The Modern Regime— Volume 1

Author: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine

VI. The Larger Communes.

Effects of the law on the urban commune. - Disproportion between the administrative capacity of its elected representatives and the work imposed on them. - Lack of a special and permanent manager. - The municipal council and the mayor. - The general council and the intermediary committee. - The prefect. - His dominant rule. - His obligatory concessions. - His principal aim. - Bargains between the central authority and the local Jacobins. - Effect on this on local government, on the officials, and in local finances.

Let us now look at the other side of the scale, on the side of the large urban communes, of which there are 223, with above 10,000 inhabitants, 90 of these above 20,000 inhabitants, 9 of the latter above 100,000 inhabitants, and Paris, which has 2,300,000.[28] We see at the first glance cast upon an average specimen of these human anthills, a town containing from 40,000 to 50,000 souls, how vast and complex the collective undertaking becomes, how many principal and accessory services the communal society must co-ordinate and unite together in order to secure to its members the advantages of public roads and insure their protection against spreading calamities:

* Maintenance and repairs of these roads, the straightening, layingout, paving, and drainage, the constructions and expense for sewers, quays, and rivers, and often for a commercial harbor;

* the negotiations and arrangements with departments and with the state for this or that harbor, canal, dike, or insane asylum; the contracts with cab, omnibus, and tramway companies and with telephone and house-lighting companies; the street-lighting, artesian wells and aqueducts;

* the city police, supervision and rules for using public highways, and orders and agents for preventing men from injuring each other when collected together in large assemblies in the streets, in the markets, at the theater, in any public place, whether coffee-houses or taverns;

* the firemen and machinery for conflagrations; the sanitary measures against contagion, and precautions, long beforehand to insure hygiene during epidemics;

* and, as extra burdens and abuses, the establishment, direction and support of primary schools, colleges, public lectures, libraries, theaters, hospitals, and other institutions which should be supported and governed by different associations; at the very least, the appropriations to these establishments and therefore a more or less legitimate and more or less imperative intervention in their internal management.

Such are the great undertakings which form a whole, which bear alike on the present, past, and future budget of the commune, and which, as so many distinct branches of every considerable enterprise, require, for proper execution, to have their continuity and connection always present in the thoughtful and directing mind which has them in charge.[29] Experience shows that, in the great industrial or financial companies, in the Bank of France, in the Crédit Lyonnais, and in the insurance, navigation, and railroad companies, the best way to accomplish this end is a permanent manager or director, always present, engaged or accepted by the administrative board on understood conditions, a special, tried man who, sure of his place for a long period, and with a reputation to maintain, gives his whole time, faculties, and zeal to the work, and who, alone, possessing at every moment a coherent and detailed conception of the entire undertaking, can alone give it the proper stimulus, and bring to bear the most economical and the most perfect practical improvements. Such is also the municipal administration in the Prussian towns on the Rhine. Then, in Bonn, for instance,[30] the municipal council, elected by the inhabitants "goes in quest" of some eminent specialist whose ability is well known. It must be noted that he is taken wherever he can be found, outside the city, in some remote province; they bargain with him, the same as with some famous musician, for the management of a series of concerts. Under the title of burgomaster, with a salary of 10,000 francs per annum, he becomes for twelve years the director of all municipal services, leader of the civic orchestra, solely entrusted with executive power, wielding the magisterial baton which the various instruments obey, many of these being salaried functionaries and others benevolent amateurs,[31] all in harmony and through him, because they know that he is watchful, competent, and top quality, constantly occupied with am overall view, responsible, and in his own interest, as a point of honor, wholly devoted to his work which is likewise their work, that is to say, to the complete success of the concert.

Nothing in a French town corresponds to this admirable type of a municipal institution. Here, also, and to a much greater extent in the village, the effect of universal suffrage has been to discredit the true notables and to incite the abdication or insure the exclusion of men who, by their education, the large proportion of the taxes they pay, and still greater influence or production on labor and on business, are social authorities, and who should become legal authorities. In every country where conditions are unequal, the preponderance of a numerical majority necessarily ends in the nearly general abstention or almost certain defeat of the candidates most deserving of election. But here the case is different; the elected, being towns-people (citadins) and not rural, are not of the species as in the village. They read a daily newspaper, and believe that they understand not only local matters but all subjects of national and general importance, that is to say, high level economy, philosophy and law; somewhat resembling the schoolmaster who, being familiar with the rules of arithmetic, thinks that he can teach the differential calculus, and the theory of functions. At any rate, they talk loud and argue on every subject with confidence, according to Jacobin traditions, being, indeed, so many budding Jacobins. They are the heirs and successors of the old sectarians, issuing from the same stock and of the same stamp, a few in good faith, but mainly narrowminded, excited, and bewildered by the smoke of the glittering generalities they utter. Most of them are mere politicians, charlatans, and intriguers, third-class lawyers and doctors, literary failures, semi-educated stump-speakers, bar-room, club, or clique orators, and vulgar climbers. Left behind in private careers, in which one is closely watched and accepted for what he is worth, they launch out on a public career because, in this business, popular suffrage at once ignorant, indifferent, is a badly informed, prejudiced and passionate judge and prefers a moralist of easy conscience, instead of demanding unsullied integrity and proven competency. Nothing more is demanded from candidates but witty speech-making, assertiveness and showing off in public, gross flattery, a display of enthusiasm and promises to place the power about to be conferred on them by the people in the hands of those who will serve its antipathies and prejudices. Thus introduced into the municipal council, they constitute its majority and appoint a mayor who is their figurehead or creature, now the bold leader and again the docile instrument of their spite, their favors, and their headlong action, of their blunders and presumption, and of their meddlesome disposition and encroachments. - In the department, the council general, also elected by universal suffrage, also bears the marks of its origin; its quality, without falling so low, still descends in a certain degree, and through changes which keep on increasing: politicians install themselves there and make use of their place as a stepping-stone to mount higher; it also, with larger powers and prolonged during its vacations by its committee, is tempted to regard itself as the legitimate sovereign of the extensive and scattered community which it represents. - Thus recruited and composed, enlarged and deteriorated, the local authorities become difficult to manage, and from now on, to carry on the administration, the prefect must come to some understanding with them.


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Chicago: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, "VI. The Larger Communes.," The Modern Regime— Volume 1, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in The Modern Regime—Volume 1 (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed March 25, 2019,

MLA: Taine, Hippolyte Adolphe. "VI. The Larger Communes." The Modern Regime— Volume 1, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in The Modern Regime—Volume 1, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 25 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Taine, HA, 'VI. The Larger Communes.' in The Modern Regime— Volume 1, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Modern Regime—Volume 1, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 March 2019, from