the divine torch, to materialize the spirit ! (Yes ! Yes ! - No ! No !) But you don’t see the very facts of the times you are living in ! But you are living as strangers in your century ! (Profound sensation). What ! In this century, in this great century of novelty, of events, of discoveries, of conquest, you are dreaming of stillness ! (Very good !). In this century of hope, you claim despair ! (Bravo) What ! Like dreary men, you pull down to earth glory, thought, intelligence, progress, future and you say : enough ! let’s not go any further ; let’s stop ! (Denial on the right) But can’t you see that everything comes and goes, moves, grows, is transformed and renewed around you, above you, under your feet ! (Movement) Well then, you want to stand still and you want us to stand still ! Indeed ! I repeat with deep pain, I hate disasters and failure, I warn you with a heavy heart (Laughs on the right) you don’t want progress ? you will get revolutions ! (Profound agitation) To the foolish men who dare say : humankind won’t walk, God answers with an earthquake !