Mass Surveillance in France & Britain: The Age of the Masses
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June 8, 2024

Mass Surveillance in France & Britain: The Age of the Masses

Mass Surveillance in France & Britain: The Age of the Masses

The history of mass surveillance in France and Britain from the French Revolution until the 1880s.



The time period between the French Revolution to the early 1880s is The Age of the Masses. During this period the ‘masses’ became the new power, in theory and in practice. Whereas in the Aristocratic Age the central state’s primary opposition and target of domestic surveillance were small cabals of discontented nobles, during the Age of the Masses the government’s primary concern was the surveillance and control of the large, undifferentiated masses that threatened to revolt. They were undifferentiated because the state had relatively little information on these people and their view remained within the noble-commoner binary, which only partially shifted to a notable-commoner binary as wealthy French and British gentry gained political power.

The French Revolution threatened the basis of power across Europe, shifting sovereignty from the monarch to ‘the people.’ This Enlightenment ideal became a reality in early June 1789 when the Third Estate declared itself the legitimate government in France, becoming the National Assembly. What followed in France and Britain was a prolonged conflict over state authority. Mass movements and sporadic outbursts of violence dominated this period. Simultaneously, writers and agitators spread democratic ideas between these dramatic episodes, meaning that anti-state action occurred in non-violent forms throughout the period.

The various states of France and Britain were woefully unprepared to deal with this new threat. Throughout the century they oscillated between heavy-handed oppression and conciliation. The underlying problem aristocratic elites faced was that they were divorced from the lives of the majority of their country’s population. Moreover, domestic intelligence-gathering was limited, antiquated and most frequently used against members of their own class rather than the middle or working class. As such they could not sense when popular outrage reached a breaking point. Furthermore, they struggled to identify which groups and individuals led popular movements. This made elites fear ‘the masses’ as an undifferentiated, uneducated, angry throng of potential revolutionaries.

After the initial shock of the French Revolution, the states of France and Britain began adapting to the new political reality in three major ways. First, police organizations underwent a bureaucratic revolution and rapidly expanded to monitor and suppress the middle and working classes. Second, states engaged in welfare reform to alleviate the worst social ills and convince the people that the state was the solution to their suffering and a protection against criminality. Finally, these states granted suffrage in irregular waves to male non-elites. The gentry first gained political recognition and power, then the middle class, finally most of the working-class gained the right to vote.

France and Britain were dominated by their capital cities, whose large populations, political importance and wealth dictated laws and practices to the rest of the country. Since the Revolution, the French state cultivated police practices in Paris and imposed these on localities while maintaining the supremacy of the capital. British policymakers covertly mimicked French police practices as they reshaped London’s metropolitan police and tried to centralize, standardize and nationalize policing. This project was poorly enforced in both nations until the 20th century as slow transportation and communication limited centralized control over localities. Yet, the French Revolution showed both nations that their antiquated police forces were impotent in the face of a popular uprising. During the next ninety years both countries modernized their police forces, starting in the capital and expanding it across the country.

The Age of the Masses ended when the majority of the male middle and working classes gained the right to vote in free elections.[1] In France the Third Republic granted meaningful universal suffrage to all adult men, while in Britain the Representation of the People Act 1884 granted suffrage to much of the urban male working-class after previous acts enfranchised the gentry and middle class. In subsequent elections the working class largely voted for establishment candidates, often religious conservatives, to their shock and delight. By the late 1880s most politicians across the spectrum accepted near-universal male suffrage as a political reality. While not all were happy with this, it was clear to all that harnessing the masses was far easier than suppressing them. Finally, elites realized that the political question and the social question were not one and the same, as working class men did not vote to seize the wealth of the rich minority. This age ended as elites decided to join with the middle and working classes to suppress radicals working to upend society, inaugurating the Age of the Individual.



The French Revolution Re-Orients Surveillance from Aristocrats to the Masses


The French state was utterly convinced of its own security before the Revolution because after hundreds of years of fighting it finally had control of its aristocrats. Royal agents worked with police to monitor individual nobles and the aristocratic class as a whole had lost much of its power by the time Louis XVI became king. The monarch and his retinue did not realize that the late 18th century was markedly different from the medieval period. Better roads and transportation meant villages and towns were connected to larger markets and through them they were integrated into a national and even international community. The printing press and increased literacy allowed the mass dissemination of ideas by dissenters.[2] Even those that couldn’t read gained access to the news when community members read to them. Finally, an educated middle class of lawyers and bureaucrats entered the state bureaucracy while simultaneously not having power to change the state itself. These changes meant that the large numbers of disenfranchised people could recognize their mutual grievances and work in concert to amend them.

When the political-economic crisis of 1788 arrived this middle class was already in many positions of power. It had the experience needed to run a government and possessed Enlightenment-era ideas for how to replace the state. Finally, technology and infrastructure allowed the middle class to create local, regional and national networks and coordinate action. From just after the Revolution’s outbreak in 1789 to the Coup of Fructidor, 1797, the French Revolution was dominated by democratic idealists. The Ancien Régime was rapidly and relatively easily replaced. Émigrés and popular Catholic uprisings, such as the Vendée, attacked this new government but the reactionary forces were completely unprepared for this new challenge by the national community of non-aristocrats.

The Enlightenment rhetoric espoused by the revolutionaries rarely translated into concrete policy. More often, the National Assembly and its successors retained the practices of the Ancien Régime. This was certainly true in the case of domestic intelligence-gathering and suppression of the masses. The members of the National Assembly appealed to the masses while simultaneously fearing their incredible power. They increased the number of police spies in Paris.[3] Furthermore, most of the preexisting police worked for the Revolution bringing with them their practices and ideas.[4] Most people opposed pre-publication censorship but supported post-publication restrictions against calumny, so censorship against anti-Revolutionary literature was regularly enforced.[5] The 21st of October, 1789 the National Assembly declared martial law to prevent further uprisings. This and subsequent legal addendums allowed local commandants de la place, who controlled communes, to arrest, expel people from town, control prisons and do whatever necessary to maintain public order.[6] In 18 July 1791 the Assembly banned speech opposing the law, leading police to crackdown on seditious talk.[7] In August 1793 Jean-Marie Roland sent out nine “public spirit agents” to pump out propaganda for the state.[8] The operations of the French state under the Revolutionary government were similar to the Ancien Régime though they were more often directed against the masses, rather than against aristocrats. The Revolutionary government monitored public opinion, though their ability to collect information remained limited.[9]

The French Revolution became more chaotic as differing political factions persecuted each other. This chaos prevented large-scale reform of the regular police, who largely operated as before, and the gendarmerie, who were underfunded, wracked by politics, and largely decentralized.[10] Additionally, many gendarmeries were illiterate and poorly trained.[11] The masses turned on the Revolution due to the Terror, food crises and economic recession. When regular police forces proved incapable of regulating the masses, the state used the army for domestic policing and repression.[12] This made the Revolutionary governments even more unpopular as the army performed jobs that the regular justices of the peace could not or would not do.[13] Thus, while the Revolution brought down the old political order it did not greatly alter the bureaucratic apparatus nor the functions of intelligence-gathering. Its major contribution to this sector was to refocus Ancien Régime-era control mechanisms from aristocrats to the masses. The antiquated agencies and practices that failed to safeguard the Ancien Régime failed to protect the Revolutionary governments as Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in 1800 and created the First French Empire.

Napoleon recognized his regime needed a powerful, competent and agile police force to suppress would-be revolutionaries and initiated a massive overhaul of this system. He centralized police forces with “the law of 28 pluviôse, year 8 (February 17, 1800) [which] established prefectoral supervision of local policing.”[14] Thus, the central state established a hierarchical system and the mechanisms for regular contact and supervision of localities. Napoleon’s meritocratic system meant that local police could ascend the ranks, thus rather than alienating rural police he incorporated them into his system of surveillance and control.

The stability of Napoleon’s regime depended on controlling Paris. For this he had Joseph Fouché refashion the Paris police force into a well-ordered, if overly-bureaucratic apparatus that monitored its citizenry’s views on the state.[15] Uniformed police were ordered to counter false rumors and given remarkable powers to suppress what the state deemed disinformation.[16]

Napoleon’s goal of maintaining power was similar to that of the Ancien Régime, though his methods markedly differed. Napoleon was a child of the Enlightenment and promoted scientific study. His government demanded regular crime statistics from the Paris police and the gendarmerie to monitor discontent and rebellious activity.[17] He fostered the gendarmerie, who served as the rural police.[18] Under Napoleon, the gendarmes and police commisaires were expected to turn in monthly reports on public opinion.[19] All of these reforms meant the First French Empire had an organized, responsive police force firmly controlled by the central state.

While Napoleon ‘s government maintained stability within France his foreign wars ended his empire. Yet, most of the police reforms were left in place during the Restoration. Louis XVIII (r. 1815-1824) was naturally paranoid of a popular rebellion after his brother was guillotined and accepted Napoleon’s effective new police apparatus. His government further centralized domestic surveillance when police forces were subsumed into the Ministry of the Interior.[20] Moreover, police were directed to monitor the public mood so the state was prewarned against revolutionary outbursts. John Merriman recounts:


     “In 1822, the prefect of the Rhône reminded Lyon’s commissaires that they were ‘to have a profound knowledge of the principal inhabitants of your district, being informed as to their opinions, their character, and the extent to which they can be influenced; as a result, you will know in advance any hostile projects before they can be begun.’ He asked the police to begin a secret register of the city’s principal inhabitants, and to write down their observations on their political opinions and conduct.”[21]


Additionally, police spied on ex-convicts and political dissidents.[22] The state collected national criminal statistics starting in 1825, becoming one of the first nations to do so.[23] Finally, the Restoration governments employed the infamous cabinet noir to further monitor suspect individuals.[24]

Britain watched the events in France with revulsion and terror. Most Britons were accustomed to lax policing, particularly in England, where there was a widespread belief in a semi-mythical English constitution and the natural rights of Englishmen. The British viewed the Reign of Terror and the subsequent Napoleonic policing system as an affront to English-style liberty.[25] However, even as the majority of Britons opposed French-style policing, policymakers modeled British police forces after their Continental counterparts. The development of the British police was a struggle between elites’ desire to ward off a violent, French-style Revolution, and the popular antagonism to French authoritarianism.

In 1792 Britain developed a prototype of a metropolitan police force based on the French model specifically to counter a French-style uprising.[26] This was partly because in March 1792 the French Revolutionary government sent spies into Britain to watch the émigrés and to stir up revolution.[27] In June, Parliament passed the Middlesex Justices Act which created seven police offices within London, each of which had a force of six constables and three magistrates. These early metropolitan police were specifically tasked with countering the Jacobin clubs within the city.[28]    

While London police mimicked the practices of their Parisian counterparts their mandate was directed against foreigners, not British subjects. The state used this important distinction as a justification for the expansion of police forces and powers over the next century. However, British police were learning how to spy, infiltrate and punish subversive groups, skills which were later used against their own population. When Parliament authorized large-scale domestic surveillance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries British police almost immediately resembled their French counterparts.  

The London police quickly developed surveillance techniques which they employed against the émigrés communities. Metropolitan police head John Reeves invited émigrés to his house, ostensibly for hospitality, but he used this to ply information from them.[29] The Alien Act of 8 January 1793 required all foreigners to register with police or customs officials. Wisely, British police monitored The Corresponding Societies, rather than shutting them down, allowing outlets of discontent rather than pushing them underground where they could become more radical and dangerous, a technique they used against their own subversive citizenry much later.[30]

In 1815 Napoleon was defeated and the Kingdom of France was restored under the Bourbon Louis XVIII. A stable aristocratic order in France gave British elites a sense of security that popular revolution was a passing mania that Britain would avoid. However, the American and French revolutions inspired a new generation of liberals in Britain that challenged aristocratic supremacy. During the late 1810s-1820s protests broke out across Britain for popular suffrage. The most dramatic of these events was the Peterloo Massacre. On the 16th of August, 1819 at least 60,000 people in Manchester protested for Parliamentary reform. The government responded by sending a cavalry unit, which charged into protestors, killing at least a dozen and wounding hundreds. Further pro-suffrage protests and mass workers’ riots eroded British confidence in their country’s stability.

In 1829 Home Secretary Robert Peele created a new police force within London to replace the semi-professional constabularies.[31] Dubbed ‘Peelites,’ the 3,000-strong full-time police had standardized uniforms, regular beats and professional training.[32] Unlike constables who mediated conflict and investigated crimes, Peelites were created for the purpose of preventing crime through regular patrols and investigation of suspect persons.[33] One of the most revolutionary aspects of the Peelites was that they were required to publish crime statistics.[34] Policymakers required statistics in order to monitor police effectiveness and justify their existence to a public that still feared French-style authoritarianism. However, this regular information-gathering created a reliable mechanism for police to monitor neighborhoods and groups and for elites to create new policies.

By the late 1820s France and Britain had professionally-trained, full-time police in their capitals and, to a lesser extent, the nation at large. These bodies regularly collected crime statistics, leading to a revolution in information-gathering and the relation of the individual to the state. Since the medieval period the state attempted to gather information on aristocrats; now it recognized that it had to know the masses and control them because they had the potential to overthrow the existing order. The proliferation of crime statistics in turn led to increased fears of moral decay, leading to an increase in police budgets, staff and powers as these nations tried to control their populations.[35] Additionally, regular statistical collection coincided with industrialization and urbanization. At the same time that crime reports made the news millions of rural people moved into over-congested cities, often becoming part of an urban underclass. Thus, elite fears of a French-style Revolution compounded with fears of Malthusian societal decay.[36]

During the late 1820s-onward the French and British states engaged in unprecedented mass data collection as they sought to know and control their populations. Clive Emsley notes,


During the Restoration in France, the Compte general de l’administration de la justice criminelle, had a momentous impact on European justice, as these statistics were expressly meant to change policy. It gave details of defendants charged with crimes by age and sex (from 1826), it listed their civil status (from 1828), place of birth, residence, and level of education; their occupation according to a nine-class division (from 1829), whether their residence was urban or rural (from 1830); whether they were wage-earners, self-employed, or unemployed (from 1831).[37]


Meanwhile Britain enacted a number of economic surveys and the Registration Act of 1832 which centralized information-gathering on births and deaths.[38]

The birth of modern surveys and census-taking coincided with the waning of church functions. Since the medieval period churches held birth, baptism and death records while administering welfare to the poor. The French Revolution greatly damaged church wealth and property, and the Restoration’s efforts to re-Christianize France failed.[39] In Britain, the national Anglican Church declined as the urban working-classes adopted Methodism or abandoned religion entirely.[40] Thus, the 19th century state initiated mass data collection for the dual purpose of controlling their populations while administering welfare to ameliorate their social ills; itself a tool to deter revolutionary activity. Acts regulating public health and safety helped the poor urban workers while simultaneously empowering the government to regulate them.





The Middle Classes are Accepted into Government to Oppose the ‘Dangerous Classes’



A major shift in the Age of the Masses occurred during the 1830s-1840s as the middle class increased its economic and political power. The July Revolution 1830 in France brought Louis-Philippe (r. 1830-1848), the ‘Bourgeois Monarch,’ to power alongside a government that favored the middle class. In 1832 Britain passed the first Reform Act, giving some middle class the vote. The inclusion of the upper middle-class into the political arena and polite society changed elite perceptions of the masses. Respectability increasingly derived from economic well-being rather than noble birth as increased numbers of commoners acquired political power, wealth and intermarried with the aristocracy. As France and Britain became industrial capitalist societies fear of the masses turned from those without noble lineage to those without wealth.

Social theorist Honoré Frégier cemented this view with the publication of his book Des classes dangereues de la population dans les grandes villes et moyens de les rendre meilleurs in 1840. This work popularized the term ‘dangerous classes,’ and the idea that the police’s primary function was to control the working class, who he claimed were most often thieves with loose morals.[41] Frégier theorized that when large conglomerations of degenerate people were concentrated in small locations and impoverished this posed a danger to society because they did not work, which was anathema to a capitalist production-based society.[42] This jargon quickly translated into English as police and Benthamite reformers referred to the poor urban working-class as the ‘dangerous classes.’[43]

During the mid-19th century Benthamites in Britain and Positivists in France offered a solution to the much-debated Malthusian catastrophe. These thinkers argued that the state could reform all but the most deviant people through policing, controlled welfare, workhouses and prisons.[44] Policymakers at this time believed that criminals, beggars and the destitute had moral failings, necessitating intervention for their moral correction.[45]

France and Britain increased their police forces and powers as these nations attempted to control the dangerous classes. In Britain The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 created police forces in 178 counties while The Rural Constabulary Act 1839 allowed for rural counties to decide on whether they wanted to form a police force. There were calls to nationalize police in the 1830s-40s to stave off French-style Revolution, but after 1848 British policymakers believed revolution was unlikely and allowed for local police autonomy. The County and Borough Police Act in 1856 forced localities to have their own police but they could decide on the form it took. However, they had to pass an inspection to receive Treasury funding as the central state asserted a measure of control over localities.[46]

In France, the July Monarchy and the Second Empire further centralized police control while increasing police presence and political policing. Under Louis Phillipe mouchards, undercover police, listened to people’s conversations, particularly at workers’ cabarets.[47] John Merriman notes, “During the July Monarchy, some 25,000 political dossiers accumulated, along with about 60,000 individual bulletins in alphabetical order of those who had been condemned for violations of various laws. By the time the hôtel de ville burned in May 1871 , the number of registers that had accumulated since 1790 had reached about 10 million.”[48]

During the Second Empire the newfound Sûreté Générale directed political policing. Under its guidance police censored literature, had many spies, including three brigades politiques in Paris, and rigged elections in favor of the regime.[49] Furthermore, the Second Empire was notorious for monitoring minority groups such as Freemasons, Jews and Protestants.[50] Finally, in 1855 the Second Empire ordered the commissaires spéciaux de police de chemins de fer to gather information on travelers in case they were fleeing local police.[51]

Social control became far more important in the mid-19th century when disease epidemics struck Paris and London. These epidemics particularly affected the working class, leading urban theorists and doctors to postulate that the working class endangered the lives of the middle and upper class through their poor sanitary practices. Thus, this period combined the prejudice of the masses as a revolting rabble with new scientific language of the poor as unclean to produce a common view of the working-class as a dangerous contagion that threatened the social body.

An outbreak of cholera ravaged Paris in 1832, infecting one out of every eighteen people. Poor living conditions meant the working-class were disproportionately affected.[52] Reformers sought to control the poor on the argument that their susceptibility to disease threatened entire communities.[53] In 1850 France passed the Law Against Insalubriousness, which gave municipalities the right to order police to inspect and regulate rented dwellings.[54] The law’s defenders argued that this protected communal liberties by shielding them from disease outbreaks. The law’s opponents argued that the focus on rented habitations and expansion of state power was a direct attempt to stymie working-class liberties in the name of communal rights.[55]

In late 1852 Napoleon III declared himself Emperor of the French, ending the Second Republic and inaugurating the Second Empire. One of his first decisions as the head of state was to redesign Paris in order to pacify the troublesome capital. Napoleon III wanted to tear down working-class slums and create large boulevards so that (1) cannons could enter the city to destroy barricades from rebels, (2) police could exercise more control over public space (3) new sanitary systems could be created. In 1853 Napoleon III appointed Georges Haussmann prefect of the Seine and told him of his intentions. In 1852 a prefectural decree announced that the city government could seize any private building that threatened public hygiene. Haussmann used this decree liberally and his agents rapidly destroyed numerous working-class slums to create broad boulevards and housing alongside a modern sewer system.[56] Thus, Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris was designed to counter the old threat to state power through violent upheaval, and the new threat posed by epidemic disease.

The British Parliament did not enact sweeping health regulations until the 1870s.[57] In the mid-19th century the English still clung to their natural English rights and viewed any government encroachment into their personal lives with suspicion. Simultaneously, political liberalism was at its zenith as Benthamites held that personal freedom was the greatest impetus to improvement. However there were some notable exceptions, such as the Vaccination Extension Act 1853, which made smallpox vaccination compulsory.[58]

While British politicians struggled to pass broad-scale health reforms affecting the majority of the population they managed to pass sweeping regulations for undesirables. The most famous of these laws were the Contagious Disease Acts 1864, 1866 and 1869, which gave police officers the right to inspect the genitalia of any woman they suspected of being a prostitute. The Ladies’ National Association formed to protest the government violation of women’s bodies, arguing that those men who solicited prostitutes should be the ones subjected to inspection.[59] The Ladies’ National Association succeeded, and in 1886 the law was repealed. However, they only accomplished this by supporting the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which gave even more power to police to regulate women workers and poor women.[60]

Besides prostitutes, moralists viewed habitual criminals as a product of urban social decay. Many policymakers believed moral failings led to crime, poverty and lack of stable employment. Mid-19th century London was a nightmare for moralists due to the crisis of casual employment, a term referring to short-term, low-skill work taken by the poor to avoid immediate destitution. The enclosure movement meant millions of Britons were forced off small farms and into factories or workshops in major cities. In London out of the 4.5 million laborers only 1.5 million were fully employed, another 1.5 million were “half-employed,” and the final 1.5 million were unemployed or casually employed.[61] This large-scale perpetual poverty alarmed the upper and middle classes, leading to the Habitual Criminals Act 1869 which created a database of criminals.[62]

At this point an important caveat must be addressed. Not all policymakers used welfare and expanded police powers to explicitly control the poor. Some genuinely wanted to ameliorate the conditions of urban, working-class life, particularly for women and children who were more often depicted as victims of circumstance than poor men. Furthermore, police were often pulled from the neighborhoods they patrolled, making them naturally more sympathetic to workers. Moreover, they wanted to work with their neighbors and be held in high standing so there was a give-and-take relation as police sought to govern with consent.[63] Even though French police were infamous for political policing they were loyal to ‘the nation’ rather than any particular government and were often neutral during revolutions. After the July Revolution 1830, Paris police prefect A. Girod posted notices informing the public that the police would ensure public order for the common good, demonstrating their allegiance to the nation, not to any one government or monarch.[64] The development of Franco-British mechanisms for social control is not merely the assertion of power by rulers over the ruled. This is particularly true during the 19th century as France and Britain extended the franchise to greater proportions of their populations, changing the structure of the rulers.

Many different considerations and motives went into the development of domestic surveillance and social control mechanisms during the 19th century. Religiously-inclined elites and voters bemoaned the church’s decline and wanted laws to regulate public morality. Social reformers sympathized with poor people, particularly children who were often workers in dangerous factory conditions during the early 19th century. Benthamites, Positivists, Owenites and other Enlightenment-era utopians believed they could prevent a Malthusian catastrophe by eliminating poverty and crime through novel societal reconfiguration. Finally, reformers wanted to contain disease outbreaks and lessen the negative impacts of industrialization. Historians tend to look at a chain of events as part of a continuous development towards our present situation. While there is some truth to this view, most nineteenth-century lawmakers passed legislation to address society’s existing problems, rather than through a conscious effort to continue long-standing historical trends. It is farfetched to imagine that every expansion of police prerogatives or welfare systems was viewed through the lens of increasing central state power at the expense of individuals’ liberty. Thus, there were many different motives behind 19th century state reconfiguration and expansion. Nevertheless, the end result was that the state developed incredible new powers to monitor and control the vast majority of its population.



The Working Class is Finally Accepted


Britain gradually incorporated the middle class into the state while France underwent violent upheavals as the old order refused to share power with the new bourgeoisie. Then the working class gained a measure of wealth during the latter half of the 19th century and also wanted the state to protect their wealth and rights in the face of exploitative capitalists. In Britain, the Liberal Party enfranchised many urban workers, erroneously thinking they would vote Liberal. When the workers primarily voted Conservative the Conservative Party accepted their right to vote and chose to appeal to them. In France, Napoleon III gave all adult men the right to vote but rigged elections in his favor. The Third Republic could not undo universal male suffrage even if it had aimed to, meaning that political parties courted the working class.

In both countries the central state’s authority and power developed to encompass greater proportions of the population until every individual had a direct relationship with the central state through police observation, census-taking, official records, and welfare allotment. Elite policymakers used these initiatives to control a people they feared and did not understand. Yet elites could not unilaterally impose their will and the middle class that emerged in the 17th to 19th centuries accepted and adapted reforms to protect their wealth and secure their political rights.

Thus, the expansion of state surveillance is not that of elites controlling non-elites. As more people were enfranchised they used the state to reforge industrial society to their liking. They supported increased police presence to dissuade criminals and thieves. They approved of increasing police power to punish social outcasts like prostitutes, vagabonds and habitual criminals. They supported state intervention in public hygiene to protect them from disease epidemics.

Before the French Revolution state power was directed by elites, channeled through notables and enforced primarily by local agents. The 19th century’s shift towards liberal democracy meant that elites, more than ever, had to govern with the consent of the governed. Thus, the surveillance state developed in two major ways. First, it was a top-down process by elites as a means to control those they viewed as dangerous to the power of the state. Second, it was a socio-political shift as the majority of the nations’ population accepted state observation, presence and authority in exchange for political rights and protection of property. The Franco-British surveillance state, which is characterized by mass data collection, near-ubiquitous police presence and a monopoly of control over the public space, did not emerge merely because of elite desire. The Franco-British surveillance state emerged when the majority of France and Britain’s populations demanded it exist in order to maintain their economic rights, political privileges and personal security against crime and disease.



Internal Stability, External Threats


The Age of the Masses ended in the 1880s due to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871, and the enfranchisement of most of the male working classes in France and Britain. The Franco-Prussian War was the first major war fought in western Europe since the Napoleonic era, and ended a long period of internal troubles and relative external stability. Prussia’s rapid victory over France and the consolidation of the German Empire meant that the Franco-British states’ gravest threat was military invasion, not domestic discontent.

The war also destroyed the Second Empire which was replaced with the Third Republic. For the first five years the Third Republic struggled to govern as the majority of its deputies were monarchists who opposed the regime, though their internal divisions kept them from overthrowing it. In 1876 the republicans won a majority and the monarchists declined.[65] Upper and middle class’ fears of the working class lessened as the majority supported a republic and organized into respectable political parties.

In Britain the Representation of the People Act 1884 enfranchised many urban workers, though over a third of British men still lacked the right to vote. This bill was hotly contested by the Conservatives who feared that the working class would naturally vote for liberals and socialists. Shockingly, in the 1885 parliamentary election the Conservatives increased their seats, and did so again in 1886 when they won a majority.[66] This allayed Conservative fears as they realized that British workers did not define themselves solely by class but by region, religion, nationality and other identifiers of which the party could appeal.

Alongside these political shifts were changes in perceptions of poverty. By the 1880s most policymakers viewed the poor as victims of social circumstance rather than as moral deviants and the French and British states aimed to reform petty criminals, rather than punish them.[67] In France the Parole Law 1885 granted parole for those criminals who could be reformed while the Relegation Law 1885 deported all “habitual criminals” to life in the colonies.[68] In Britain, the onset of the Long Depression caused the upper and middle classes to fear a mass workers’ movement.[69] This movement came in 1889 when the London dockworkers, who lived in the poorest neighborhoods of the East, struck for better wages. Yet, these strikes were orderly, and did not precipitate violence, theft or criminality, proving to the upper and middle classes that workers could be negotiated with and had reasonable grievances.[70] By the 1890s people realized that most of the working-classes were content with democratic capitalism and their movements aimed to improve living conditions, rather than serving as a precursor to violent revolution. By the turn of the century it was clear to everyone that only a small cabal of dedicated revolutionaries desired to overthrow the state.


[1] During the Second Empire all adult men had the right to vote, but elections were unfair.

[2] See Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 1991), 91.

[3] Charles Walton, Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 28.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Ibid., 4-5.

[6] Howard G. Brown. Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice, and Repression from the Terror to Napoleon, (Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 200.

[7] Charles Walton, Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution, 133.

[8] Ibid., 210-211.

[9] Deborah Susan Bauer. Marianne is Watching: Knowledge, Secrecy, Intelligence and the Origins of the French Surveillance State (1870–1914) DISS. 2013, 74.

[10] Howard G. Brown. Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice, and Repression from the Terror to Napoleon. 2006. 189.

[11] Ibid., 190-1.

[12] Ibid., 121-3.

[13] Ibid., 137-8.

[14] John Merriman, Police Stories: Building the French State, 1815-1851 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 16.

[15] Clive Emsley “Introduction: Political Police and the European Nation-State in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Policing of Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Mark Mazower (Oxford: Berghan Books, 1997), 5.

[16] Ibid., 5-6.

[17] Clive Emsley, Crime, Police, & Penal Policy: European Experiences 1750-1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 118.

[18] John Merriman, Police Stories, 3.

[19] Clive Emsley, Crime, Police, & Penal Policy, 102.

[20] Clive Emsley “Introduction: Political Police and the European Nation-State in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Policing of Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Mark Mazower (Oxford: Berghan Books, 1997), 10.

[21] John Merriman, Police Stories, 111.

[22] Ibid., 114.

[23] Hsi-Huey Liang. The Rise of Modern Police and the European State System from Metternich to the Second World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 42.

[24] Douglas Porch, The French Secret Services: A History of French Intelligence from the Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War (New York City: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995), 17.

[25] Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900 (Harlow, United Kingdom: Longman Group, 1987) 171-2.

[26] Elizabeth Sparrow, Secret Service: British Agents in France 1792-1815 (Suffolk, United Kingdom: The Boydell Press, 1999) XI.

[27] Ibid., 5-6.

[28] Ibid., 7.

[29] Ibid., 13.

[30] Ibid., 28. 1782.

[31] Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, 180.

[32] Ibid., 171.

[33] Ibid., 187.

[34] Ibid., 189

[35] Ibid., 245.

[36] Clive Emsley. Crime, Police, & Penal Policy: European Experiences 1750-1940, 158-9.

[37] Ibid., 119-120.

[38] Edward Higgs, The Information State in England, 71-4.

[39] Jean-Paul Burdy, : “Social Control and Forms of Working-Class Sociability in French Industrial Towns between the Mid-Nineteenth and the Mid-Twentieth Centuries,” in Social Control in Europe, Vol. 2: 1800-2000, Ed.s Clive Emsley, Eric Johnson and Peter Spierenburg. (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2004), 27-31.

[40] For more information on this, see the classic work E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (New York City: Vintage Books, 1966).

[41] John Merriman, Police Stories, 12.

[42] Clive Emsley, Crime, Police, & Penal Policy, 142.

[43] Ibid., 139

[44] Clive Emsley, Crime, Police, & Penal Policy, 158-9.

[45] Paul Lawrence, “Policing the Poor in England and France 1850-1900,” in Social Control in Europe, Vol. 2: 1800-2000, ed.s Clive Emsley, Eric Johnson and Peter Spierenburg, (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2004)  221.

[46] Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History (Harlow, UK: Longman. 1991), 35-56.

[47] Clive Emsley, “Introduction: Political Police and the European Nation-State in the Nineteenth Century” in The Policing of Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Mark Mazower, (Oxford: Berghan Books, 1997), 11.

[48] John Merriman, Police Stories, 10.

[49] Hsi-Huey Liang. The Rise of Modern Police and the European State, 55.

[50] For more on this, see Philip Nord, The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[51] Clive Emsley, “Introduction: Political Police and the European Nation-State in the Nineteenth Century” in The Policing of Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Mark Mazower, (Oxford: Berghan Books, 1997), 13-32.

[52] Andrew Aisenberg, Contagion: Disease, Government and the ‘Social Question’ in Nineteenth Century France

(Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999), 16-17.

[53] Ibid., 37.

[54] Ibid., 47.

[55] Ibid., 48.

[56] Ibid., 51.

[57] Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (New York City: Harper and Row, 1963), 19.

[58] Edward Higgs, The Information State in England, 79.

[59] Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) 1-3.

[60] Ibid., 247.

[61] Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study In The Relationship Between Classes In Victorian Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 52-53.

[62] Edward Higgs, The Information State in England, 95.

[63] Clive Emsley, “Control and Legitimacy: The Police in Comparative Perspective Since Circa 1800,” in Social Control in Europe, Vol. 2: 1800-2000, ed.s Clive Emsley, Eric Johnson and Peter Spierenburg, (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2004), 206-7.

[64] Hsi-Huey Liang, The Rise of Modern Police and the European State, 48.

[65] GeoElections, “Législatives de 1876,” accessed November 28, 2019,

[66] United Kingdom Election Results, “General Election Results 1885-1979,” accessed November 28, 2019,

[67] Paul Lawrence, “Policing the Poor in England and France 1850-1900,” in Social Control in Europe, Vol. 2: 1800-2000, ed.s Clive Emsley, Eric Johnson and Peter Spierenburg, (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2004)  221-2.

[68] Robert Nye, Crime, Madness and Politics in Modern France: The Medical Concept of National Decline. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984), 49.

[69] Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study In The Relationship Between Classes In Victorian Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 281.

[70] Ibid., 315.