Foundations Of French Third Republic Essay, Research Paper
What problems did the third republic face and how close did it come to being overthrown
The Third republic was destined to difficulties from it’s very conception, any new system of government born out of the collapse of another; especially coupled with France’s extra problems at this time meant the new ministers had some very major issues to resolve on top of simply trying to find their feet as the new republic came into being.
After twenty-two years in power and 18 years as autocratic emperor of France Napoleon III had left a nasty legacy, coming to power on the crest of bonapartism with promises to restore the great French empire his uncle had founded. Napoleon III was constantly looking to expand the empire, although a dictator he was still very much a populist and saw gaining new territory as an assured ‘vote-winner’ with the French public.
This plan catastrophically back-fired after the Hohenzolleren affair; Prince Leopold Hohenzolleren, a distant relation of the king of Prussia was offered the Spanish throne. Various nations around Europe were understandably concerned at such a close link between Prussia and Spain.
In a classic case of French indecision under Napoleon III they first applied pressure to the king of Prussia to refuse the claim instead of approaching the French then after other efforts came back with a more moderate approach. They then blew this all out of the water by demanded Prussian assurances that the claim would never be taken after the king had already said the position would not be filled.
Suddenly France found herself on the brink of war which the French and Napoleon thought they would undoubtedly win, Prussia was a lot better organised and equipped than the French thought and they duly lost. An enduring image of this war was the capture of Napoleon, left to sit with Bismarck watching over the battlefields. Once Napoleon was captured, it was still theoretically possible for the French to win but with the huge centralisation on Paris, most troops retreated to fortify the city and were eventually forced to surrender after the Prussians fully encircled the city.
Bismarck, reflecting what a great statesman he was, realised any war reparations and peace treaties agreed by a government seizing power, promptly allowed elections to go ahead so he has already dealing with an elected body who therefore had no claim to reject his terms. This led to the first of the third republic’s problems and meant whilst it was an elected body, it hardly reflected the will of the people. The elections were announced to go ahead two weeks after the surrender of Paris, leaving candidates no time to formulate or carry out political campaigns. Furthermore after nearly twenty years of autocratic rule, national parties as such didn’t really exist, the republicans and the monarchists was a very general way to look at things and suddenly the republicans had had their wish granted whilst the monarchists were on their way also by seeing the end of Napoleon.
The elections resulted into mainly being a choice between a candidate supporting peace or voting to carry on the fight against the Prussians. Naturally the majority of the French realised the game was up and voted for peace. It just so happened that the majority of those standing in the provinces were local men of standing who were usually monarchists as well as such a system had always suited these upper class individuals. As a result the third republic got off to a terrible start, the first proper democratic republic in twenty years and instead of being filled by the republicans campaigning to Napoleon to bring in representative government, the monarchists held the majority but they were split also leaving a very ineffectual commune de Paris.
Aldophe Thiers emerged as the new leader of this new national assembly and faced a huge struggle to contain all the political in fighting within the assembly, he succeeded at least in repaying the war indemnity and getting the German troops to pull out of France. Thiers biggest threat came from the monarchists, working very much to their own agenda and keen to impose more control to further their own goals. They saw the election of life peers to the new senate as the perfect opportunity but were amazed to see their plan foiled with republicans and bonapartists taking almost every peerage. The infighting between the monarchists deepened meaning even less was being done with such a substantial monarchist majority in the national assembly. The legitimists continued their claims for a return to the Bourbon family that had ruled until 1830 whilst the Orleanists wanted the descendants of the royal family ruling form 1830-1848. Thiers finally managed to break the deadlock by getting those moderately liberal Orleanists to back the republicans and so the monarchists lost their assembly majority.
The problem didn’t want to go away and the decidedly monarchist president Mcmahon was displeased with the republican ministers below him blocking his moves. He decided to dissolve the whole senate as his presidential powers allowed and reinstated some monarchist ministers instead. Problems then came with the national assembly which now had gained a republican majority thus countering the presidents moves. A re-election was called by the president and the monarchists were finally laid to rest when the radical republicans proclaiming their right to represent the people were re-elected and the president realised the people of France were against him.
Now republican rule had been established, Ferry was elected as first republican with a republican majority, aware of not being to controversial, Ferry brought in a number of republican laws without too much fuss. The anti-clerical feeling spreading throughout France meant the introduction of independent schooling, free from catholic teaching could go ahead, this was a very important republic concept and firmly set them at loggerheads with the Catholic Church in France who felt it was there right to instil Catholicism in French children. Previously such a move would have been unthinkable in France, Catholics so committed that they firmly backed Napoleon sending troops to Italy to help liberate Rome but now opposition was in the minority and the Catholics didn’t pose such a problem for the third republic.
Rather than boldly clearing away all the poltical laws that held up the republicans, Ferry chipped away bit by bit until he felt the assembly could properly represent the people rather than being held up and messed around by the senate and the president. Of course they faced opposition from these camps but by approaching political law reform in segments, the republicans succeeded in their aims.
Possibly the biggest threat to the Third Republic in most people’s mind came from General Boulanger, more than anything because he looked like direct competition rather than something bringing the republic down. Brought in as Minister of War, he quickly won popular backing with army reforms to improve the soldiers conditions and reducing military service to three years. He won over the public and republicans by making sure everyone including priests had to do their service, building on the increasing anti-clericalism. His larger than life persona came at the right time for the French public, keen for a new hero, the Republic realised this and were quick to try and avert the threat after seeing Napoleon III’s rise to power. Boulanger probably could have toppled the government at the height of his popularity but missed the opportunity, the Republicans quickly dissolved his office and sent him south where his popularity diminished and the threat was gone.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, increasing suspicions between nations, especially France and Germany meant spy networks were spreading throughout Europe. France suspected secrets were being passed on and a secret note found in a bin quickly confirmed Major Henry’s suspicions. A study of the note narrowed the search and Henry soon came to the conclusion it was someone in the war office, close to artillery, this came to count for little as his anti-Semitism soon pointed the finger at the first Jew to work in the War Office. The now infamous ‘bordereau’ was linked to Dreyfus’s handwriting and Henry was happy he had his man.
The case was soon a nation-wide issue as it became clear the trial hadn’t been conducted fairly and information was withheld. The right wingers backed the army and whipped up anti-Semitic feeling calling all supporters of Dreyfus anti-French. The liberals in the government and the press fought the other camp, proclaiming the rights of man, above all to a fair trial. Everyone in France had an opinion, especially considering the corruption they all felt was rife in the army and the government, this just seemed a further example; at least now it seemed like someone was trying to do something about it. IN 1896 things took a further twist when Esterhazy was named as the spy but still Dreyfus remained imprisoned, Zola took up the case in 1898 with his front page spread where he accused just about everyone relating to the case of their various infidelties. The issue was eventually settled in 1906 when Dreyfus was released declared innocent; although the republic and the army had taken a severe pounding over his practices and anti-Semitic feelings.
The Third Republic had a very torrid time in it’s creation, having to counter some huge scandals like the Dreyfus affair on top of having to recover from a crushing defeat at he hands of the Prussians. Although these problems often highlighted some major weaknesses and corruption in the system, I think it is wrong to say the republic was ever really that close to being overthrown. This is mainly due to the lack of alternatives, the monarchists were increasingly a spent force as the French would not reneg on the revolution and it’s values and although Boulanger could have, it was only after this that he realised his potential. The fact is he reached such popular levels without any intentions of overthrowing the republicans so can’t really be considered the French. The scandals did show there were problems but the French grew to accept these as suspected politicians were often re-elected, the French accepted it as part and parcel of their government