French Third Republic

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A map of France under the Third Republic, featuring colonies.
A map of France under the Third Republic, featuring colonies.

The French Third Republic, (in French, La Troisième Republique, sometimes written as La 3ème Republique) (1870/75-10 July 1940) was the governing body of France between the Second French Empire and the Fourth Republic. It was a republican parliamentary democracy that was created on September 4, 1870 following the collapse of the Empire of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War. It survived until the invasion of France by the German Third Reich in 1940.

In many ways it was an accidental and unloved republic that stumbled from crisis to crisis before its final collapse. It was never intended to be a long-term republic at all.

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 Otto von Bismarck of Prussia, who sought to bring his state to ascendancy in Germany, realized that if a unified German state was to be created, some unifying force was needed to bring this about - a nationalist war with France seemed the perfect force to bring the other German states into line with Prussia. A resulting German defeat of France would firmly establish the new Germany on the world stage within secure borders. Through clever manipulation of the Ems Dispatch, Bismarck and French public opinion goaded France into declaring war on Prussia, beginning the Franco-Prussian War. After Napoleon's capture by the Prussians at Sedan, General Louis Jules Trochu and the politician Léon Gambetta overthrew the Second Empire and established the "Government of National Defence" which later became the conservative Third Republic. Its creation was overshadowed by the settlement of peace terms with Prussia and the subsequent revolution in Paris known as the Paris Commune, which maintained a radical regime for two months 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. There were two competing claimants to the throne, each supported by political groups. The Legitimists supported the heirs to Charles X, recognising as king his grandson, Henri, Comte de Chambord, alias Henry V. The Orleanists supported the heirs to Louis Philippe, recognising as king his son, Louis-Philippe, Comte de Paris. However the two groups came to a compromise, whereby the childless Comte de Chambord would be recognised as king, with the Comte de Paris recognised as his heir. Consequently in 1871, the throne was offered to the Comte de Chambord. In 1830 Charles X had abdicated in favour of Chambord, then a child, and Louis-Philippe had been recognised as king instead. In 1871 Chambord had no wish to be a constitutional monarch but a semi-absolutist one like his grandfather Charles X, or like the contemporary rulers of Prussia/Germany. Moreover, 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. This became the ultimate reason the restoration never occurred. However, much as 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. Throughout 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 Jules Simon and appointing the monarchist leader the Duc de Broglie 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. In 1889 France flirted briefly with the possibility of a dictatorship or a constitutional tyranny during the Boulanger crisis, but the republican leaders were able to avert the threat.

Though France was clearly republican, it was not in love with its Third Republic. Governments collapsed with regularity, rarely lasting more than a couple of months, as radicals, socialists, liberals, conservatives, republicans and monarchists all fought for control. However others argue that the collapse of governments were a minor side effect of the Republic lacking strong political parties, resulting in coalitions of many parties that routinely lost and gained a few allies. Consequently the change of governments could be seen as little more than a series of ministerial reshuffles, with many individuals carrying forward from one government to the next, often in the same posts.

In 1905 the government introduced a controversial series of anti-clerical laws, ostensibly separating church and state, but in fact banning religious involvement in education and dissolving many Catholic institutions and religious orders.

The Third Republic survived the First World War, having found allies to support it against Germany. Some historians argue that this was the greatest success of the regime.

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 I 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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