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I've just begun reading the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant, starting with one of his most famous, "Boule de Suif" (variously translated as "Dumpling", "Butterball", etc.) In an early passage of the story, when the passengers of the coach are being introduced one by one to the reader, Monsieur Carre-Lamadon is described as follows:

Beside them, dignified in bearing, belonging to a superior caste, sat Monsieur Carre-Lamadon, a man of considerable importance, a king in the cotton trade, proprietor of three spinning-mills, officer of the Legion of Honor, and member of the General Council. During the whole time the Empire was in the ascendancy he remained the chief of the well-disposed Opposition, merely in order to command a higher value for his devotion when he should rally to the cause which he meanwhile opposed with “courteous weapons,” to use his own expression.

What does all this mean? I haven't finished reading the story, but it seems that understanding the political leanings of the various passengers is going to be important for the story. What are the "Legion of Honor", the "General Council", and the "well-disposed Opposition"? In the last sentence, which cause is being referred to and what are "courteous weapons"?

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The story is set during the winter of 1870-1871, several months after the fall of Napoléon III's Second Empire (early September 1870) but before the preliminary peace treaty signed in Versailles on 26 February 1871. Since the Prussian forces entered Rouen in December 1870 (apparently, Prussian soldiers even used Flaubert's bed), the siege of Paris (19 September 1870 - 28 January 1871) is still ongoing; the Government of National Defence (4 September 1870 - 13 February 1871) was in a sense the first government of the Troisième République.

The "Empire" is the "Second Empire", established after Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's coup d'état of December 1851 and the man's coronation as Napoléon III in December 1852. His reign is divided into two periods: an authoritarian period (1852-1860) and a "liberal" period (1860-1870). Those who supported him, like Boule de Suif, were bonapartists; there were several types of opposition, such as Orléanism (supporting the constitutional monarchy by the House of Orléans, represented in the story by the comte Hubert de Bréville) and republicanism (represented in the story by Cornudet).

The Legion of Honour / Légion d'honneur was established in 1804 by consul Napoléon Bonaparte (months before his coronation as emperor) because the French Revolution has abolished all types of decorations that existed under the Ancien Régime. From the beginning, the Legion of Honour could be awarded both to servicemen and to civilians. Napoleon is supposed to have said, "Je veux décorer mes soldats et mes savants" ("I want to decorate my soldiers and my scholars").

The General Council refers to the "conseil général de département", a type of assembly established after the French revolution; since 1833, the members of this assembly were elected. During the Second Empire, the conseil départemental was a kind of deliberative assembly, since government had been centralised and the executive power at the level of the département was in the hands of the préfet de département, who represented the centralised power. However, during the liberal period of the Second Empire, there was some pressure to decentralise government and the conseil général was given a few more competencies. (See Histoire du conseil départemental du Loiret; I assume that the description there is representative of the Second Empire in general; and Le Conseil Général du Pas De Calais, which points out that the conseil départemental did not have much real power.)

The "well-disposed opposition" (there is no uppercase letter in the French original: "opposition bienveillante") is a bit harder to define, especially when taking into account hat the powers that be could could propose official candidates / "candidats officiels" for elections of assemblies such as the conseil général. Since Carré-Lamadon had been awarded the Légion d'honneur, it is likely that he was such an official candidate. The best explanation for his "opposition" that I can think of is that he may prefer the older more authoritarian style of government to the more liberal style that dominated since 1860. The entire description of his political position ("the well-disposed Opposition, merely in order to command a higher value for his devotion when he should rally to the cause which he meanwhile opposed" / "l’opposition bienveillante, uniquement pour se faire payer plus cher son ralliement à la cause qu’il combattait") suggest that he does not want to commit himself too strongly so he can turn his coat when the political winds should change; in other words, he is practising the venerable political art of opportunism.

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"Legion of Honor": initially a very high honor created by Napoleon Bonaparte, but can be gifted to civilians and as such tends to designate an old, respectable Frenchman who has done service to his country. Source

"General Council": now called the Departmental council, this is the department-level government. Essentially, what this says is that he's a civil servant in good standing. Wikipedia, sorry, everything else I find is about the Swiss council

"well-disposed Opposition": I think this is a mistranslation. He's the "well-disposed(amiable) head of the Opposition". The Opposition party is, as far as I can tell, the equivalent of the Shadow Cabinet in England. Anecdotally, they're seen as a bit stick-in-the-mud, although I don't know if that was the opinion at the time.

"courteous weapons": this is "armes courtoises" in the original and I think "weapons of courtesy" conveys the idea better. He fights for his cause using courtesy - he argues for it rather than fighting for it. In context, I think this whole description is just meant to convey the image of a highly respectable, inoffensive older man. I'm still rereading it myself but from what I remember the politics don't matter much except for characterization - Maupassant likes political description regardless of its relevance.

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  • Thanks for the info! One thing I'm still not sure about: "remained the chief of the well-disposed Opposition, merely in order to command a higher value for his devotion when he should rally to the cause which he meanwhile opposed with “courteous weapons,”" - does this mean that he really supported the government (Empire?) but remained opposing their cause (in the Opposition) because he planned to rally to it later? – Rand al'Thor Jun 24 at 6:42
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    @Randal'Thor the Opposition isn't an actual Opposition really - they're a part of the functioning government and still around today. I may be reading wrong, but I think it means that he played at being opposed to policies so he could get paid to "rally round" to the causes he'd been fighting - basically, he'd spent the time of the empire constantly politicking. – KitKatKit Jun 24 at 7:54
  • Ah, then it's not really the equivalent of the UK Shadow Cabinet. The latter is a group of senior politicians in the main opposing party, the one not in government, who act to "shadow" the actual government ministers - there's a shadow foreign minister, shadow chancellor, and so on (the shadow prime minister being the leader of the opposition party, who would be prime minister if that party was in power instead). – Rand al'Thor Jun 24 at 8:27
  • No, sorry, I've gone over it again and you have the right of it; I'm not very well-informed on politics and I misunderstood it earlier. I'm still pretty sure that a "friendly head of Opposition" is not a hugely effective member of the government, though. – KitKatKit Jun 24 at 9:23
  • Based on what I've read, the conseil général cannot be described as a government. – Tsundoku Jun 28 at 13:28

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