A Real Life Wag the Dog led to 130 years of Colonial Oppression

One of the most popular fantasies in American politics is the belief presidents start wars to save themselves from political doom. Some people call this theory Wag the Dog because of a 1997 movie in which a fictional president starts a war to distract voters from a sex scandal.

French history provides a fascinating example of a real-life Wag the Dog scenario that led to 132 years of Colonial Oppression. Ironically, France’s Wag the Dog did not save the political career of the man behind it, King Charles X.

Charles X or Charles the Simple, never the brightest leader, thought a nice minor war could save his unpopular Bourbon Restoration regime. Instead, Charles’ war did not stop the July Revolution of 1830 from destroying his monarchy.

The Last King of France

Charles X was the last of the Bourbons and the last King of France. Charles was the younger brother of King Louis XVI, the monarch the Jacobians guillotined during the Reign of Terror.

In 1814, and again, in 1815, the victorious Allies put Charles’ brother Louis XVIII on the throne as King of France after sending Napoleon I into exile. In particular, the British wanted the incompetent Bourbons back in order to keep France weak and poor.

Louis XVIII was not a terrible king; he had the sense to leave politics to the politicians. Charles X, on the other hand, thought he could restore the absolute monarchy of his ancestors.

Charles X

In 1824, the moderate Louis XVIII died leaving the throne to Charles X. King Charles X was an ultraroyalist who wanted to turn the clock back to 1789 and erase the French Revolution. In particular, Charles wanted to restore all the powers of the Church and the nobility.

Predictably, Charles was unpopular with the population of France. Republicans hated Charles because he was a Bourbon. Moreover, Bonapartists; fans of Napoleon, thought Charles was humiliating France and turning it into a Catholic backwater. Moderates hated Charles X for disturbing the peace and risking another revolution.

Charles made himself unpopular by supporting a law reimbursing all the nobles who had lost property in the Revolution. Efforts to prop up the aristocracy and restrict freedom of speech only made the public angrier.

Wagging the Dog in Algeria

By 1830, Charles was more unpopular than ever, but he was planning a coup to extinguish what little freedom the French people had left. However, to carry out the coup, Charles had to distract the people.

Moreover, Charles X had an Army that was thoroughly Bonapartist. Most of the soldiers were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars who wanted their emperor back. Hence, any effort to restore the Ancient Regime could lead to a Bonapartist coup. Charles had to find something for the Army to do while he was extinguishing French liberty.

The perfect distraction for both the Army and the people appeared ,in the form of the Fan Affair in Algeria. Ironically, the First French Republic, Charles hated, began the Fan Affair.

How 1830s French cartooniists saw Charles X

To explain, in 1795 and 1795, the First Republic made a contract to buy wheat for the French Army from two Algerian merchants. However, the Republic never paid the merchants who owed money to Hussein Dey, the Dey or ruler of Algiers. Why 30-year-old debts were a political issue in the 1820s is unclear, but they were.

The merchants asked Pierre Deval, the French Consul, in Algiers to negotiate a settlement for their debts to Dey. In an argument over the debts on 29 April 1827, Dey allegedly hit Deval with his flyswatter or fan. This insult led Charles X to order a blockade of Algiers.

The blockade was still in place in 1829 when a new French ambassador arrived to negotiate a settlement. Instead of settling the dispute, Dey ordered his army to fire on French ships.

The attack on the ships was the pretext Charles X was seeking. By 1830, Charles had destroyed whatever popularity he had left by appointing the ultraconservative Jules, Prince de Polignac, head of government. Charles needed a distraction, and an invasion of Algeria was the perfect distraction.

Invading Algeria

In 1830, Algeria was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. However, the declining Ottoman Empire no longer had the power or resources to maintain its authority in Algeria. Hence, a French invasion of Algeria could be quick and easy.

For the invasion, Charles X organized an armada of 600 ships and a force of 34,000 French soldiers. The massive invasion force easily defeated the Algerian army and drove Dey into exile in June 1830.

Ironically, the invasion of Algeria did not help Charles X, he was overthrown and driven into exile by the July Revolution or Three Glorious Days. The Revolution broke out after Charles published his July Ordinances, a blueprint for absolute monarchy, that would have stripped the middle class of the vote. Bizarrely, Charles was stupid enough to publish his plans for tyranny in the newspapers where the citizens could read them.

The people of Paris took one look at the Ordinances, took up arms and drove Charles X from the throne. Charles fled France and died in exile in Italy in 1836. In the resulting chaos, Charles’ moderate cousin Louis Philippe I took the throne as King of the French. The people led by the Paris National Guard permanently drove the House of Bourbon out of France.

 Ironically, one reason the July Revolution succeeded was that most of Army was in Algeria. There were not enough troops in Paris to crush the Revolution.

Strangely, the French occupation of Algeria continued for 132 years. After a genocidal war of conquest that caused up to three million deaths, the French stayed. The French stayed in Algeria through another King, Louis Phillipe, the King of the French, a second Empire, that of Napoleon III, four French Republics, the Franco-Prussian War, several Algerian revolts, and two world wars.

French troops did not leave Algeria until 1962 after another political crisis that created Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. Thus, Charles X’s attempt to wag the Dog led to 132 years of colonial entanglements for France and countless deaths. Moreover, wagging the dog did not save Charles; or his monarchy, from the forces of history.

Charles X and Vladimir Putin

 One world leader who isn’t aware of Charles X’s fate is Russian Vladimir Putin. The news media is full of speculation that Putin is planning to invade the Ukraine to keep that nation from joining NATO.

Putin’s argument is that having NATO on his borders is a threat to Russia. Additionally, having a former part of the Russian Empire cooperating with NATO could offend Putin.

However, Russia has bordered one NATO member (Norway) for over 70 years. In addition, Putin doesn’t seem to notice that another former part of the Russian Empire (Finland) is a strong NATO partner. Why, I  wonder, is Ukraine different from Finland or Norway?

Perhaps, Russia’s failure to contain COVID-19 or the bankruptcy of the Russian government. Notably, The Wall Street Journal speculates 800,000 Russians may have died of COVID-19, similar to America’s COVID-19 death toll of 817,666. However, Russia’s population is around 144.1 million, while the US population is around 331 million. In contrast, Putin’s official COVID-19 death toll is 278,000.

Moreover, Russian individuals’ disposable income declined by over 10% between 2014 and 2020, The Journal notes. Hence, Russians are dying and suffering a sure-fire recipe for revolution.

Perhaps, Putin thinks a short victorious war could help him stay in power. History shows how well that worked out for Charles X. Wagging the Dog destroyed Charles’ Bourbon Restoration, just as it could destroy Putin’s authoritarian fantasy world.

Putin has some similarities to Charles X, he’s a reactionary who is trying to restore the nation’s past glories through repression. Conversely, Putin has been a shrewder politician, but his bag of tricks could be empty. Thus, all Putin has left is wartime patriotism.

Hence, Putin could prove Samuel Johnson’s alleged quip that “Patriotism is the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel.” Charles X’s experiences show that a quick minor war could backfire and destroy the regime.

The fate of Charles X proves Wagging the Dog is a poor strategy for political preservation. Hopefully, Vladimir Putin will learn that lesson before leading his nation to catastrophe in Ukraine.