The Third French Republic

The history of France has been stormy since the Germans captured Paris. Her misfortunes did not end with the fall of the capital, and the loss of her border provinces. It is part of the normal order of French history that when an established government is overthrown and another is set in its place, this second government is in its turn attacked by insurrection in Paris, and an effort is made to establish the rule of the democracy of the capital itself, or of those who for the moment pass for its leaders. It was so in 1793, in 1831, in 1848; and it was so again in 1870. Favre, Trochu,. and the other members of the Government of Vincennes assumed power on the downfall of Napoleon III, because they considered themselves the individuals best fitted to serve the State. There were hundreds of other persons in Paris who had exactly the same opinion of themselves. And when, with the progress of the siege, the Government of defense lost its popularity and service, it was natural that ambitious and impatient men of a lower political rank should consider it time to try whether Paris could not make a better defense under their own auspices. Attempts were made before the end of October, 1871, to overthrow the Government. They were repeated at intervals, but without success. The agitation, however, continued with the ranks of the National Guard, which, unlike the National Guard in the time of Louis XV, now included the masses of the working class, and was the most dangerous enemy, instead of the support of Government.

The capitulation of Paris brought things to a crisis. Favre had declared that it would be impossible to disarm the National Guard without a battle in the streets. At his instance Bismarck allowed the National Guard to retain their weapons and the fears of the Government itself thus prepared the way for successful insurrection. When the Germans were about to occupy western Paris, the National Guard drew off its artillery to Montmartre and there erected intrenchments. During the next fortnight, while the Germans were withdrawing from the western forts in accordance with the conditions of peace, the Government and the National Guard stood facing one another in inaction. On the 18th of March General Lecomte was ordered to seize the artillery parked at Montmartre. His troops, surrounded and solicited by the National Guard, abandoned their Commander. Lecomte was seized and with General Clement Thomas was put to death. A revolutionary central committee took possession of the Hôtel de Ville. The troops still remaining faithful to the Government were withdrawn to Versailles, where Thiers had assembled the Chamber of Deputies. Not only Paris itself, but the western forts, with the exception of Mont Valérien, fell into the hands of the insurgents. On the 26th of March elections were held for the Commune. The majority of peaceful citizens abstained from voting. A council was elected which, by the side of certain harmless and well-meaning men, contained a troop of revolutionists by profession; and after the failure of all attempts at conciliation, hostilities began between Paris and Versailles.

There were in the ranks of those who fought for the Commune some who fought, in the sincere belief that their cause was that of municipal freedom. There were others who believed, and with good reason, that the existence of the Republic was threatened by a reactionary assembly at Versailles. But the movement was on the whole the work of fanatics who sought to subvert every authority but their own. And the unfortunate mob which, followed them-in so far as they fought for anything beyond the daily pay which had been their only means of sustenance since the siege began fought for they knew not what. As the conflict was prolonged it took on both sides a character of atrocious violence and cruelty. The murder of Generals Lecomte and Thomas at the outset was avenged by the execution of some of the first prisoners taken by the troops at Versailles. Then hostages were seized by the Commune. The slaughter in cold blood of 300 National Guards, surprised at Clermont by the besiegers, gave to the Parisians an example of massacre. When, after a siege of six weeks in which Paris suffered far more severely than it had suffered from the cannonade of the Germans, the troops at Versailles at length made their way into the capital, humanity and civilization seemed to have vanished in the orgies of devils. The defenders of the city, as they fell back, murdered their hostages and left behind them palaces, museums the entire public inheritance of the Nation in its capital in flames. The conquerors during several days shot down all whom they took fighting, and in many cases put to death whole bands of prisoners without distinction. The temper of the army was such that the Government, even if it had desired, could not have mitigated the terrors of this vengeance; but there was little sign anywhere of an inclination to mercy. Courts-martial and executions continued long after the heat of combat was over. A year passed and the tribunals were still busy with their work. Above ten thousand persons were sentenced to transportation or imprisonment before justice was satisfied.

Since 1790 France has had seventeen constitutions of almost every imaginable variety. But the Third Republic (proclaimed in Paris by Gambetta, September 4, 187o) has had the longest life of any Government during that period. As long as the war lasted the country was ruled by the self-elected Government of the National Defense. When the war was over a National Assembly with indefinite powers was chosen by universal suffrage. Thiers, the historian and former Minister of this body, was the member of this body who commanded the most general public confidence, and the assembly intrusted the executive to him without, however, fixing any term for the duration of the office. It was as the agent of this assembly that Thiers acted. He had great difficulty in persuading his colleagues of the Assembly, and his countrymen generally, to agree to peace on terms that were practically dictated by Germany. But he succeeded; peace was voted March I, 1871. No sooner had he accomplished his task than he was face to face with the sanguinary madness of the Commune. But this difficulty, also, he set himself to surmount. With characteristic energy he succeeded, and the seat of Government was once more removed from Versailles to Paris. Thiers was formally elected (August 31) President of the French Republic. He held office only until 1873, but during this period probably he was mainly instrumental in securing the withdrawal of the Germans from France and the payment of the war indemnity and in placing both the army and the civil service on a more satisfactory footing. But in course of time the gratitude of the country exhausted itself and Thiers, who was old-fashioned in many of his opinions and as opinionated as he was old-fashioned, did not make any new friends. He was especially detested by the Extreme Left, whose chief, Gambetta, he styled Fou-furieux (furious fool). As a result a coalition of reactionaries and radicals under the leadership of MacMahon was formed expressly, as it seemed, to harass him; and even in the beginning of 1872 he tendered his resignation. It was not accepted, and his opponents for a time suspended their intrigues. They were revived, however, in 1873, and resolved them-selves into a resolute effort to limit the powers of the President. This Thiers stoutly resisted, and he made an appeal to the electors, but this course did not increase the strength of his following. Finally, what he interpreted as a vote of no confidence was carried (May 24, 1873) by a majority of sixteen. He resigned and his place was taken by Marshal MacMahon.

MacMahon was a general rather than a statesman, and unlike Thiers, he was not a member of the Assembly. He was elected by the support of the Monarchists Orleanists, Bonapartists and Bourbons, who were in a majority in the assembly; and there is good reason for the popular belief that he was preparing for a time when by a coup d’état the monarchy might be restored. But the rival Monarchists strove against each other. Although at one time it seemed not impossible that the Comte de Chambord, the Bourbon, might become King, and negotiations were opened for the purpose on a basis of agreement by which the Orleanists were to succeed him on the throne, the negotiations came to naught because of the obstinacy of the Comte, who, true scion of his race, refused to yield one jot of his pretensions. He refused to accept the tricolor as his flag, and the royalists abandoned hope. Then they set themselves to the work of forming a constitution which was purposely formed so that it might be the basis of a constitutional monarchy and make easy a coup d’état. It was only by a majority of one (January 30, 1875) that the Republic was finally recognized as the definite government of France.

MacMahon’s term had been fixed at seven years (November 19, 1873), but he did not serve the full term. The general election held (1877) in virtue of the constitution showed that France was now in favor of a parliamentary republic. The Republican majority refused to vote supplies, and, after a brief period of con-test in which he tried repression and then conciliation, the Marshal decided that as a choice in Gambetta’s famous alternative, “Submit or resign,” he would take the latter, and he resigned ( January 30, 1879), Jules Grévy, an out and out Republican, succeeding to his place.

Grévy was succeeded by Gambetta as President of the Chamber of Deputies, and the ardent Republican was the real ruler of the Republic. Under his leadership various measures of doubtful expediency were instituted. The Communards were amnestied. The schools and convents of the Jesuits were suppressed while public education was removed from control of the Catholics, thus arousing the enmity of the ultramontanists. The fourteenth of July, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, was made a National holiday. These measures, together with the war with the Tunis which did little to add to the glory of France and consumed an enormous amount of money caused the fall of several Ministers in quick succession, one of the Premiers being Gambetta himself. His death (1882), together with the distrust of the peasant proprietors, (the true conservative power in France), made the Monarchists believe that the time had come for a restoration. Divided as before between three dynasties, they were unable to bring about a revolution, although they succeeded in defeating a bill to banish all heirs and pretenders to the throne. The Chinese war (1884) and the Madagascar Expedition gained territory, but at a frightful loss of blood and treasure, Ministries rose and fell. Although Grevy had been reelected on the expiration of his term, a nasty scandal involving his son-in-law, Wilson, who sold deco-rations and appointments in the army, was the direct cause of his resignation (December 2, 1887). There had been no suspicion of Grevy’s personal probity until his interference to protect his son-in-law from justice aroused France. Marie François Sadi Carnot became President of the Republic.

It was about this time that republican institutions seemed to be in danger by the extraordinary popular support which General Boulanger secured for a moment and which seemed to be along the pathway which in France led to a dictatorship. Until 1886 Boulanger was a man without national reputation other than that of any able General of the French Army. Appointed Minister of War in Brisson’s Cabinet, he won great personal popularity by his patriotic utterances and the reforms he introduced in the treatment of the privates and noncommissioned officers. Too powerful for the Government’s safety, he was placed on the retired list for insubordination. This still further increased his popularity, and he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies from several departments in by-elections, the Department du Nord giving him 100,000 majority He at once became the leader of the opposition to the Government, and moved a dissolution of the Chamber; this resolution being rejected and a vote of censure being passed upon him, he resigned. Then he was reelected, securing 500,000 votes by letting his name be presented in a large number of districts. There was no doubt that Boulanger was conspiring for the overthrow of the Republic, and by a resolution adopted April 4, 1889, the French Chamber decided to prosecute him. After a trial in which Quesnay de Beaurepaire acted as prosecuting attorney, Boulanger, with Count Dillon and Henri Rochefort, were convicted of conspiracy and attempted treason. They were condemned to transportation and imprisonment in a fortified place, but Boulanger escaped to England. His flight, and the revelation that he had received 3,000,000 francs from the Orleanists, shattered his popularity. Paris laughed at its former idol who, unable to stand the ridicule and ignominy he had earned, committed suicide September 30, 1891.

Six months before the expiration of the term for which Sadi Carnot had been elected President he was assassinated (June 24, 1894). An Italian anarchist stabbed him at Lyons while he was driving in a carriage through the streets. During his administration evidences of the corruption prevalent in French official life multiplied. The failure of the Panama scheme led to the prosecution of Count de Lesseps and his son and of Gustave Eiffel, and of many politicians and ex-Ministers, some of whom were convicted of bribery and corruption (January, 1893). M. Baihut, Minister of Public Works in 1886, was proved to have received a bribe of 375,000 francs. Casimir Perier succeeded Carnot as President (1894), but after being a little more than six months in office he was forced to resign, corruption in connection with some railway franchises having been proved against some of his friends, whom he attempted to shield.

Felix Faure (elected President January 15, 1895; died of apoplexy February 16, 1899), who succeeded him, was the first French ruler since 1824 who had not been driven from his place by revolution, assassination or public opinion. Yet revolution seemed near during his whole term of office, although it was prevented after his death by the prompt election (February 17, 1899) of Emile Loubet as his successor. The pretenders had been gathering strength and preparing to overthrow the Republic, but Faure’s death was too sudden for them to devise a coup d’état and effective guards on the frontiers would have prevented the arrival of any one of the pretenders in Paris.

During the administration of President Faure, the world learned of the rottenness of the French army, and evidence multiplied to show that not only were worthless supplies furnished the army and navy at exorbitant prices, but that French officers trafficked in State secrets, which they sold to the enemy. These revelations were due to the Dreyfus case, which was a legacy left by Faure to his successor. Captain Dreyfus, a Jewish officer, was accused of selling army secrets and convicted by secret court-martial on what later seemed to be insufficient evidence. The revelations of the investigations showed that while Dreyfus had not sold the secrets some one had, and that efforts had been made to protect the perpetrators. The chief of the intelligence bureau committed suicide when it became known that he was concerned in forging at least a part of the papers for the conviction of Dreyfus.

Thus the French Republic has had a stormy time at home. Abroad it has gained no victories, and France has ceased to be a great power. The vanity of the French was flattered by the Franco-Russian alliance in 1895, when France loaned money to the Czar, but, in 1898, when France was on the point of war with Great Britain, over her claim to ownership of territory in the Soudan, she found that her ally would not help her. Her colonial policy has been costly, and productive of more scandals than glory. She has gradually been excluded from a place among the great Nations, and her influence at European conferences is but slight.