The Rise of the French Third Republic Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Rise of the French Third Republic

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The year 1871 signalled the end for the French Second Empire. The Prussians had beaten the French convincingly and had captured Napoleon III, France's Emperor at the time. The Prussians called a halt to the fighting to allow the French to restabilise their government. The Monarchists won a majority in the national assembly and so they took power, albeit without a monarch. It is safe to say that at this stage things weren't looking good for those who supported the Republicans.

The Paris Commune

The Parisians, a group of people largely supportive of the Republicans, were not happy with the way they had been ignored during the siege. They were not happy with the National Assembly moving from Bordeaux to Versailles, rather than Paris. They were positively furious that Adolphe Thiers, the Monarchist leader, had ordered that all rents that had been suspended during the siege should be paid back, and the National Front (a Parisian defence army) should be dismantled. As a result of all this, they set up the Paris Commune.

The concept of the commune was that the Parisians would rule Paris by themselves and would be entirely independent. Thiers realised that if he were to pay off the huge war indemnities to the Prussians (500 million Francs) then he could not endure a social revolution. Therefore he destroyed the commune by force in a bloody and bitter battle. The most lasting effect of the commune was the fact that the government could be seen to act forcibly if necessary, without a Monarch or an Emperor. People in France began to realise that a Republic was a reasonable form of government. The fact that a Republic could act strongly was a theme that was to run right through the Third Republic.

Rise to Power

Perhaps the main reason for the Republicans coming to power, was the fact that the Monarchists couldn't find themselves a monarch. At one stage it seemed that the Comte de Chamborde would become king, but then he published a manifesto in 1871, stating categorically that he would only rule under the white flag of his Bourbon ancestors. The people of France were not happy with this as the tricolore represented the most important symbol of the revolution. As well as this, Thiers began to realise that Republican support was growing as the people of France didn't really want to go back to having a king. They had only voted for the Monarchists in the first place because they had offered peace, and now the Republicans were offering that too. Plus, there was the general feeling that there was nothing a Monarch could do that Thiers couldn't. After all, he had defeated the commune, was well on his way to paying off the war indemnities and had done a great job in stabilising the country. A great blow for the Monarchists came in 1872 when Thiers announced that 'the Republic is the form of government that divides us least'. In 1873 he resigned.

The Monarchists then made sure they brought in someone who was whole-heartedly supportive towards the Monarchist cause. They found such a man in MacMahon. He was no way near as talented as Thiers in terms of political skills, but he would never turn his back on the Monarchists. With MacMahon as President and Broglie as Prime Minister, the 'Republic of Dukes' was formed.

The by-elections in 1873 represented growing Republican support. One last attempt was made to get the Comte de Chamborde to reconsider, but he wouldn't. Monarchist hopes were fading fast and they weren't much improved by the fact that their leader, MacMahon, was uncharismatic and very unpopular. Broglie decided that it was necessary to set up a solid form of state before the Monarchist majority disappeared entirely. This was speeded up by the fact that the Bonapartists were becoming increasingly popular. There quickly came a series of laws that made up the Constitution of 1875.

The word 'Republic' appeared in the new set-up, MacMahon was the President of the Republic, but Monarchists only considered this temporary. However, this can be considered a victory in itself for Republicans as they have come a long way from being governed by a monarch. They won a further victory when the Wallon Amendment was passed by one vote. This contained the words

The President of the Republic is elected by the plurality of votes cast by the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies united as a National Assembly.

Finally, it seemed, the Third Republic had arrived.

Despite this, the constitutional laws were clearly designed to give right-wing parties the advantage. If the Chamber of Deputies contained a Republican majority, then it was expected to be counterbalanced by a right-wing Senate and President.

The Republicans' biggest victory came in 1877. MacMahon put into practice his constitutional right to dissolve the chamber and allow an entirely new set of members to be voted for. Both sides launched huge election campaigns. The result was decisive, for the Republicans. They had cemented their position in French politics and the Monarchists were soundly defeated. Two years later, MacMahon resigned as President.

At this stage, people had realised that a Republic was the only possible form of government that could satisfy France. The Monarchists had shown themselves to be a disorganised party, and without a Monarch, they were in fact operating similarly to a Republic. The people of France didn't want to go back to days when they were ruled by a king, since they had unhappy memories of such things. The Republic offered slow and steady change for the better and they had proved that they were a resilient party, winning an election despite laws passed to disadvantage them. They still had opposition, and were soon to face tough crises, but they were there against the odds, and were determined to stay there.

Republican Policies

Over the next few years, the Republicans cemented their position well. For years the Republicans had been split by two different factions, the 'radicals' and the 'opportunists'. From 1880, the Republicans became mainly opportunists and only made slow cautious changes. They were led by men such as Jules Ferry, the superb statesman of the time, and the President, Jules Grevy. This type of political strategy suited French people as a whole. The Republic stood for pure democracy, but not complete social revolution. Gambetta's great ambition was to abolish classes completely.

One of the largest political themes running through the Third Republic was anti-clericalism, meaning the separating of Church from state. Jules Ferry passed many laws on this subject, for example, in 1882 a law was passed that education was to be compulsory, free and separate from the Church. It wasn't until 1905 that the Separation Law was passed. This meant that the Church ceased to be funded by the government and many unauthorised cults were allowed to exist.

In general it is safe to conclude that the Republican government were fairly popular with French people at this time. They were making active policies on matters such as education, colonisation and religion, while also not making dramatic social changes, which pleased the right. Living conditions improved, as did trade. However, the Republic was now severely tested by three serious crises, through which they did well to survive.

The Three Crises


In 1886, General Boulanger was appointed Minister of War. He was a glamorous figure who frequently paraded the streets of France and was admired by the public. Admiration for Boulanger increased after he got involved in the freeing of Schnaebele, a French border patrol man who was captured by the Germans. He was seen (incorrectly) as being their saviour after seemingly opposing Bismarck. Boulanger was expelled from Paris by the Republic because of his increasing popularity. However, he re-entered politics when Daniel Wilson (son-in-law of Jules Grevy) got caught up in a scandal involving selling state honours. Grevy was forced to resign.

Boulangism was now reaching epidemic heights. All parties, including the Monarchists and Bonapartists, were jumping on the proverbial bandwagon. In 1889 he won a by-election in Paris. It seemed if Boulanger now wanted to oppose the Republic, he would easily win. However, the Republicans, to their credit, now went on the offensive against Boulanger. They charged him with plotting against the safety of the state. Boulanger, whom historians believe was mentally incapable of holding a burden so great, fled to Brussels where he promptly committed suicide after the death of his mistress.

The Republic had survived Boulangism by coming together at the vital moment, and by not laying down and accepting the seemingly inevitable. Although Boulangism was a major threat, in theory it could never have worked since his followers were so diverse, and he could never have satisfied them all. Boulangism was a huge worry for the Republic as it showed that their position wasn't so strong and that the people of France were willing to vote for other forms of government. However, it can be assumed that Boulangism ultimately strengthened the Republic in the eyes of the public.

The Panama Scandal

The next crises to hit the Republic was the Panama Scandal. Members of the government were charged with having taken bribes from the Panama Canal Company to withhold from the public the news that the Company was in serious debt. This meant people in Paris continued to invest, and lost money as a result. All but one of the accused went unpunished due to lack of evidence. The heat was taken away from the government somewhat by the fact that two Jews were also involved in the scandal and they received most of the coverage from the press and public.

This crisis obviously differs from the previous one in that the Republic was never really in threat of being overthrown. However, it did raise doubts in the public eye and meant that politicians were no longer trusted as much as they once were. However, the Republic's position was still as strong as ever.

The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus affair was the one that really rattled the Republic and the country as a whole. In 1892, Dreyfus was found guilty of supplying Germans with French military information after a letter was found in a dustbin, supposedly in Dreyfus' handwriting. That might have been the end of it, if it wasn't for the opposition put up by the Dreyfus family and Major Picquart.

In court, the prosecutors were shown information that the defence were not allowed to see. This information in effect sentenced Dreyfus to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Not only were court room laws broken here, but in fact Picquart realised that the hidden information was merely circumspectual evidence. Picquart (an honest man unlikely to put army policies before his morals) was further infuriated by the fact that letters were continuing to be sent to the Germans. A man named Esterhazy was found to be the culprit but the army chose to be quiet about this. They didn't want to lose their integrity in the eyes of the public.

Eventually however, Dreyfus' innocence became more and more apparent. It was proved that Major Henry had forged a letter from the Italian to the German government, which had supposedly proved Dreyfus guilty. However, at this time, opinion was so divided, it seemed unlikely any compromise could be reached to enable a decision on what to do with Dreyfus. There were the (right wing) anti-Dreyfusards who believed that he should remain on Devil's Island, as, in their opinion, one Jew shouldn't be put before the integrity and stability of the army and country. Then there were the Dreyfusards who believed he should be released and the army should be punished for their scandalous behaviour during this time. There was no middle opinion, this scandal divided France completely.

Eventually, a Republican named Waldeck Rousseau formed a Government of Republican Defence. He came to a compromise with the army and Dreyfus was allowed on parole and eventually, in 1904, was declared innocent. Rousseau had done well and had freed Dreyfus while causing the minimum damage to the pride of the army.

The Dreyfus affair had convinced those who were just coming round to the Republican regime now decided that they didn't support it. People were forced to realise that they couldn't take the Republic for granted, and the country was more divided than they thought. The affair kick-started the Republic into making legislative changes, as they realised that continuing to promise anti-clerical changes wasn't enough to stabilise the country. It is unlikely they would have expressed this view if it hadn't have been for the Dreyfus affair.

The Rise of the Syndicats

Ever since the failure of MacMahon to re-establish Monarchist support back in 1877, the right in general had failed to be much of a threat to the Republic, unless they were joined by other parties. The real threats along the political spectrum came from the extreme left, the socialists. Although repressed during the Commune, the socialists had steadily reorganised and grown. In the years 1904 to 1908, they started to become a big threat. French workers had formed a group of trade unions known as the Syndicats. They intended to use the general strike as their main weapon. They believed that if all workers stopped working, France would come to a stand still, and the government would be forced to relinquish control to the Syndicats. However, they found it impossibly hard to organise a general strike, partly due to the size of the operation and partly to do with the fact that some people were unprepared to stop working and risk loss of income and perhaps a loss of their job for a cause that was unlikely to directly affect them.

Despite the inability of the Syndicats to enable a general strike, the individual strikes caused damage and quite often led to violence. It was left to Clemenceau, who entered office in 1906, to deal with the strikes. He did so with some force, using the army, if necessary, in great numbers to relinquish the threat caused by the Syndicats. Once again, the Republic had reacted strongly to the threats it faced.


In it would seem fitting to directly quote Thiers by saying that 'the Republic is the form of government that divides us least'. All throughout the Third Republic this is proved to be true. No other party was able to organise themselves and co-ordinate their efforts to pose a serious threat to the Republic. People want strong leaders who are going to defend the country and their beliefs, and the Republic proved themselves to be very strong. When faced with Boulangism, the case of one Jew ripping apart the country, and strike action, they reacted strongly and quenched the threats. People appreciated this. It gives a sense of security and stability rather than constant and disorienting social uprooting. The Republic didn't change anything dramatically. Rather they took pride in bringing about change slowly and surely. Living conditions, the economy, foreign status and social equality all improved over time, despite the threats they caused. For these reasons, by 1914, the French Third Republic enjoyed widespread support from the French public, and the country was ready for war with Germany.

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