Account for the survival of the Third French Republic
When the 3rd French Republic came into being on the 4th September 1870 France was in the middle of the Franco- Prussian war, which they were to eventually lose. When France signed the treaty of Frankfurt in May 1871 Germany imposed 5 billion francs worth of reparations, and the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France were ceded to them. France was also to be occupied by Germany until all the reparations had been paid off. Obviously the French were not happy with this, but they were in no situation to negotiate and they realised that it could have been far worse. This was not the best start that the new republic could have hoped for, but with hindsight, it was probably one of the reasons why it survived the first few years.
In just two years the French had paid off all of the reparations and the German army of occupation had left. This was quite a remarkable achievement and was only achieved through a co-ordinated program of borrowing from the many wealthy individuals that lived in France. Even more remarkable was the balancing of the budget in 1875 and the budget surplus of 1876. These feats undoubtedly made the republicans more popular and more respected than they had been when they first came to power. These increases in popularity only added to the growing optimism towards the Republic that had already been created by the defeat of the Paris Commune.
The newly elected French Assembly was largely made up of Monarchists that saw the republic as a temporary measure, they were therefore keen to recoup the huge losses made by France during the war and restore the monarchy. Parisians, which were largely Republican, resented being charged taxes and rent from the war period and were further angered when the Assembly tried to withdraw artillery from the city. The attempted withdrawal of the artillery resulted in the lynching of two generals by the Republican National Guard. As a result the government moved all administration away from Paris and left the National Guard to govern Paris. The Commune lasted for 73 days and was a large embarrassment to France. When it was finally put down, at a cost of around 20,000 Parisians and 1,000 government troops, the Republic had proved that it could handle such situations relatively well. The radical socialists that were behind the Commune had either been killed or were exiled, this rid the Republic of what would surely have been a thorn in their side. The threat of a socialist uprising had been quelled for at least a generation and further enhanced the chances of the Republics survival. The government, led by Thiers, had proved that it could be decisive and won many supporters for its treatment of the Commune. It also helped to dispel the preconception that republics were disorganised and anarchic.
Although the Republic was looking safer than it had been there was still a belief among many people that the monarchy would be restored. In the Assembly around 400 of the 700 Deputies were monarchists, however they were split between the houses of Bourbon and Orleans. One possible way of reinstating the monarchy would have been to install the childless Comte de Chambord, Bourbon, and then install Comte de Paris, of the house of Orleans, upon his death. This seemed an amicable agreement, that was until Chambord demanded that the national flag, the Tricolour, be replaced with the royalist white flag. This was the stumbling block with neither the government nor Chambord backing down. The divisions between the two houses and the disagreements they had with the government made it almost impossible to restore the monarchy. With no better alternative this only strengthened the Republics hand and made it far more likely that it would survive beyond the first few years.
Adolfe Thiers was the first leader of the Republic and during his two years in power he gained widespread support from most people in France. While essentially a monarchist he saw that a monarchy in France was not feasible at the time. Therefore it was in the country s interests to make the Republic work. He gained a lot of his support from the payment of the reparations and the putting down of the Commune, but also by not introducing income tax which swung most of the middle classes his way and also by reintroducing conscription into the army. By 1875 France could field an army of 2 million soldiers, which only a few years earlier was stretched to the limit. A leader such as Thiers convinced many people that a Republic was just as effective as a monarchy, if not better. However, Royalists who saw him as becoming too republican forced Thiers out of office in 1873
1875 saw France officially recognise itself as a republic under it s new President, MacMahon a staunch Monarchist. The Constitution of 1875 set up an electoral system that was supposed to favour the Royalists, unlike the previous system that seemed to favour the Republicans. This plan backfired with the public now clearly growing to like the Republic and returning a large Republican majority. With a Monarchist President and a Republican Assembly the country was in deadlock. MacMahon used his presidential powers to the full but in the elections of 1877 a Republican majority was returned once again. MacMahon eventually gave way to Grevy, and the Republic had its first Republican leader. This was a major boon for France as it shows that the Republic was no longer just an interim solution and was likely to be around for some time.
Over the next few years much legislation was passed to try to reunite France as a nation. The government moved back to Paris in 1879 and at around the same time the exiled radicals of the Commune were granted an amnesty. Bastille Day was also introduced as a national holiday and the Marseillaise was adopted as the national anthem. These changes were popular with the French as it gave them back their national identity. A lot of liberal legislation was also passed, such as freedom of the press, the right for towns to elect a mayor, the abolishment of lifetime membership of the Senate. Popular legislation further secured Frances future as a republic. Its international reputation was also rebuilt with the Paris International Exhibition and the modernisation of Marseilles and Le Harve.
Between 1870 and 1940 France had 108 different governments, although it would appear that this is unstable it is not actually the case. While the governments changed, on average, every 8 months, the ministers and the civil service remained almost unchanged. This provided France with a strong backbone that would perhaps not occur in other countries.
One of the biggest challenges to the Republics stability was the Catholic Church. The church had a stranglehold on education with around 40% of children being educated in a church school. Jules Ferry was the education minister between 1879 and 1883, during this time he introduced reforms that virtually eradicated the churches grip on education. In 1882 he made education for all 6-13 year olds compulsory, with a syllabus that was far more rational and scientific, it also instilled the value of the Republic rather than the conservative Catholic views. It was in 1886 that the most dramatic of changes were made; religious groups were no longer allowed to control or teach in primary and secondary schools or in universities. Tension between the government and the church peaked when in 1904 France broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican. By dealing with the church so ruthlessly France showed that it had grown much stronger under the republic and it had also removed a powerful threat to its authority.
After several successful years France had some problems in the mid 1880 s. Many farmers had gone out of business with the collapse of a large bank, wine production had plummeted following a disease that affected the vines and French foreign policy was being questioned as very little was being done to recapture Alsace-Lorraine. These factors resulted in a growth of support for a far-right nationalist party. In the 1885 election it increased its share of the vote from 26% to 44%. The President, Freycinet, decided it would be best to appoint General Boulanger as minister of war, a well-known republican. It was only a matter of months before Freycinet realised he had made a big mistake when Boulanger made threats of war to Germany over the arrest of a French officer on the Alsace border. The government clearly did not want this but Boulanger gained massive support from the right. His supporters began to win by-elections and it seemed as though he might have the opportunity to overthrow the government. The republicans were in disarray at the time, as Grevy had just resigned over the selling of state honours by his son-in-law. However, the revolution never happened as Boulanger fled to Belgium. The Boulanger Affair had a number of effects on the republic. It became a way for all their opponents to unite and try to bring about the downfall of the republic, fortunately it survived, which provided it with the opportunity to pass legislation that would help strengthen its position. It also made the republicans more determined to defend the constitution of 1875.
The next big scandal to hit the republic was the Panama Scandal . The Panama Canal Company was on the verge of bankruptcy and its last surviving hope was a grant of public money by the Assembly. The money was granted but to no avail and it soon emerged that lots of bribes had been given to secure the grant. In the aftermath 5 senior republican figures were accused and although no one was convicted their careers in politics never fully recovered. Even though few of those accused actually lost their seats they were confined to the outer reaches of the government. This allowed new faces to come into the government, which were less committed to the origins of the republic and were more prepared to negotiate with the other parties.
The biggest of all the scandals to hit the republic was undoubtedly the Dreyfuss Affair . The Affair came about when a Jewish officer in the army, Alfred Dreyfuss, was accused of giving classified documents to Germany and was sentenced to a life of exile on the strength of evidence provided by Major Henry. It was then discovered that the real culprit was a close friend of Henry s and that Dreyfuss was innocent. A case was put to the army but Henry produced falsified evidence and the army retained its verdict. When the news of this case reached the public everybody had an opinion, they either thought Dreyfuss was innocent, Dreyfusards or guilty, Anti-Dreyfusards . The majority of Anti-Dreyfusards were conservatives, monarchists, the church, and the military who claimed to defend law and order, but in fact only wanted to discredit the republicans. Most Dreyfusards were republicans and socialists who were defending human rights and justice. The full truth did not come out until 1899 when Henry confessed and committed suicide and Esterhazy, the real spy, fled. The Affair showed just how large the divisions between the various groups in France were.
The survival of the Third French Republic was partly due to success of the republic and also to the lack of any serious rival. The speedy recovery of France after the war and its decisiveness in dealing with the Commune greatly increased its chances of survival because it put paid to the idea that republicans were disorganised and chaotic in their methods and instead associated themselves with law and order. The re-strengthening of the army in such a short period of time was another key factor, as people would begin to feel vulnerable in a country open to attack. Popular policies such as freedom of the press were also important in their survival as the people realised that they did not have to have a monarch to run the country when a president can do just as good a job. The reform of the education system and the weakening of the churches influence helped because people were not told one thing by the church and another by the government. However the various scandals that affected the republic between 1885 and 1896 did show some of the areas left untouched by the republic, such as corruption and the deep-seated divisions between various groups in France.