Saturday, 14 January 2017

France: the Third Republic

The Republic proclaimed

When the news of the French surrender at Sedan reached Paris on September 4, crowds filled the streets and demanded the proclamation of a republic. The imperial officials put up no serious resistance; the Revolution of September 4 was the most bloodless in French history. 

The siege of Paris

A provisional Government of National Defence was set up. It refused to accept the surrender terms and vowed to continue the war against the invaders. The new government's most charismatic member was the new Minister of the Interior, Léon Gambetta hero of the radical republicans. He doubled the size of the National Guard bringing its numbers up to 360,000 men (virtually the whole male able-bodied population of Paris). However by 23 September the Prussian forces had surrounded Paris, having already occupied all of France north and east of Orléans. The new government was deprived of its contact with the rest of the country. On 7 October Gambetta left the city by balloon to join several members of the government at Tours, where he assumed the functions of Minister of War as well as Minister of the Interior. During the next four months, Gambetta's makeshift armies fought a series of indecisive battles with the Prussians in the Loire valley and eastern France. These battles took the Prussians by surprise and greatly enhanced the prestige of the republicans, but the French forces were no match for Moltke’s army and the delegation at Tours was forced to withdraw to Bordeaux. 

Resistance was now concentrated in Paris where the National Guard manned the defences of the city. But the Prussians had no intention of taking Paris by storm when it was easier to starve the city. This was the beginning of a humanitarian catastrophe. Soon the Parisians were eating the animals from the zoo and cutting down the trees in the Champs Élysées for firewood. 

Christmas menu, of zoo animals
but also fine wine!
Public domain

On 5 January in the middle of a terrible winter, the Prussians began to bombard Paris. By this time left-wing leaders were accusing the government of treachery. While still at war with the Prussians, the Parisians were beginning to fight each other. 

The armistice

On January, having defeated an abortive left-wing rising, the government accepted the inevitable armistice which was signed on 28 January over Gambetta's angry protests. By its terms Paris was to capitulate and there was to be a three-week suspension of hostilities to allow for the election of an assembly that would negotiate a peace. 

 The election, held on February 8, produced an assembly dominated by monarchists, more than 400 of them, compared to only 200 republicans and a few Bonapartists. Overwhelmingly, it was a vote for peace, though Paris and certain provinces, such as Alsace, voted heavily for republicans. On 13 February the National Assembly convened in Bordeaux and chose Adolphe Thiers as ‘chief of the executive power of the French republic’. He set out at once to negotiate a settlement with Bismarck.

The Treaty of Frankfurt

On March 1 the Treaty of Frankfurt was ratified by a large majority of the Assembly. The terms were severe: 

  1. France was charged a war indemnity of five billion francs plus the cost of maintaining a German occupation army in eastern France until the indemnity was paid. 
  2. Alsace and half of Lorraine were annexed to the new German Empire. 
  3. The German army was authorised to stage a victory march through the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile in Paris. 

After the assembly ratified the treaty, the deputies of the lost provinces (including Léon Gambetta) resigned their seats in protest. 

The Commune

A few days later, the assembly transferred the seat of government from Bordeaux to Versailles, twelve miles from Paris.  This in itself was a provocation to many Parisians. Poorer Parisians were further angered by the assembly’s decision to end the wartime moratorium on debts and rents and the cutting off of further payments to the National Guard. 

 The crisis came on 18 March when Thiers ordered the 400 guns of the National Guard to be removed from the butte (mound) de Montmartre. A crowd gathered; a bloody encounter ensued; two generals were caught and lynched by the mob. As violence spread through the city, Thiers hastily withdrew all troops and government offices from Paris and went to Versailles to plan his strategy. He appealed successfully to Bismarck to release French prisoners of war in order to form a siege army that could eventually force Paris to capitulate. During the next two months, this governmental force was slowly assembled. 

Within Paris, meanwhile, initial chaos gradually gave way to an improvised experiment in municipal self-government. On 26 March the Parisian rebels elected a municipal government known as the Commune (a name that went back to the Jacobin Terror), an event that even today inspires fierce controversy - see the discussion on the Wikipedia entry. Was the Commune, as Karl Marx promptly declared, the first great uprising of the proletariat against its bourgeois oppressors? Or was it a much more varied movement comprising varied strands of left-wing and revolutionary thought? 

 On 2 April (Palm Sunday) the second siege of Paris began, as under the noses of the Prussians, the (initially) poorly equipped Versailles army surrounded the city. On 8 May a general bombardment began. In the course of 'Bloody Week' (May 21-28) the Communards resisted, street by street, but were pushed back steadily to the heart of Paris. The Versailles army were initially far more ruthless than the Communards, systematically shooting their prisoners. In retaliation, the Communards executed a number of hostages (including Georges Darboy, the archbishop of Paris) and in the last days set fire to many public buildings, including the Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville. A final stand was made in Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where the last resisters were shot down against the Mur des Fédérés--ever since, a place of pilgrimage for the French left. 

Thiers’s government took a terrible vengeance. Twenty thousand Communards were killed in the fighting or executed on the spot (as opposed to 1,000 Versaillese); thousands of survivors were deported to the penal islands, while others escaped into exile. An assembly of monarchists headed by a conservative republican had ‘first provoked and then put to fire and the sword the people of Paris’. 

Communards in their coffins
Public domain

The results of the Commune 

The repression of the Paris Commune left its mark on the emerging republic. The various socialist factions and the newly organised labour movement were left leaderless and Thiers’ ruthless law and order policies probably won many rural and small-town voters to his brand of conservative republicanism. In the by-elections to the assembly in July 1871 republicans won 99 of 114 vacancies. The voters were clearly willing to accept a republic so long as it was run by a 'safe' man like Thiers. 

The failure of the monarchists 

The monarchists, however, still held a comfortable majority in the assembly and continued to hope and plan for a restoration. There were two candidates for the throne, the Legitimist Count de Chambord (the ‘miracle child’ born posthumously after the assassination of his uncle the duc de Berri in 1820) and the Orleanist pretender, Philippe, Count of Paris. Chambord was childless but the Count de Paris was young and had a family. A compromise solution was proposed: Chambord was to be restored but the Count of Paris was to be successor. But in July 1871 Chambord issued a manifesto stating that he would never abandon the Bourbon fleur de lys for the republican tricolore. This seemed to rule out the prospect of monarchy and Thiers’ position was accordingly strengthened. 

 During the next two years, Thiers reorganized the army and worked to restore national morale; he successfully floated two bond issues that permitted the war indemnity to be paid off in 1873, thus ending the German occupation ahead of schedule. Late in 1872, however, he renounced his long-held Orleanist faith and declared his conversion to republicanism. The monarchists forced his resignation as provisional president (May 1873) and hastily substituted the commander of the army, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon. They hoped that this would give them the breathing space needed to secure the restoration of the monarchy. But in January 1875 the Assembly voted 353/352 (one vote!) to accept the existing republican government. The disheartened monarchists fell back on waiting for the Bourbon line to die out. But when Chambord died in 1883, it was too late for a restoration. 

The republican constitution 

The Third Republic never had a constitution, but there were a number of constitutional laws which provided the framework of government. There was a two-chamber legislature (with an indirectly elected Senate as a conservative check on the Chamber of Deputies); a Council of Ministers (Cabinet), responsible to the Chamber; and a president, elected for seven years by the two houses, with powers resembling those of a constitutional monarch. Because there was no formal constitution, there was always the theoretical possibility that the monarchy could be restored. 

 The constitution left untouched many aspects of the French governmental structure, notably the centralised administrative system inherited from Napoleon I, the hierarchy of courts and judges, and the Concordat of 1801, governing church-state relations. 

At the end of 1875 the National Assembly at last dissolved itself, and the provisional phase of the Third Republic came to an end. When the first Chamber of Deputies was elected in 1876, the republicans won more than two-thirds of the seats. A period of severe friction between MacMahon and the Chamber followed. But in January 1879 partial elections gave the republicans control of the Senate, and MacMahon shortly found an excuse to resign. He was replaced by a ‘safe’ republican, Jules Grévy. The balance of the constitution had shifted in favour of the Chamber and against the Senate and the office of the President, who has been described as an elderly gentleman whose function it was to wear evening dress in the day-time. 

 The years 1877 to 1881 mark the real foundation of the Third Republic, with republicans winning local elections. Some of the characteristics of modern French life came into being. In 1879 the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies returned to Paris from Versailles. La Marseillaise became the national anthem and the 14th July a national holiday. In 1881 an amnesty was granted to the surviving Communards. 

The Dreyfus affair 

French public life continued to be obsessed by revanchism, the desire to recover the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. The Right in particular developed an ideology of extreme nationalism. The writer Paul Déroulède formed a League of Patriots, which engaged in vaguely conspiratorial activities and was on the look-out for scapegoats, in particular Protestants, freemasons and Jews. 

In 1889  the journalist Edmond Drumont founded the Anti-Semitic League. Its journal, La Libre Parole was founded in 1892. La France Juive was published in 1886.

The conspiratorial atmosphere intensified in 1889 when the radical populist General Boulanger came near to mounting a coup against the government.  The Panama Scandal of 1892, in which government ministers and many other parliamentarians were found to have taken bribes, was the largest corruption scandal of the nineteenth century. Two Jews were shown to have been in charge of distributing the money.

The most notorious incident of this period is the Dreyfus affair. In 1894 a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was dismissed and in the following year he deported to the French penal colony of Devil's Island off Guyana for allegedly passing classified military information to the Germans. In 1898 the writer Emile Zola published in the radical newspaper L'Aurore an open letter entitled J'Accuse to the president of the Republic, in which he attacked the army and asserted Dreyfus' innocence. In the poisonous debate that followed, France split into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899 but only finally cleared in 1906. See here for a review of the latest scholarly book on the subject, Ruth Harriss' The Man on Devil's Island. Listen to the discussion on Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time


The Republic faced a bruising conflict with the Roman Catholic Church over education. Between 1881 and 1886 the education minister, Jules Ferry, introduced free primary education for children between six and thirteen and for the first time provided public secondary schooling for girls. 

The school programme was a major success. The profession of primary school teacher became firmly established and in many rural communities the teacher was an alternative source of authority to the parish priest. 

 In the early twentieth century the government stepped up its campaign against the Church's role in education. In 1901 it was decreed that all teaching orders had to be authorised by the state.  In 1904 religious congregations were prohibited from teaching and in 1905 Church and State were formally separated, establishing the cherished French principles of secularité and laïcité. Thousands of religious schools were shut down. For all its problems, the Third Republic survived until 1940. However its underlying tensions did not go away and were to re-emerge during the Vichy regime.


  1. The Third Republic was founded in defeat and humiliation. The humiliation was compounded by the bloodshed of the Commune.
  2. Nevertheless France showed remarkable powers of recovery. The reparations were paid quickly and a republican government came into being.
  3. However, the Dreyfus case and the disputes over education showed that France was also a deeply divided country.

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