18 DECEMBER 1880, Page 9


MROCHEFORT is learning a little elementary lesson in . chemistry,—that acids, however potent, will not bite everything. Gold, even if not quite pure, will not fizz under them. The visible decay of his special potency, which was, perhaps, always exaggerated, marks well the profound change in the political circumstances of France. There never was very much in the " Vicomte de Lucay, calling himself Rochefort." By constitution a hysterical weakling ; in intellect a litterateur, and nothing else, never a statesman or a thinker, a pqritician through his antipathies alone, and a Liberal chiefly through a disgust as much aristocratic as sensible for the vulgar tawdriness of the Second Empire, M. Rochefort possessed in perfection the power of saying bitter mots, and as he had the courage to say them out, he became a personage. There was not very much in them except biting personality, but just then the personal rule had become so oppressive, the air was so full of terror and gloom, and the oppressor loomed through the smoke of flattery in such proportions, that a biting person- ality had all the effect of a flash of lightning, revealing the truth of facts, if only for a second. Napoleon looked small in the brief but vivid light. It was but mockery, and very thin mockery ; but when an idol is mocked and cannot strike again, its votaries are disenchanted. The priests of Baal must have doubted him for a moment when Elijah accused him of sleep. Napoleon III. could not strike back at such an adversary, though certainly no Elijah, effectually. He himself, though he said some remarkable things, had no wit at command ; though his toleration was great, the geniality which destroys the effect of a sarcasm by hearty appreciation was not in him ; and he had not, in all his Court, a man, unless it were Prosper Merimee, who only fought heartily for the Empress, who could be his representative in such a contest. All he could do was to prosecute Roche- fort, send him to prison, threaten him with New Caledonia, and then pardon him ; but as his prosecutions never failed, and his judges were never trusted, and his pardons never disgraced any one, being given so often to the innocent, that method-of warfare only raised his adversary in the people's eyes. Rochefort kept on throwing vitriol, and there were so many chinks in his adversary's armour, that he writhed, and his devotees writhed for him ; and Faris, always a little cruel, laughed at their contortions till awe of the sufferers began to die away. We do not believe that Rochefort undermined the throne of Napoleon, for it never was undermined. If one fact came out in 1870, it was that there was no necessity for the war with Prussia, that the peasantry had not lost their belief in the Emperor, and that if he had remained passive and cool he might have been reigning now. But Rochefort helped not only to disenchant the Emperor in the eyes of Paris, and of the world capable of understanding the Lanterne, but in his own eyes ; his self-confidence dis- appeared ; and to rehabilitate himself with himself, as well as with his subjects, he rushed upon his fate. A flea is not a great thing, but it can turn you out of bed. After that grand triumph, M. Rochefort was like the door which lets in the air that feeds the flame. He thought that his creaking had done it all, and on his return from New Caledonia, whither he had been sent as a Communist, and after the pardon secured for him and the rest by M. Gambetta, he set himself to gain another and similar victory. He knew of only one path to swift success. It was his role, he thought, to destroy great in- dividualities, and the greatest individuality about was just then M. Gambetta. It was not very noble to attack the statesman who had just risked his ascendency to obtain the general amnesty, who had saved Rochefort's life by intercession with M. Thiers, and who had headed a subscription to help him if he escaped from New Caledonia ; but a wit of that kind, especially when much belauded, is apt to feel that benefits, however deep, are but recognitions of his merit, deserving praise rather than gratitude, and M. Rochefort struck at M. Gambetta with a vigour which made observers, aware of his former suc- cesses, prick up their ears in expectation. The fiery darts fell short, however. Not one sentence of Rochefort's against his new adversary seems to have told in Paris, certainly not one told in Europe ; and in his vexation he descended to personal abuse which—it is a notable truth in modern politics, and one not yet quite explained—never has any efficacy at all. What was the use of reviling M. Gambetta as a " one-eyed Dictator," when his dictatorship had saved France from dishonour, and his one eye had seen clearer than other men's perfect vision ; or as " opportunist" when he acknowledged the charge, or as a "Genoese" when Napoleon had been a Corsican, or calling him a descendant of Italian brigands ? M. Gambetta did not plead birth ; and Paris, though it would have ridiculed him if he had, did not care one straw if ho were the lineal male heir of Satan, provided only that he were thoroughly devoted to France, which nobody ques- tioned even in his mind. The fiery darts were harmless, but at last M. Gambetta, seeing them fall so thick, began to strike back, and with weapons very different from those of Napoleon III. He made no martyr of M. Rochefort, but with that occasional finesse which is so striking in so imperious a character, simply appealed to the French appreciation of sentiment against the French appreciation of wit. He caused some letters to be published, which showed conclusively that M. Rochefort owed him much, his life, among other trifles ; and by implication, asked Paris if this assailant of his, with all his acid wit, was not a bad-hearted fellow ? Sentiment is in France the great antiseptic, and the immediate con- demnation of Paris drove M. Rochefort into a temper which found relief not in showers of raillery, but in floods of Billingsgate. He even challenged M. Reinach, M. Gambetta's private secretary, for publishing his letters, but received only the crushing reply that there could be no duel, for there was no injury to repair. "If your own letter dis- honours you, how can I help that I" We are by no means sure that the method of warfare was the most dignified M. Gambetta could have chosen. There are men in the world who would hardly defend themselves by enumerating the benefits they had conferred on an enemy, and they would in their reticence have been higher men than M. Gambetta, though he was appealed to, it must be remembered, as head of a party, and not as a private friend. The blow, however, had been provoked, and it was a deadly one. M. Rochefort will always be read, but scarcely again regarded by his countrymen.

The importance given to the entire incident is a little arti- ficial, and arises, we suspect., from the usual difficulty which men bred under any strong regime have in shaking off its traditions. Because, Napoleon being absolute, a blow at him shook the empire, therefore a blow at Gambetta, who is only a statesman, may shake the Republic. Those who grew up under the shadow of the Bastille regarded bold jests on monarchy as events, and thought the faculty of lampooning a power, as it was indeed, but only because it made men see that the repressive atmosphere had floated off them. Beaumarchais was a hero under Louis XV. for saying that aristocrats deserved all things, because "they did us the honour to be born," but who in Massachusetts would have laughed or trembled at the words ? It was only under the ancien regime that such a mot could have any explosive force. There is some fine in- vective in the letters of "Junius," but it took a George III., and the corrupt group to whom lie committed the kingdom, to make of " Junius " a power dangerous to great ministers, and even to the monarchy itself. His bitterest letters would have passed unnoticed under a free regime, except as specimens of style. M. Rochefort was a force under the Empire, just as a man in a crowded room who was armed with a pin and disposed to use it would be a force ; but in the open air or amid armed men, the pin would not only be a weak weapon, but a slightly ridiculous one. The sayer of sayings may hurt an Emperor, though even that hurt is probably exaggerated, but he can do nothing against a Republic or its ministers. Vituperation seems amid free institutions to lose its power. It is doubtful if the lavish and sometimes clever abuse poured on candidates in an American election ever endangered a President's seat, and General Grant remains, after storms of vituperation, one of the most powerful personages in the States, who, but for the popular dread of a Third Term, might have been elected to the White House once more. In- deed, we are not quite sure that the whole " power of the Press " is not a little traditional. The London Press is the strongest in England, and it wasted itself against Mr. Gladstone, who, even in London, has thirteen Members

among his supporters, against seven on the other side. Facts must have weight while people think, and argu- ment must tell, however slowly ; but the time for mere sayings, however brilliant, and still more for invective, however keen, has, we suspect, passed away. Ireland is the land of oratory, but it is the coldly-restrained speaker, Charles Parnell, who says so little and goes so far, who leads Irishmen now, and not the master of words. As we see, M. Rochefort, in the free air of modern France, has become but a popular litterateur, and in modern England we question if Francis would be even that. Both would be read, of course, because a liking for strong writing survives belief in it ; but neither would, any more, turn a thousand votes.