This is The Siècle, Episode 8: The Unexpected Chamber.

France’s Charter of 1814 had set up a constitutional monarchy in which a parliament elected by the country’ richest citizens would govern alongside the king. But over the 10 months of the First Restoration, Louis and his government never got around to holding elections for that parliament, or even passing a law to set up those elections.

One year later, after the Hundred Days and Waterloo, the Bourbons experienced a newfound sense of haste. Whereas before they had idled around for 10 months, now King Louis XVIII’s government moved to hold the elections as soon as possible — even while much of France was still under foreign occupation, and much of the rest was experiencing the civil unrest of the “White Terror.”

They didn’t even try to pass an elections law this time, since they weren’t about to keep the Napoleonic legislature around any more, but just issued a royal decree setting up the elections, to be held in August — just a few weeks away.

Overseeing all this were Louis’s chief ministers, the de facto prime minister Talleyrand and the Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché. Both men were relatively liberal, supporters of constitutional monarchy, and they hoped for a Chamber of Deputies that reflected these sentiments. So they took the sort of sensible action that French officials of all political leanings will take over the course of the century: they tried to rig the election.

By that, I don’t mean anything so crude as to actually fabricate vote totals. But neither were they prepared to leave important affairs like picking the Chamber of Deputies up what the voters thought they wanted.

Restoration voting

If you’ll recall from Episode 7, the Charter had limited the vote for the Chamber of Deputies to the wealthiest 1 percent or so of French males. But even these privileged voters didn’t actually vote directly for deputies. Rather, Louis’s decree implemented a really complicated system of indirect elections using electoral colleges. It worked like this: voters would gather in their communities and vote for members of a community electoral college. That community electoral college would then choose members of a departmental electoral college. And the departmental electoral college, meeting a week later, would elect the actual deputies.1

Talleyrand and Fouché didn’t invent this system — it was one of many elements the Restoration inherited from Napoleon (including Talleyrand and Fouché, both former Napoleonic officials). Both the Bourbon and Napoleonic regimes had a vested interest in not letting too much democracy into elections — and also into making sure that the government could put its finger on the scales.

Some of that was unofficial. France nominally had a secret ballot, but it was optional, which made it useless. Supporters of the dominant faction in an area would vote openly — which meant that anyone voting secretly could be assumed to be a supporter of the opposition. One local official wrote a letter about an election of this period, gloating that “all the voters cast open ballots in my presence… the most horrible liberals wrote their choice under my gaze in favor of the royalist candidates.”2 Local officials could exert all kinds of inducements to bring people around to their side, from dangling the prospect of granting — or eliminating — government jobs or state honors, to more subtle social pressure in the small, isolated rural communities of Restoration France.3 For example, one prefect in this era wrote a letter to the voters of a particular town, telling them unsubtly that: “The fate of your district… is in your hands. From the party you choose will come your prosperity or decline.”4

But state officials could, and did, use the power of their offices to directly skew the results, too. For example, departmental prefects were in charge of publishing voter lists, and would routinely omit the names of opponents or add in those of supporters who weren’t technically rich enough to vote. To minimize the possibility of challenges, voter lists would be published at the last minute in as inconvenient a format as possible while still being technically public — such as posted so high on a wall they couldn’t be read without a ladder, with names in random orders rather than alphabetical.5 But prefects didn’t even have to be underhanded — the very rules of the election let them appoint their own members to the electoral colleges, alongside those chosen by the voters.6.

Talleyrand and Fouché had no scruples about any of these tactics, and issued orders to their recently chosen prefects to ensure the election of liberal monarchists.

And all that makes it so interesting that the voters of France, almost across the board, went in a completely different direction.

When the results came in that August, the new Chamber of Deputies was not dominated by friends of Talleyrand and Fouché. It wasn’t even closely divided. The French voters had roundly rejected all this government pressure and voted overwhelmingly for ultra-royalists. Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of all elected deputies were Ultras, one of the great landslides of all time, especially given the fact that the election was supposed to be rigged to produce the exact opposite result.

Visit thesiecle.com/episode8 — that’s t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e dot com, with 8 as a numeral — to see a map I made showing the results of this election.

The Chambre Introuvable

As news of the Chamber of Deputies that had just been elected reached Louis, the king, who always good for a quip, dubbed it the “Chambre introuvable.” That’s a phrase that translator Lynn Case called “almost untranslatable.”7 Various books in my library render it as the “Incredible Chamber,”8 the “Unbelievable Chamber”9, the “Unobtainable Chamber” 10 and the “Incomparable Chamber”,11 or give up and leave it untranslated. I’ve gone with Case, who rendered it as the “Unexpected Chamber” because of its sense of “such a freakish chamber that it could never be matched”12 — but most of the time I’ll just talk about the Chambre introuvable.

So how did the Chambre introuvable come to be? There are a few good explanations. For example, in parts of southern France, the White Terror was raging at the same time as the elections were being held, which could very easily have swayed more liberal voters into staying home or voting for Ultras. In Episode 5 we saw how elections in the department of the Gard were held while liberals were being massacred in the streets; the Ultras unsurprisingly won big.

But the White Terror was a regional affair. The foreign armies that occupied a majority of France at this point largely didn’t directly interfere with the election.

Liberals staying home is certainly part of the story, but far from all of it. Turnout was north of 70 percent of eligible voters — considerably higher than the elections held by Napoleon during the Hundred Days.13 And while the system of indirect elections and limited suffrage certainly was favorable for conservative candidates, this same system will produce left-wing chambers as well as right-wing chambers during the Restoration. Perhaps the prefects charged with rigging the election were sympathetic to the Ultras, or perhaps the rushed schedule didn’t give them enough time to get the desired results.

Ultimately, the best explanation may be that the electorate, this richest 1 percent of French men, was just in a particularly right-wing mood in August 1815, after “the catastrophic experience of the Hundred Days.” The Ultras were the party of the moment.

The Richelieu ministry

Back in Paris, the aftershocks of this political earthquake were severe. First to go was Fouché, who was already in hot water for urging the king to adopt revolutionary principles — bad enough — and then leaking his report to the public. Fouché clung on because of his reputation as a brilliant police chief, but after his spectacular failure to rig the elections, even Talleyrand concluded that Fouché needed to go. The wily political survivor had no more tricks up his sleeve; he was pushed out the door with the barely face-saving excuse of being appointed as ambassador to Saxony.14

But Talleyrand wouldn’t last much longer. The ultra-royalists of the new Chamber disdained Talleyrand almost as much as they had Fouché. Further, like Fouché, Talleyrand’s effectiveness was now in question. He was unable to work his diplomatic magic and spare France from the punitive treaty being imposed by the Allied powers. Faced with these demands that France pay a huge indemnity, give up territory and pay for a years-long foreign occupation, Talleyrand offered his resignation rather than sign. He may have hoped that Louis would reject this resignation, bolstering his position. If so, it was a terrible miscalculation. The king gladly seized the opportunity to be rid of a man he had never liked in the first place.15

To replace the Talleyrand ministry, Louis turned to a man a little more in line with the right-wing Chambre introuvable: Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis, the Duc de Richelieu. Richelieu was an old-style aristocrat and committed royalist who had spent the Revolution and Empire in exile, mostly in Russia, where he had served the Tsar as a general and governor. (This was not as unusual as it seems to us today — the early 19th Century European nobility could be rather internationalist in orientation.16) Competent and honest, conservative but not extreme, Richelieu was seen as someone who could work with both Louis and the Ultras in the Chamber. It didn’t hurt that he was a close personal friend of the Russian Tsar at the exact moment that France was at the mercy of the Allied powers! As one immediate sign of his good sense, Richelieu wanted no part of leading France during the chaos of 1815 and tried to decline. He only accepted after being ordered to do so by both Louis and Tsar Alexander.17

Armand Emmanuel Duke of Richelieu

Thomas Lawrence, “Portrait of Armand Emmanuel, Duke of Richelieu,” 1818. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the names Richelieu filled out his ministry with were mediocrities, but one is important: Élie Decazes, the replacement for Fouché as minister of police. A moderate royalist and a commoner, Decazes had stuck with Louis during the Hundred Days and been rewarded for this loyalty by being made the prefect of the Paris police. In this position, he had been responsible for keeping Louis informed of goings-on in the capital, a job he filled ably — meeting the king directly to give him not just political reports but also juicy gossip that police informants had picked up. Louis took an immediate personal liking to Decazes, who he referred to as “my son” in their embarrassingly florid correspondence.18

Élie, comte Decazes

Unknown, after François Gérard, “Engraving of Élie Decazes.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Making peace

The ministry’s first task was largely left to Richelieu, and that was to finally negotiate a treaty with the Allied powers who were still occupying France. Here Richelieu’s connections to the Russians paid off handsomely. Tsar Alexander had promised to help get France better terms than the ultimatum that had led to Talleyrand’s resignation, and he carried through. He and Richelieu arranged for Louis to threaten to abdicate in a letter to Alexander, which Alexander then took to the other powers and used to extract concessions.

The final treaty was still embarrassing for France — it had to surrender territory, pay a huge indemnity of 700 million francs, and agree to an expensive, years-long occupation of Northern France. But compared to the earlier demand, France gave up less territory, paid 100 million francs less in war indemnities, and would be subject to occupation for five years, not seven.

Richelieu, we are told, was distraught after finalizing the negotiations, burying his head in his hands and lamenting: “Well, it’s over now. The king ordered me to do it. A Frenchman should be hanged for signing such a treaty.”19

But sign it he did, which ended the Allied occupation of most of France that I talked about in Episode 5, and set up the so-called “occupation of guarantee” that I discussed with Prof. Christine Haynes in Episode 6. We’ll talk a lot more about the domestic and diplomatic consequences of this peace treaty, the Second Treaty of Paris, but the important thing I’ll note now is that France remained in a dependent relationship to the other powers of Europe. Even as 150,000 Allied soldiers remained in northern France, the ambassadors of those Allied powers in Paris retained what Prof. Haynes calls “tutelage” over the French government. Basically, Louis tacitly admitted that his nominal allies had a right to meddle in domestic French politics to prevent any more upheavals. It was a humiliating situation for a country that just a few years earlier had virtual hegemony over the entire continent.

“Irons, executioners and torture”

In any event, Richelieu signed off on the preliminary Second Treaty of Paris on October 2nd, just a few days before the newly elected Chambre introuvable convened in the Palais Bourbon, across the Seine from the Tuileries Gardens. The ultra-royalist majority’s very first action — an official response to the king’s welcoming message — was a call to punish people responsible for the Hundred Days, as well as, in some instances, the entire Revolutionary era. It was now that the so-called “Legal White Terror,” the laws setting up special courts and new political crimes, was enacted in an attempt to crack down on the Bourbons’ opponents.

Louis’s ministers were all about cracking down, but quickly became concerned by the enthusiasm with which the deputies approached the task. One deputy from western France, the Comte de La Bourdonnaye, called for sweeping and brutal punishments:

To stop their criminal conspiracies, we must use irons, executioners, and torture… Death, and only death, can frighten their accomplices and put an end to their plots… As defenders of humanity, we must be ready to spill a few drops of blood in order to avoid having it run in torrents.20

Louis, in contrast, had promised amnesty to France, and wanted to only exempt a small number of arch-Bonapartists from this blanket protection. La Bourdonnaye’s proposal was only narrowly defeated, and that after Richelieu opposed it in the name of the king.21 The king was clashing with the very legislators who passionately believed in the king’s divine right to rule, and not for the last time.

You might be surprised by this, and expect the ultra-royalists to get along well with the royal. But Louis was no Ultra. He was conservative and old-fashioned, yes, but also cautious and conciliatory — temperamentally opposed to the firebrands of the Chambre even though they shared many policy goals. The ultra-royalists, it was said, were “more royalist than the king” — and the Ultras themselves, viewing Louis as too weak to do what needed to be done, would quip — “Long live the King — despite everything.” Louis, in return, took a dim view of the Ultras, saying that if they had their way, “they would end up by purging him.”22

These battles shaped up over late 1815 and early 1816, with the king and his ministers fighting a rear-guard action to defeat, delay or water down the more extreme proposals coming from the parliament that Louis was perhaps regretting creating with the Charter. Meanwhile the political climate was inflamed by current events, such as the trials of high-profile Napoleonic loyalists like Marshal Ney, who we discussed in Episode 5. Ney had been sent before a tribunal of senior generals, but they ruled they didn’t have jurisdiction since Ney, who Napoleon had made the Duke of Elchingen and Prince of the Moskva, claimed a right to be tried by the Chamber of Peers. This trial, in late November and early December, became a sensation due to Ney’s celebrity,23 but the assembled peers voted overwhelmingly to convict Ney of treason and sentence him to death. Louis refused pleas to pardon the marshal — going to far as to post guards to prevent Ney’s wife from getting close enough to beg for clemency in person.24

Richelieu tried to use Ney’s conviction as a political weapon against the Ultras — arguing that Ney’s example was enough, and there was no need for additional vengeance. The deputies weren’t persuaded, especially a few weeks later when another high-profile Bonapartist daringly escaped from prison on the eve of his execution by switching clothes with his wife. Ultimately, the most extreme measures were defeated, but the king had to agree to banish many more people than he had originally wanted to — including the man who was until very recently Louis’s own minister of police, Fouché.25

God and taxes

Conflict didn’t arise solely on questions of vengeance. The Ultras — many of whom didn’t believe in the Charter or parliamentary government in the first place — nonetheless asserted themselves on a whole range of issues. They disagreed with Louis’s ministry over the details of a new election law, with both the Ultras and the ministry trying to set up rules that they thought would help them.

On touchier issues, many of the Ultras wanted to bring back elements of the ancien régime, such as returning the job of recording births, deaths and marriages to the church officials who had done this before the Revolution. Others called for bringing back the tithe, the 10 percent state-enforced tax for the benefit of the Catholic Church.

Another flashpoint were the biens nationaux, those properties that the Revolution had seized from nobles and the Church and sold to French citizens. Their original owners obviously wanted them back, and Louis was sympathetic, but as we discussed in Episode 1, around 10 percent of the country had bought some of this seized property. Louis knew it was political suicide to even talk about upending the status quo here.26

The most consequential of the Chambre introuvable’s political battles, however, turned out to be France’s budget. France was already in rough financial shape in 1814, with a wrecked economy. Tax revenues the next year didn’t even cover the 525-million francs of normal government expenses, but on top of that it had 500 million francs in costs from 1815’s brutal occupation, around 150 million in ongoing annual costs to pay for the “occupation of guarantee,” and the 700 million franc war indemnity, the first installment of which was due promptly. All that was added to an existing 695 million in debts from Napoleon’s wars, including the Hundred Days.27

Dealing with this massive debt and deficit was going to be contentious regardless — Louis, remembering how fiscal difficulties had sparked the Revolution in the 1780s,28 proposed painful tax increases. But this money was also morally fraught. Ultra-royalists thought it would be not just unnecessary but “immoral” to tax Frenchmen to repay debts incurred by the usurper, Napoleon, and proposed defaulting on that debt, at least partially. Louis’s government, in contrast, thought that would wreck France’s credit and render it unable to borrow the money that would be necessary to cover its new debts. But the government’s proposal to raise funds by selling off national forests drew furious objections from Ultras, because the forests had been originally seized from the Catholic Church.29

This stalemate was ultimately resolved, with the national forests not sold, and new loans taken out to cover the interest on the Napoleonic debt while the decision about the principal was put off for the future. But by this point it was more than just Louis and Richelieu who were frustrated with the Chambre introuvable. So were the Allied powers, especially the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the army of occupation. Wellington thought that the Chamber’s punitive laws were too harsh and would destabilize France — and he was worried about what the Chamber’s fiscal positions meant for the Allies getting the money France owed them. So Wellington and the Russian ambassador started pressuring Louis to use his power in the Charter to dissolve the troublesome Chamber. This mattered because, as I mentioned before, France was under the “tutelage” of the foreign powers who still had 150,000 soldiers on French soil.30

Dissolution

Adding to this pressure came Decazes, the minister of police. Among his duties was supplying Louis with intelligence gleaned from the Restoration’s robust network of spies and informers. Decazes, a moderate who had clashed repeatedly with the Ultras, started using this access to the king to persuade him that the Chamber had to go. So the king’s intelligence briefings that Decazes compiled from intercepted letters and police reports began to emphasize the dangerous radicalism of the Ultras, and their unpopularity back home in the provinces. After enough of this campaign, Louis was finally persuaded, and ordered the Chambre introuvable dissolved in favor of new elections on Sept. 15, 1816, just over a year since they had been elected in that national landslide.31

So what are we to make of France’s year-long experience of a right-wing parliament? On the one hand, it’s easy to sympathize with Louis’s attempts at national reconciliation and acceptance against the often bloodthirsty and backwards-looking Ultras. But on the other hand, the Chambre spent a year fervently fighting for the power of parliament against that of the king. The deep irony of the Chambre is that it was the royalists who challenged the power of the king, in the name of a constitution many of them thought an abomination. Meanwhile a host of liberals became fervent champions of untrammeled royal authority. Historians still debate whether Louis’s dissolution of the Chambre should be seen as a triumph or a disaster, saving France from reactionaries or blocking the natural evolution of a more robust parliamentary government for France. As it turns out, when France does acquire stronger parliaments, it will happen not through evolution but through violent revolution.

The ultra-royalist majority in the Chamber is done, but we’re not yet done with the Ultras. For some time now I’ve been promising a look at the daily lives of ordinary French men and women of this period, and I can assure you, that’s still coming. But that’s going to have to wait a little longer as I wrap up one more loose end from our recent discussion of Restoration politics. Next episode will start an occasional series of Siècle episodes examining the major ideologies of the century, and this is happening next episode because I’m going to begin with the philosophy that motivated the Chambre introuvable. Join me in two weeks for The Siècle Episode 9: Legitimism.

  1. Peter Campbell, French Electoral Systems and Elections 1789-1957 (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1958), 55-58. 

  2. Guillaume de Bertier de Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, translated by Lynn M. Case (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), 297. The election being described here happened in 1824, but the system was essentially the same. 

  3. Robert Tombs, France 1814-1914 (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996), 106-7. 

  4. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 297. 

  5. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 296. 

  6. Campbell, French Electoral Systems, 58. 

  7. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 124. 

  8. André Jardin and André-Jean Tudesq, Restoration & Reaction, 1815-1848, translated by Elborg Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 26. 

  9. Philip Mansel, Louis XVIII, Rev. ed. (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1999), 323. 

  10. Christine Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2018), 32. 

  11. René Rémond, The Right Wing in France: From 1815 to de Gaulle. 2nd American ed., translated by James M. Laux (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), 35. 

  12. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 124. 

  13. Daniele Caramini, Elections in Western Europe since 1815: Electoral Results by Constituencies (London: Macmillan Reference Ltd., 2000), 302. 

  14. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 122-3. 

  15. Jardin and Tudesq, Restoration & Reaction, 26-7. 

  16. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 289. 

  17. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 266. 

  18. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 126-7. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 265. 

  19. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 128-9. 

  20. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 132. 

  21. Jardin and Tudesq, Restoration & Reaction, 29. 

  22. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 326-8. 

  23. Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution, 1814-1852 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 107. In one sign of how closely the public was following the trial, references to clemency in a performance of a play about Roman history sparked applause from the pro-Ney audience. 

  24. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 325. 

  25. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 133-4. 

  26. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 328. In fact, Louis’s government had criminalized even advocating to return the biens nationaux, and the political battle fought out over the Chambre’s attempt to repeal this prohibition. 

  27. Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies, 42. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 136. 

  28. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 190. 

  29. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 136-7. 

  30. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 138. 

  31. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 340-1. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 137-8.