The Second Empire might have converted into a constitutional monarchy with full parliamentary government. Yet the changes had been wrung from an ailing and vacillating emperor by frequent popular agitation. It is also possible that a radical republican groundswell would have submerged the empire in any case.
But a Franco- Prussian War put an abrupt end to the experiments of the Liberal Empire. Sluggish mobilization and French overconfidence, together with Prussian superiority in arms, gave the Prussians a decisive head start. Within only six weeks Napoleon III and a large French army capitulated humiliatingly at Sedan. Two days later rioting Parisians forced the remnant of the assembly to decree the end of the empire, and a Third Republic was proclaimed. Napoleon III went into captivity in Germany and then into exile in England, where he died in 1873.
The new republic tried to continue the war with Prussia, but within a month a second large French force surrendered at Metz. Meanwhile Paris, besieged by the German forces, had resisted desperately, the citizens killing even the zoo animals for food, until starvation brought surrender in January. Even under pressure of the siege, Paris radicals tried to seize power and revive the old Paris Commune, or city government, of 1792. These radicals could not accept the capitulation for which the rest of the country seemed to be preparing. In the elections to the National Assembly their stubbornness helped to turn provincial voters toward more conservative candidates who were pledged not only to make peace but to restore the old monarchy.
In February 1871 an exhausted nation elected a National Assembly that met at Bourdeaux and sued for peace. On March 1, the new Assembly voted to accept a peace ceding Alsace and part of Lorraine to Germany and paying an indemnity of 5 billion francs. The Paris National Guard thereupon went over to the radicals because the National Assembly had suspended its pay. The Assembly and the provisional government it had set up under Adolphe Thiers sent troops into Paris in a vain attempt to seize National Guard artillery. Thiers and the Assembly established themselves in Versailles, while in Paris the Commune took over the functions of government.
Most of the communards were Jacobins who wanted a democratic society of small independent shopkeepers and artisans, not the abolition of private property. Although some communards were affiliated with the First International, most of these were followers of Proudhon rather than of Marx. Other communards were followers of Auguste Blanqui, the aged champion of revolutionary violence who was arrested in the provinces before he could reach Paris.
In the Bloody Week of May 21-28 troops of the National Assembly advanced through the barricades to clear the city; twenty thousand died in the fighting. The Third Republic, born in the trauma of defeat and civil war, at once came into a heritage of strife. From 1871 to 1879 French politics seesawed between the left and right. Most members of the new National Assembly were monarchists. About half the monarchist deputies were pledged to the elder legitimate Bourbon line represented by the count of Chambord, who was childless.
The other half supported the younger Orleanist line, represented by the count of Paris, grandson of Louis Philippe. Although Chambord agreed to designate the count of Paris as the eventual heir to the throne, he stubbornly refused to accept the revolutionary blue, white, and red tricolor flag that Louis Philippe had himself accepted as the flag of France, demanding instead the white flag and gold lilies of Bourbon, which for millions meant complete repudiation of all that had happened since 1789.
Political stalemate followed the emotional debates over the symbols of legitimacy, monarchy, and France; in the resulting impasse the republican minority was able to gather strength. Thiers, recognized as “President of the Republic,” carried through the final settlement with Germany. In 1873, however, he lost a vote of confidence in the Assembly and was succeeded by Marshal MacMahon (1808-1893), a soldier and a monarchist who was chosen to hold the government together until the monarchist majority of the Assembly could work out a compromise between its wings. The compromise was never achieved, as Chambord continued to insist on the white flag. Ultimately, Thiers’s strategy worked, and in 1875 enough Orleanists joined with the republicans for the Assembly to pass a series of constitutional measures formally establishing the Third Republic, with MacMahon as president.
These laws, known collectively as the constitution of 1875, provided for a president elected by an absolute majority of Senate and Chamber of Deputies sitting together as a National Assembly. The Chamber of Deputies was elected by universal male suffrage; the Senate was chosen, one third at any given time, by elected members of local governmental bodies. All legislation had to pass both houses, though only the lower could initiate finance bills.
The critical point was the responsibility of the ministers, which was not spelled out in the laws of 1875. Had the president been able to dismiss them, a new Napoleon III might easily have arisen to destroy the republic. MacMahon attempted to exercise this power on May 16, 1877, when he dismissed an anticlerical premier. But the Chamber was now antimonarchist and voted no confidence in MacMahon’s new premier; MacMahon then dissolved the Chamber and called for a new national election.
In the election the republicans retained a majority in the Chamber and could have forced the president to name a republican premier. Disgruntled, MacMahon resigned in 1879 and was succeeded by a conservative republican, and the presidency became a largely ceremonial office.
The Third Republic was a republican constitutional monarchy, with an ornamental president instead of an ornamental king. The real executive was the ministry, which was in effect a committee responsible to the Chamber of Deputies. The latter soon became the focus of political action, leaving the Senate little real power. The Chamber was composed of a dozen or more parties, so that any ministry had to be supported by a coalition subject to constant shifting of personalities and principles.
The day-to-day task of governing was carried on by a civil service. This permanent bureaucracy, subject only to broad policy control from above, preserved the basic continuity in French political action. Functionally, the system was highly democratic, for it could work only through constant and subtle compromise arrived at by the several parties in open debate and voting in the legislature after an election.
Bitter antagonisms continued to threaten the Third Republic between 1879 and 1914, but they did not destroy it. On the right, many in the church, the army, and among the wealthy still hoped for government by a single strong man, but they remained divided over the extent of their monarchism. The political left was also divided, between pro- and anti-Marxist socialists, anarchists, and syndicalists.
After the accession of Pope Leo XIII in 1878 the Catholics were gradually encouraged to accept the freedom of worship that the constitution of the republic offered them. But many Catholics feared the anticlericalism of the republicans, particularly after a law of 1882 made education free and compulsory for French children to the age of thirteen and forbade religious instruction in public schools.
Party fragmentation remained intense, and sodalities, religious associations, semisecret lodges, and other forms of voluntary associations became the focus of both political and social life outside of Paris. Slowly but decisively, communal groups began to be replaced by formal organizations that spoke for special-interest groups, especially for segments of the industrial working class.
In the late 1880s those who feared this shifting, growing fragmentation turned to General George Boulanger (1837-1891) in the hope that he might unite France under authoritarian leadership. Boulanger was an ambitious soldier who had, as minister of war, catered to French desires for revenge on Germany. But as it became clear that if given power he might rush the country into war, his following threatened to desert him. In January 1889 he swept a by-election in Paris, but instead of seizing power by force of arms, he waited to see if his followers would act. The Chamber of Deputies threatened to try him for treason; Boulanger fled to Brussels, where he committed suicide in 1891. The republic had surmounted its first great crisis.
But three major scandals next confronted the republic. The president’s son-in-law was implicated in the selling of posts in the Legion of Honor. More fuel was added to the fire in the early 1890s with the Panama scandal, brought on by the failure of Ferdinand de Lesseps’s attempt to duplicate in Panama his success in building the Suez Canal. Ministers and deputies had accepted bribes for backing the shaky Panama company. Anti- Semitic propagandists were able to make much of the fact that several Jewish financiers were implicated. Bad as it was, the Panama scandal was to pale before the Dreyfus affair, in which the force of modern anti-Semitism first attained worldwide attention.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a Jew from a wealthy family that had fled to France when Alsace was lost to Germany, was the almost accidental victim of an espionage intrigue and of the anti-Semitism then prevalent in France. Accused of selling military secrets to the Germans, he was railroaded to trial as a scapegoat because he was the first Jew to serve on the French general staff. He was convicted of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.
In 1896 Colonel Georges Picquart (1854-1914), an intelligence officer, became convinced that the document on which Dreyfus had been convicted was a forgery and that the real traitor was a disreputable adventurer, Major Ferdinand Esterhazy (18491923). Picquart was quietly shipped off to Africa by his superiors, but the Dreyfus family, by independent investigation, arrived at the conclusion that Esterhazy was the traitor and sought to reopen the case.
Esterhazy was tried and acquitted, but the affair was now too public for such silencing. In 1898 the famous novelist Emile Zola brought matters to a crisis by publishing his open letter fAccuse. Zola accused the military leaders, one by one, of deliberately sacrificing an innocent man to save the reputation of the army.
France was now divided into Dreyfusards and antiDreyfusards. Dreyfus was retried in the midst of a frenzied campaign in the press. The military court, faced with new evidence brought out by the suicide of the forger of the most incriminating of the original documents used to convict Dreyfus, nonetheless again found Dreyfus guilty of treason. However, Dreyfus was then pardoned by the president of the republic, and in 1906, after the tensions had abated, he was acquitted by a civilian court and restored to the army with the rank of major.
The Dreyfus affair divided France as the Paris Commune had done in 1871. But the years of debate brought radicals, socialists, liberals, republicans, anticlericals, and intellectuals—all who were suspicious of the army, of the church, and of anti-Semitism—into a loose alliance. Many on both sides of the question worked themselves into a mass hysteria in which the question of Dreyfus’s guilt was wholly submerged in the confrontation between the “two Frances”—the France of the republic, heir to the great revolution and the principles of 1789, and the France of the monarchy, of throne and altar, and of the army, which had never reconciled itself to the great revolution.
With the victory of the Dreyfusards, the republic punished the church for supporting the army and the anti-Dreyfusards. In a series of measures between 1901 and 1905 the triumphant republicans destroyed the Concordat of 1801 between Napoleon I and the pope that had established the Roman Catholic church in a privileged position in the French state. Catholic teaching orders were forced to dissolve, and some twelve thousand Catholic schools were closed.
The state would no longer pay the clergy, and private corporations organized by the faithful would take over the expenses of worship and the ownership and maintenance of the churches. But Catholicism was not outlawed. Catholic education, while severely handicapped, was not formally persecuted. Indeed, the separation did not radically alter the fundamental social position of the church in France: The upper classes and the peasantry of the north, northeast, and west remained for the most part loyal Catholics; many of the urban middle and working classes and many peasants in parts of the south, southwest, and center remained indifferent Catholics or determined secularists.
The Third Republic had become more republican without moving noticeably toward the welfare state. This was hardly surprising in a country that remained essentially a land of small farm-owning peasants, conservative in their agricultural methods, and of relatively small family-controlled industries, conservative in their business methods. French business owners preferred internal financing because they wished to maintain their independence, either because the firm was part of family property or because they preferred substantial emergency reserves to meet sudden drops in the market or unexpected technological changes, mostly from outside France.
For many in France, life improved during the second half of the nineteenth century, though at the cost of vast dislocation for others. In the growing cities a wandering population, sometimes turning to crime or to organized violence, contended with the migration of the law-abiding poor, who sought greater security in areas of new industrial growth or in the new labor organizations. The transportation system could not always cope with these shifts in population, so that resources were scarce in various regions at different times, enhancing a common sense of social identity among the activist and the angry.
Increasingly, women became part of the working class, sharing its grievances and its growth, though the only jobs open to them were those that demanded the least skills and were therefore the lowest paid. By the second half of the century women would be found in metal foundries, bleaching mills, potteries, and brickyards, and at the mouths of coal pits and stone quaries. However, most women working outside of agriagriculture were in the textile industry, the garment industry, or domestic service.
The upper and middle classes ate and lived well, though the petty bourgeois found that inflation often forced economies on them, and wives became increasingly expert at specialized shopping and cooking. “Secondhand” foods became commonplace—foods that had been prepared and served to one family, with the remainder, often decayed, sold to a poorer family.
There was an especially brisk trade in Paris in such leftovers, as population growth moved too rapidly for economic adjustments to provide, or transport to supply, sufficient staples. Historians have estimated that of the 1.2 million Parisians in the Second Empire, perhaps 400,000 ate sufficient and healthy food, while the rest ate poorly, or consumed decaying and rotten food, adding to the growing problems of public health.
Throughout the nineteenth century the policing of food and water supplies was a subject of middle-class concern. The women working in a textile factory—exposed to dangerous machinery, laboring for fifteen to eighteen hours without sanitary facilities (there were no public or workplace toilets), subjected to chemicals and fibers that brought on brown lung and early death—could hope for little more than food that was, at the least, “ripe.”
And yet French men and women were devoted to the fatherland, la patrie. Their growing sense of nationalism led to an increasing assumption that public authorities must deal with such matters as health, transport, and safety.