Napoleon III had become the second Emperor of France in 1852, following in the footsteps of his uncle Napoleon I. However, the French Second Empire lasted only eighteen years because of the emergence of another world power, one that was to profoundly transform the balance of power in Europe – the German Empire.
Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia, who sought to bring his state to ascendancy in Germany, realized that if a German Empire was to be created, the French Empire, which would never tolerate a powerful neighbor at its borders, must fall. Through clever manipulation of the Ems Dispatch, Bismarck goaded France into the Franco-Prussian War, which led to the French emperor’s defeat and overthrow.
After Napoleon’s capture by the Prussians at Sedan, France became a de facto conservative republic, although the revolutionary Paris Commune held out until its bloody suppression in May 1871.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the regime of Napoleon III, the clear majority of French people and the overwhelming majority of the French National Assembly wished to return to a constitutional monarchy. In 1871, the throne was offered to the Comte de Chambord, alias Henry V, the Legitimist pretender to the French throne since the abdication of Charles X, who had abdicated in favour of him, in 1830. Chambord, then a child, had had the throne snatched from his grasp in 1830.
In 1871 Chambord had no wish to be a constitutional monarch but a semi-absolutist one like his grandfather Charles X. Moreover – and this became the ultimate reason the restoration never occurred – he refused to reign over a state that used the Tricolore that was associated with the Revolution of 1789 and the July Monarchy of the man who seized the throne from him in 1830, the citizen-king, Louis Philippe, King of the French. However much France wanted a restored monarchy, it was unwilling to surrender its popular tricolour.
Instead a “temporary” republic was established, pending the death of the elderly childless Chambord and the succession of his more liberal heir, the Comte de Paris.
In February 1875, a series of parliamentary Acts established the organic or constitutional laws of the new republic. At its apex was a President of the Republic. A two-chamber parliament was created, along with a ministry under a prime minister (named “President of the Council”) who was nominally answerable to both the President of the Republic and parliament. Thoughout the 1870s, the issue of monarchy versus republic dominated public debate.
On May 16, 1877, with public opinion swinging heavily in favour of a republic, the President of the Republic, Patrice MacMahon, duc de Magenta, himself a monarchist, made one last desperate attempt to salvage the monarchical cause by dismissing the republic-minded prime minister and appointing a monarchist duke to office. He then dissolved parliament and called a general election (October 1877).
If his hope had been to halt the move towards republicanism, it backfired spectacularly, with the President being accused of having staged a constitutional coup d’etat, known as le seize Mai after the date on which it happened.
Republicans returned triumphant, finally killing off the prospect of a restored French monarchy. MacMahon himself resigned on January 28, 1879, leaving a seriously weakened presidency, so weakened indeed that not until Charles de Gaulle eighty years later did another President of France unilaterally dissolve parliament. To mark the final end of French monarchism as a serious political force, in 1885 the French Crown Jewels were broken up and sold. Only a few crowns, their precious gems replaced by coloured glass, were kept.
This claim played on all the fears and perspectives of all sides. Monarchists and right-wing Roman Catholics, many of whom were anti-semitic, and in some cases blaming a “Jewish plot” for the triumph of republicanism, immediately attacked Dreyfus and refused to consider the possibility that he was innocent.
Others on the left, still fighting the ‘monarchy versus republic’ battle, championed his cause, irrespective of his guilt or innocence. When it became clear that he was indeed totally innocent and the victim of a conspiracy, the state itself failed to accept his innocence straight away, and even when he was released from his exile, whispering campaigns still suggested he was actually guilty.
In the aftermath of the affair, when the truth finally did come out, the reputations of monarchists and conservative catholics, who had expressed unbridled anti-semitism were severely damaged. So too was the state by its unwillingness to right what had clearly been a major wrong visited on an innocent and loyal officer.
Despite this turmoil, the midpoint of the Third Republic was known as the belle epoque in France, a golden time of beauty, innovation, and peace with its European neighbors. New inventions made life easier at all social levels, the cultural scene thrived, cabaret, cancan, and the cinema were born, and art took new forms with Impressionism and Art Nouveau. But the glory of this turn-of-the-century time period came to an end with the outbreak of World War One.
Throughout its seventy-year history, the Third Republic stumbled from crisis to crisis, from collapsing governments to the appointment of a mentally ill president. It struggled through the German invasion of World War One and the inter-war years.
When the Nazi invasion occurred in 1940, the Republic was so disliked by enemies on the right – who sought a powerful bulwark against Communism – and on the far left – where Communists initially followed their movement’s international line of refusing to defend “bourgeois” regimes -that few had the stomach to fight for its survival, even if they disapproved of German occupation of northern France and the collaborationist Vichy regime established in the south.
When France was finally liberated, few called for the restoration of the Third Republic, and a Constituent Assembly was established in 1946 to draft a constitution for a successor, established as the Fourth Republic that December.
Adolphe Thiers, the first president of the Third Republic, called republicanism in the 1870s “the form of government that divides France least.” France might have agreed about being a republic, but it never fully agreed with the Third Republic. France’s longest lasting régime since before the 1789 revolution, the Third Republic was consigned to the history books, as unloved at the end as it had been when first created seventy years earlier. But its longevity showed that it was capable of weathering many a storm.
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