1902 Encyclopedia > France > French History: The Third Republic (1870)

(Part 21)


The Third Republic (1870)

In spite of all precautions the news oozed out at Paris all too soon for the dismayed imperialists. On September 4 the third Republic was proclaimed on the advice of M. Thiers, with a Government of national defence; the chief members were Jules Favre, Jules Simon, and Gambetta; General Trochu was its military head. Gradually the Germans closed in on Paris; no serious resistance in the field being attempted, or indeed being possible, at a moment when one half of the available army of France lay in Metz and the other half was either destroyed or prisoners at Sedan The first siege of Paris lasted from September 19, 1870, to January 30, 1871, during which period also the temporal power of the papacy came to an end (September 1870), for it fell with the imperial cause, which alone had held it up; and in December the king of Prussia was invited to accept the position of head of a new empire of Germany. With a German emperor, and Victor Emmanuel at Rome, and France in extremities, it was clear that great changes had come, and must lead eventually to broad rearrangements of the political world. While Paris held out bravely enough, if not very wisely, Gambetta at Tours used incredible efforts to raise fresh armies for France; the old hero of Italy, Garibaldi, also appeared, now that imperialism was gone, and placed his sword at the disposal of the struggling republic. Before the end of October the capitulation of Metz had released a whole German army, which protected the operations of the besieging hosts; at last, on January 28, 1871, an armistice was announced, which brought the despairing resistance of Paris to an end. The war elsewhere died out almost at once; the Germans occupied all the forts round Paris.

On 8th February elections took place for a National Assembly to be held at Bordeaux, to deliberate on the question of peace or war, or rather, to arrange the terms of peace, for the country returned the Assembly with that intention. It was a body nominally republican, with strong monarchical leanings, as yet unexpressed; hardly half a dozen Bonapartists were returned to it. Garibaldi was among the deputies elected, though he declined the honor of acting as a Frenchman. The new republican Government of France now had M. Thiers as chief of the executive power, with M. Grevy as president of the Assembly; and it was decided that the Assembly should hold its sittings at Versailles. The fierce outbreak of the hot republicans of Paris interfered sorely with their peaceful labors. On 18th March the commune of Paris declared itself in opposition to the Versailles republic; the old grudges of artisan Paris once more asserted their unpleasant existence; and Marshal MacMahon was instructed by the Versailles Assembly to reduce the insurgent capital. Then followed the second siege of Paris, frm April 2 to May 27, with its accompanying horrors, and the gloomy spectacle of street-fighting and the burning and ruin of the public buildings of the town.

Meanwhile M. Thiers had at last, by his unwearying activity, succeeded in getting terms of peace agreed to. The treaty of Frankfort was signed on the 10th of May 1871; by it Alsace and a large part of Lorraine were ceded back to Germany, while Belfort was restored to France; a huge money indemnity was to be paid to Germany for the costs of the war.

The reactionary measures of the Versailles Assembly soon began, - timidly at first, to push forward with boldness, if the first steps succeeded. Thus, it suppressed the national guard, in spite of the moderate opposition of M. Thiers; it allowed Orleanist princes and members of the Bonapartist family to enter the Assembly; it strengthened its position at Versailles, though it had not the courage to move the Government offices thither. Early in 1872 the opposition of the Assembly to his financial proposals led to a first resignation of M. Thiers; only on its earnest and almost unanimous petition did he consent to hold office any longer. Meanwhile, the attempts at a fusion between the legitimaits and Orleanists failed completely; the efforts of the Bonapartists, led by M. Rouher, were redoubled; a great organized propaganda was set afoot; newspapers, pamphlets, photographs, bribes for the army and for Government officials, intrigues of every kind, were in motion, in order to create a public opinion on behalf of the emperor and the young prince imperial, as he was still persistently called. The three parties agreed in one thing, at least, - that they would before long put an end to the republic. At the end of 1872 a commission of thirty was appointed to regulate the arrangement of public powers and duties, and to settle the vexed question of ministerial responsibility. It was composed of a majority of the Right, the members of the different anti-republican parties in the Assembly. From it sprang the attempts of the Assembly to postpone the day of its dissolution, and to frame the government of France in such a way as to secure the defeat of the republic. The weakness of the majority lay in the fact that their union was only negative; and that if they did agree, it was only till they could rid themselves of the republic.

The death of Napoleon III. at Vhiselhurst in January 1873 created little or no feeling in France, and showed that imperialism had small hold on the popular mind. The Assembly no decided that it would remove the president from the chamber, because of the great influence which Thiers could always exert on a debate; and, secondly, that it would push back its own dissolution as far as possible. These proposals Theirs accepted, rather than run the risk of a collision. When, however, it was announced that, thanks chiefly to the presidents exertion, the evacuation of France by the Prussian troops would take place two years sooner than had been originally stipulated, and that the last foreign soldier would march off in September 1873, the parties of the majority became seriously alarmed; for the life of the assembly had been, by their own admission, connected with the period of continuance of German troops in France. Early in April 1873, on the resignation of M. Grevy, president of the chamber, they carried their candidate M. Buffet, against the Thiers Government; in May they came to close quarters, and brandishing their favorite weapon, the "red spectre," these three reactionary parties defeated Thiers by a majority of 16 (360 against 344). Then the old minister resigned, and the parties, which had arranged their plans beforehand, at once elected as president Marshal MacMahon, the "honnete homme et soldat," as he styled himself. With him they associated a cabinet of which the head was M. de Borglie. Immediately the functionaries were changed throughout France, and everywhere old imperialists were put in. At the beginning of 1875 it was agreed that the presidency should be for seven years, and a new constitution, with the republican element as much as possible effaced, was set up in February 1875. Before this M. de Broglie had fallen under the ill-will of the monarchical parties, and had been compelled by an adverse vote of the chamber to send in his resignation. He was succeeded by General de Cissey, with what was called, by an inopportune invention, "a business cabinet." The new constitution provided a president with a cabinet, a body which, by being thus styled "a business cabinet, seemed to make the president’s personality all the stronger; then there was a senate of 300 members, of whom 75 were life-holders, and the rest elected for nine years, renewable by triennial elections of a third at a time; and, lastly, a chamber of deputies, to be elected by the country in the usual way.

The time came at last when the chamber, which had been elected to decide on peace or wart, and had taken to itself the functions of a constituent assembly, and had framed a new constitution, and had defied the public opinion of France expressed at almost every bye-election, must bring its half-usurped function to an end. The successive triumphs of the republicans in bye-elections had strengthened them so much that they could now hold their own in the chamber. The president, aware that his strength was going, got rid of the cabinet of Dufaure and Jules Simon, and, trusting to official pressure at a new election, hoping also to work on the old fears respecting the extremer party, the ‘irreconcilables," took advantage of an adverse vote, and after having in May 1877 adjourned the chamber for a month, eventually dissolved it on June 25, 1877. The republican party showed extraordinary prudence and moderation under excessive provocation; the influence of the great jurists, Dufaure and Grevy, made itself felt, neutralizing all the plots of the reaction, and quietly prolonging the crisis, until the country could speak; the "Opportunists," as the followers of Thiers and Gambetta were now styled, united with the "irreconcilables" in opposition to the "party of order," as the intriguers of the three reactionary groups, legitimists, Orleanists, imperialists, loved to call themselves. In spite of shameless interferences with the election, in spite of the unseemly appeal of the president himself, in spite of threats and all the ancient weapons of reaction, the country was so decidedly republican that even the death of Thiers (3d September 1877) could not for a moment check the fortunes of his party. His death perhaps even strengthened it, for he became the saint instead of being the leader of it. His chequered political career, so long past, was quite forgotten; his memory was revered as that of the statesman who in his old age saved Belfort to France, brought peace, secured the payment of the war indemnity, and relieved the country from the German occupation. All France felt that under his guidance tranquility had returned, and the timid middle classes had learned to couple prosperity with the republic. And so the elections of 1877 returned a decisive majority for the republicans, now headed by MM. Grevy and Gambetta; the "irreconcilables" were not strong in the new chamber; the reactionary parties lost ground; and M. Grevy was at once-re-elected president of the chamber. Consequently, the marshal president, after France had been deeply agitated by rumours of a new coup d’etat, and by ominous movements of troops, at last gave way, and, honestly if reluctantly, accepted the verdict of the country. The reactionary "Ministry of May 16" fell, and, after a new attempt at a "business ministry,’ a republican cabinet was formed at last (14th December 1877), under the presidency of M. Dufaure. By degrees, as the shameless behavior of officials at election after election came to light, the bureaucracy of France began to resume a republican color, by removals of reactionary prefects, by opportune changes of political views, and acquiescence in the loudly pronounced opinion of the nation. The army, which was far from satisfied with the late Government, showed signs of content under the new. In the senate only did the three reactionary parties still possess any power; and even there their majority was so small that they could not venture on serious resistance. The Orleanist section, which, though very weak in numbers, still held the balance, and could give the majority to either side, was timid and moderate, and averse to heroic measures. Their refusal to prolong the crisis by consenting to a second dissolution of the chamber of deputies gave time for the moderate republic to consolidate its powers. The elections of 5th January 1879, in which according to the present constitution of France, one-third of the senate has undergone re-election, have happily brought that body into harmony with the chamber of deputies and the country. Fresh rumors of trouble had been industriously circulated; the temper of France is, however, so thoroughly tranquil, and so decided in favor of a constitutional republic, that the hopes of the reactionary parties have all ben frustrated.

It is always absurd to indulge in historical prophecy; and forecasts as to the future of France, thanks to the quick movement of opinion, the general ignorance of the country people, the vehemence in the towns, the long succession of changes in government and constitution, must be specially precarious. Still, it is clear that, for a time at least, the reaction, however, strong elsewhere, has been defeated in France; above all it is clear that imperialism has received a heavy if not a fatal blow. This is no little matter. We live in days in which the growth of a modern imperialism, based on huge armaments and destructive of small states, had become a standing menace to the well-being of the world; it is a ground for hope and thankfulness that France, the central state of Europe, has definitely and calmly abandoned her imperialist traditions, and set herself to live the temperate life of a constitutional republic.

Each race has its own special function in the general polity of nations; France seems called to lead in the propagation of wholesome political ideas. Even in her most violent moods, her principles have been right, her theories humane and noble. It is true that she is deficient in many practical gifts; religion with her has ever held a very secondary place; her ideas on economical questions are narrow, and in many points her sympathies are not enlisted on behalf of what seems to us to best. Still, her present position is an incalculable gain to Europe, and a promise of good for the future. With France as a prudent republic, the resistance of the peoples of Europe to arbitrary power and crushing armies will gradually be strengthened; and constitutional life, already developing itself throughout the Latin races, will find its best guarantee of stability. The movements of Europe have often taken their rise from France; the union of a strong government with a vigorous national life may also come to date from her; if England has striven to impress the practical rendering of her constitutional principles and her tongue on half the world, France can also boast that she has provided her part by enunciating, with the most admirable clearness of speech and thought, those general ideas as to the relations between man and man which lie at the basis of any wholesome system of government. (G.W.K.)

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