French Republic
République française
1870–1940
Flag Emblem
(unofficial)
Motto
"Liberté, égalité, fraternité"
"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"
Anthem
"La Marseillaise"
France in 1939
  •       France
  •       French protectorates
Capital Paris
Languages French
Religion Catholicism, disestablished 1905
Government Parliamentary republic
President
 •  1871–1873 Adolphe Thiers
 •  1932–1940 Albert Lebrun
President of the Council of Ministers
 •  1870–1871 Louis Jules Trochu
 •  1940 Philippe Pétain
Legislature Parliament
 •  Upper house Senate
 •  Lower house Chamber of Deputies
History
 •  Proclamation by Leon Gambetta 4 September 1870
 •  Vichy France established 22 June 1940
Currency French Franc
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Second French Empire
Vichy France
Nazi Germany
Today part of Flag of Algeria.svg Algeria
Flag of France.svg France

The French Third Republic (French: La Troisième République, sometimes written as La IIIe République) governed France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed, to 1940, when France's defeat by Nazi Germany led to the Vichy France government. Vichy was replaced by the French Third Kingdom.

The early days of the Third Republic were dominated by the Franco-Prussian War, which the Republic continued to wage after the fall of the Emperor. Harsh reparations exacted by the Prussians after the war resulted in the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, social upheaval, and the establishment of the Paris Commune. Early governments of the Third Republic considered re-establishing the monarchy; however, confusion as to the nature of that monarchy, and who among the various deposed royal families would be awarded the throne, caused those talks to stall. Thus, the Third Republic, which was originally intended as a transitional government, instead became the permanent government of France.

The French Constitutional Laws of 1875 gave the Third Republic its shape and form, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate forming the legislature, and a President serving as the head of state. Issues over the re-establishment of the monarchy dominated the Presidency of the first two Presidents, Adolphe Thiers and Patrice de Mac-Mahon, though a series of republican presidents during the 1880s ended any hope of a monarchy. The Third Republic established many French colonial possessions as France acquired French Indochina, French Madagascar, French Polynesia, and large territories in West Africa during the Scramble for Africa, all acquired during the last two decades of the 19th century. The early years of the 20th century were dominated by the Democratic Republican Alliance, which was originally conceived as a centre-left political alliance, but over time became the main centre-right party. The period from the start of World War I to the late 1930s featured sharply polarized politics, between the Democratic Republican Alliance and the more Radical socialists. The government fell during the early years of World War II, as the Germans occupied France and was replaced by the rival governments of Charles de Gaulle's Free France (La France libre) and Philippe Pétain's Vichy France (L'État français).

Adolphe Thiers called republicanism in the 1870s "the form of government that divides France least"; however, politics under the Third Republic were sharply polarized. On the left marched Reformist France, heir to the French Revolution. On the right stood conservative France, rooted in the peasantry, the Church and the army, led by Traditionalists. In spite of this, the Third Republic endured seventy years, making it the longest lasting system of government in France since the collapse of the Ancien Régime in 1789.

Background[edit | edit source]

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 resulted in the defeat of France, and the overthrow of Emperor Napoleon III and his Second French Empire. After Napoleon's capture by the Prussians in the Battle of Sedan, Parisian Deputies established the Government of National Defence as a provisional government on 4 September 1870. This first Government of the Third Republic, headed by the President, General Louis Jules Trochu, ruled during the Siege of Paris (19 September 1870 – 28 January 1871). As Paris was cut off from the rest of unoccupied France, the Minister of the Interior, Léon Gambetta, governed the provinces from the city of Tours.

After the French surrender in January 1871, the Government of National Defence disbanded and national elections (excepting the territories occupied by Prussia) aimed at creating a new French government took place. The resulting conservative National Assembly elected Adolphe Thiers as head of a provisional government, nominally "chef du pouvoir exécutif de la République en attendant qu'il soit statué sur les institutions de la France" (head of the executive power of the Republic pending a decision on the institutions of France). Due to the political climate in Paris, the conservative government was based at Versailles.

The new government negotiated the peace settlements with the newly proclaimed German Empire, resulting in the Treaty of Frankfurt, signed on 10 May 1871. To oblige the Prussians to leave France, the government passed a variety of financial laws, such as the controversial Law of Maturities, to pay reparations. In Paris, resentment against the government arose and from late March – May 1871 Paris workers and National Guards revolted and established the Paris Commune, which maintained a radical left-wing regime for two months until its bloody suppression by Thiers' government in May 1871. The following repression of the communards would have disastrous consequences for the labor movement.

Prospects of a parliamentary monarchy[edit | edit source]

Composition of the national Assembly – 1871

The French legislative election, held in the aftermath of the collapse of the regime of Napoleon III, resulted in a monarchist majority in the French National Assembly, favourable to peace with Prussia. The Legitimists supported the heirs to Charles X, recognising as king his grandson, Henri, Comte de Chambord, alias Henry V. The Orléanist supported the heirs to Louis Philippe I, recognising as king his grandson, Louis-Philippe, Comte de Paris. The Bonapartists were marginalized due to the defeat of Napoléon III. Legitimists and Orléanists came to a compromise, eventually, 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 (his uncle, Louis, Duc d'Angoulême, having agreed to Charles X's request to also abdicate to help save the Bourbon dynasty), and Louis-Philippe had been recognised as king instead.

In 1871, Chambord had no wish to be a constitutional monarch, but aspired to be 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 flag that was associated with the Revolution of 1789 and the Orléanist July Monarchy that had supplanted him and his father in 1830. The general population, however, was unwilling to abandon the Tricolore. Monarchists therefore resigned themselves to waiting for the death of the ageing, childless Chambord, when the throne could be offered to his more liberal heir, the Comte de Paris. A "temporary" republican government was therefore established. However, Chambord lived on until 1883, by which time enthusiasm for monarchy had faded.

The Ordre Moral Government[edit | edit source]

The Sacré-Cœur Basilica was built as a symbol of the Ordre Moral.

In France, children were taught in school not to forget the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, which were coloured in black on maps.

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 (featuring a directly elected Chamber of Deputies and an indirectly elected Senate) was created, along with a ministry under the 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 16 May 1877, with public opinion swinging heavily in favour of a republic, the President of the Republic, Patrice de Mac-Mahon, himself a monarchist, made one last desperate attempt to salvage the monarchical cause by dismissing the republican prime minister Jules Simon and appointing the monarchist leader the Duc de Broglie to office. He then dissolved parliament and called a general election for that October. 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'état, known as le seize Mai after the date on which it happened.

Republicans returned triumphant during the October elections for the Chamber of Deputies. The prospect of a monarchical restoration died definitively after the republicans gained control of the Senate on 5 January 1879. Mac-Mahon himself resigned on 30 January 1879, leaving a seriously weakened presidency in the shape of Jules Grévy. Indeed it was not until Charles de Gaulle, 80 years later, that a President of France next unilaterally dissolved parliament.

The Opportunist Republicans[edit | edit source]

Following the 16 May crisis in 1877, Legitimists were pushed out of power, and the Republic was finally governed by republicans—called Opportunist Republicans as they were in favour of making moderate changes to firmly establish the new regime. The Jules Ferry laws on making public education free, mandatory, and secular (laїque), were voted in 1881 and 1882, one of the first signs of this republican control of the Republic, as public education was no longer the exclusive control of the Catholic congregations.

To discourage 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.

Boulanger crisis[edit | edit source]

Boulanger

In 1889, the Republic was rocked by the sudden Boulanger crisis. An enormously popular general, he won a series of elections—after each victory he resigned his seat and ran again in another district—that seemed to threaten a dictatorship. At the apogee of his popularity in January 1889 he posed the threat of a coup d'état and the establishment of a dictatorship. With his base of support in working districts of Paris and other cities, plus rural traditionalists Catholics, plus royalists, he promoted an aggressive nationalism aimed against Germany. The elections of September 1889 marked a decisive defeat for the Boulangists. They were defeated by the changes in the electoral laws that prevented Boulanger from running in multiple constituencies, by the government's aggressive opposition, and by the absence of the General himself, for he was in self-imposed exile to be with his mistress. The fall of Boulanger severely undermined the political strength of the conservative and royalist elements and France; they would not recover strength until 1940. Revisionist scholars have argued that the Boulangist movement more often represented elements of the radical Left rather than the extreme Right. Their work is part of an emerging consensus that France's radical Right was formed in part during the Dreyfus era by men who had been Boulangist partisans of the radical Left a decade earlier.

Dreyfus affair[edit | edit source]

The Dreyfus affair was a major political scandal that convulsed France from 1894 until its resolution in 1906, and then had reverberations for decades more. The affair had become a modern and universal symbol of injustice. It remains one of the most striking examples of a complex miscarriage of justice where a central role was played by the press and public opinion. The issue was blatant antisemitism as practiced by the Army and defended by traditionalists (especially Catholics) against secular and republican forces, including most Jews. In the end the latter triumphed.

The affair began in November 1894 with the conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil's Island in French Guiana, where he spent almost five years.

Two years later evidence came to light identifying a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real spy. After high-ranking military officials suppressed the new evidence a military court unanimously acquitted Esterhazy. The Army accused Dreyfus of additional charges based on false documents. Word of the military court's framing of Dreyfus and of an attendant cover-up began to spread, chiefly owing to J'accuse, a vehement open letter published in a Paris newspaper in January 1898 by the notable writer Émile Zola. Activists put pressure on the government to reopen the case.

In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to France for another trial. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (now called "Dreyfusards"), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clemenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Édouard Drumont, the director and publisher of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole. The new trial resulted in another conviction and a 10-year sentence but Dreyfus was given a pardon and set free. Eventually all the accusations against him were demonstrated to be baseless and in 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army.

The Affair from 1894 to 1906 divided France deeply and lastingly into two opposing camps: the pro-Army, mostly Catholic "anti-Dreyfusards" who generally lost the initiative to the anticlerical, pro-republican Dreyfusards, with strong support from intellectuals and teachers. It embittered French politics and allowed the radicals to come to power.

Other scandals[edit | edit source]

The Panama scandals were quickly criticized by the press.

In 1893—following anarchist Auguste Vaillant's bombing at the National Assembly, which killed nobody but injured one—deputies voted in the "lois scélérates", which limited the 1881 freedom of the press laws. The following year, the Italian anarchist Sante Geronimo Caserio stabbed to death President Sadi Carnot. Also in 1894, 30 alleged anarchists were judged during the Trial of the thirty.

Social history[edit | edit source]

Newspapers[edit | edit source]

The democratic political structure was supported by the proliferation of politicized newspapers. The circulation of the daily press in Paris went from 1 million in 1870 to 5 million in 1910; it then leveled off and reached 6 million in 1939. Advertising grew rapidly, providing a steady financial basis. A new liberal press law of 1881 abandoned the restrictive practices that had been typical for a century. High-speed rotary Hoe presses, introduced in the 1860s, facilitated quick turnaround time and cheaper publication. New types of popular newspapers, especially Le Petit Journal, reached an audience more interested in diverse entertainment and gossip rather than hard news. It captured a quarter of the Parisian market, and forced the rest to lower their prices. The main dailies employed their own journalists who competed for news flashes. All newspapers relied upon the Agence Havas (now Agence France-Presse), a telegraphic news service with a network of reporters and contracts with Reuters to provide world service. The staid old papers retained their loyal clientele because of their concentration on serious political issues. While papers usually gave false circulation figures Le Petit Provencal in 1913 probably had a daily circulation of about 100,000, and Le Petit Meridional had about 70,000. Advertising did not pay the way, and only filled 20% or so of the pages.

The Roman Catholic Assumptionist order revolutionized pressure group media by its national newspaper La Croix. It vigorously advocated for traditional Catholicism while at the same time innovating with the most modern technology and distribution systems, with regional editions tailored to local taste. Secularists and Republicans recognize the newspaper as their greatest enemy, especially when it took the lead in attacking Dreyfus as a traitor and stirred up anti-Semitism. When Dreyfus was pardoned, the Radical government in 1900 closed down the entire Assumptionist order and its newspaper.

Banks secretly paid certain newspapers to promote particular financial interests, and hide or cover up misbehavior. They also took payments for favorable notices in news articles of commercial products. Sometimes, a newspaper would blackmail a business by threatening to publish unfavorable information unless the business immediately started advertising in the paper. Foreign governments, especially Russia and Turkey, secretly paid the press hundreds of thousands of francs a year to guarantee favorable coverage of the bonds it was selling in Paris. When the real news was bad about Russia, as during its 1905 Revolution or during its war with Japan, it raised the ante to millions. During the World War, newspapers became more of a propaganda agency on behalf of the war effort, and avoided critical commentary. They seldom reported the achievements of the Allies, crediting all the good news to the French army. In a word, the newspapers were not independent champions of the truth, but secretly paid advertisements for banking.

The World War ended a golden era for the press. Their younger staff members were drafted and male replacements could not be found (women journalists were not considered suitable.) Rail transportation was rationed and less paper and ink came in, and fewer copies could be shipped out. Inflation raised the price of newsprint, which was always in short supply. The cover price went up, circulation fell and many of the 242 dailies published outside Paris closed down. The government set up the Interministerial Press Commission to closely supervise the press. A separate agency imposed tight censorship that led to blank spaces where news reports or editorials were disallowed. The dailies sometimes were limited to only two pages instead of the usual four, leading one satirical paper to try to report the war news in the same spirit:

War News. A half-zeppelin threw half its bombs on half-time combatants, resulting in one-quarter damaged. The zeppelin, halfways-attacked by a portion of half-anti aircraft guns, was half destroyed."

Regional newspapers flourished after 1900. However the Parisian newspapers were largely stagnant after the war. The major postwar success story was Paris Soir; which lacked any political agenda and was dedicated to providing a mix of sensational reporting to aid circulation, and serious articles to build prestige. By 1939 its circulation was over 1.7 million, double that of its nearest rival the tabloid Le Petit Parisien. In addition to its daily paper Paris Soir sponsored a highly successful women's magazine Marie-Claire. Another magazine Match was modeled after the photojournalism of the American magazine Life.

Modernization of the peasants[edit | edit source]

France was a rural nation with the peasant farmer the typical citizen. In his seminal book Peasants Into Frenchmen (1976), historian Eugen Weber traced the modernization of French villages and argued that rural France went from backward and isolated to modern and possessing a sense of French nationhood during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He emphasized the roles of railroads, republican schools, and universal military conscription. He based his findings on school records, migration patterns, military service documents and economic trends. Weber argued that until 1900 or so a sense of French nationhood was weak in the provinces. Weber then looked at how the policies of the Third Republic created a sense of French nationality in rural areas. The book was widely praised, but was criticized by some who argued that a sense of Frenchness existed in the provinces before 1870.

Consumerism and the city department store[edit | edit source]

Au Bon Marché

Aristide Boucicaut founded Le Bon Marché in Paris in 1838, and by 1852 it offered a wide variety of goods in "...departments inside one building." Goods were sold at fixed prices, with guarantees that allowed exchanges and refunds. By the end of the 19th century, Georges Dufayel, a French credit merchant, had served up to three million customers and was affiliated with La Samaritaine, a large French department store established in 1870 by a former Bon Marché executive.

The French gloried in the national prestige brought by the great Parisian stores. The great writer Émile Zola (1840-1902) set his novel Au Bonheur des Dames (1882–83) in the typical department store. Zola represented it as a symbol of the new technology that was both improving society and devouring it. The novel describes merchandising, management techniques, marketing, and consumerism.

The Grands Magasins Dufayel was a huge department store with inexpensive prices built in 1890 in the northern part of Paris, where it reached a very large new customer base in the working class. In a neighbourhood with few public spaces, it provided a consumer version of the public square. It educated workers to approach shopping as an exciting social activity not just a routine exercise in obtaining necessities, just as the bourgeois did at the famous department stores in the central city. Like the bourgeois stores, it helped transform consumption from a business transaction into a direct relationship between consumer and sought-after goods. Its advertisements promised the opportunity to participate in the newest, most fashionable consumerism at reasonable cost. The latest technology was featured, such as cinemas and exhibits of inventions like X-ray machines (that could be used to fit shoes) and the gramophone.

Increasingly after 1870 the stores' work force became feminized, opening up prestigious job opportunities for young women. Despite the low pay and long hours they enjoyed the exciting complex interactions with the newest and most fashionable merchandise and upscale customers.

French colonial empire[edit | edit source]

Monument in Bonifacio commemorating the soldiers of the French Foreign Legion killed on duty for France during the South-oranais campaign (1897-1902).

The Third Republic, in line with the imperialistic ethos of the day sweeping Europe, developed a worldwide network of colonies. The largest and most important were in French North Africa and French Indochina. French administrators, soldiers, and missionaries were dedicated to bringing French civilization to the peoples of the colonies. Some French businessmen went overseas, but there were few permanent settlements. The Catholic Church became deeply involved. Its missionaries were unattached men committed to staying permanently, learning local languages and customs, and converting the natives to Christianity.

France successfully integrated the colonies into its economic system. By 1939 one third of its exports went to its colonies; Paris businessmen invested heavily in agriculture, mining, and shipping. In Indochina new plantations were opened for rubber and rice. In Algeria land held by rich settlers rose from 1,600,000 hectares in 1890 to 2,700,000 hectares in 1940; combined with similar operations in Morocco and Tunisia, the result was that North African agriculture became one of the most efficient in the world. Metropolitan France was a captive market, so large landowners could borrow large sums in Paris to modernize agricultural techniques with tractors and mechanized equipment. The result was a dramatic increase in the export of wheat, corn, peaches, and olive oil. French Algeria became the fourth most important wine producer in the world.

Opposition to colonial rule led to rebellions in Morocco in 1925, in Syria in 1926, and in Indochina in 1930, all of which the colonial army quickly suppressed.

The Radicals' republic[edit | edit source]

The most important party was the Radical Party, founded in 1901 as the "Republican, Radical and Radical-Socialist Party" ("Parti républicain, radical et radical-socialiste"), was classically liberal in political orientation, and opposed the monarchists and clerical elements on the one hand, and the Socialists on the other. Many members had been recruited by the Freemasons. The Radicals were split between activists who called for state intervention to achieve economic and social equality and conservatives whose first priority was stability. The workers' demands strikes threatened such stability and pushed many Radicals toward conservatism. It opposed women's suffrage for fear that women would vote for its opponents or for candidates endorsed by the Catholic Church. It favored a progressive income tax, economic equality, expanded educational opportunities, cooperatives and, in foreign policy, the maintenance of peace through compulsory arbitration, controlled disarmament, economic sanctions, and perhaps an international military force.

Followers of Léon Gambetta, such as Raymond Poincaré, who would become President of the Council in the 1920s, created the Democratic Republican Alliance (ARD), which became the main center-right party after World War I.

Governing coalitions collapsed with regularity, rarely lasting more than a few months, as radicals, socialists, liberals, conservatives, republicans and monarchists all fought for control. Some historians argue that the collapses were not important because they reflected minor changes 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.

Church and state[edit | edit source]

Separation of the Church and the State in 1905

Throughout the lifetime of the Third Republic (1870–1940), there were battles over the status of the Catholic Church in France among the Republicans, the Monarchists and the Authoritarians (such as the Napoleonists). The French clergy and bishops were closely associated with the Monarchists and many of its hierarchy were from noble families. Republicans were based in the anticlerical middle class who saw the Church's alliance with the monarchists as a political threat to republicanism, and a threat to the modern spirit of progress. The Republicans detested the Church for its political and class affiliations; for them, the Church represented the Ancien Régime, a time in French history most Republicans hoped was long behind them. The Republicans were strengthened by Protestant and Jewish support. Numerous laws were passed to weaken the Catholic Church. In 1879, priests were excluded from the administrative committees of hospitals and of boards of charity; in 1880, new measures were directed against the religious congregations; from 1880 to 1890 came the substitution of lay women for nuns in many hospitals; and, in 1882 and Ferry school laws were passed. Napoleon's Concordat continued in operation but in 1881, the government cut off salaries to priests it disliked.

The first page of the bill, as brought before the Chambre des Députés in 1905

Republicans feared that religious orders that controlled the schools—especially the Jesuits and Assumptionists—indoctrinated anti-Republicanism into children. Determined to root this out, Republicans insisted they needed control of the schools for France to achieve economic and militaristic progress. (Republicans felt one of the primary reasons for the German victory in 1870 was because of their superior education system.)

The early anti-Catholic laws were largely the work of republican Jules Ferry in 1882. Religious instruction in all schools was forbidden, and religious orders were forbidden to teach in them. Funds were appropriated from religious schools to build more state schools. Later in the century, other laws passed by Ferry's successors further weakened the Church's position in French society. Civil marriage became compulsory, divorce was introduced, and chaplains were removed from the army.

When Leo XIII became pope in 1878 he tried to calm Church-State relations. In 1884 he told French bishops not to act in a hostile manner to the State ('Nobilissima Gallorum Gens'). In 1892 he issued an encyclical advising French Catholics to rally to the Republic and defend the Church by participating in Republican politics ('Au milieu des sollicitudes'). This attempt at improving the relationship failed. Deep-rooted suspicions remained on both sides and were inflamed by the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906). Catholics were for the most part anti-dreyfusard. The Assumptionists published anti-Semitic and anti-republican articles in their journal La Croix. This infuriated Republican politicians, who were eager to take revenge. Often they worked in alliance with Masonic lodges. The Waldeck-Rousseau Ministry (1899–1902) and the Combes Ministry (1902–05) fought with the Vatican over the appointment of bishops. Chaplains were removed from naval and military hospitals (1903–04), and soldiers were ordered not to frequent Catholic clubs (1904).

Emile Combes (1835-1921), when elected Prime Minister in 1902, was determined to thoroughly defeat Catholicism. After only a short while in office he closed down all parochial schools in France. Then he had parliament reject authorisation of all religious orders. This meant that all fifty four orders were dissolved and about 20,000 members immediately left France, many for Spain. In 1904, Émile Loubet (French President 1896-1906) visited the King of Italy (then Victor Emmanuel III) in Rome and the Pope protested at this recognition of the Italian State. Combes reacted strongly and recalled his ambassador to the Vatican. Then in 1905 a law was introduced abrogating Napoleon's 1801 Concordat. Church and State were finally separated. All Church property was confiscated. The religious no longer were paid by the State. Public worship was given over to associations of Catholic laymen who controlled access to churches. However, in practice, masses and rituals continued to be performed.

The Combes government worked with Masonic lodges to create a secret surveillance of all army officers to make sure that devout Catholics would not be promoted. Exposed as the Affaire Des Fiches, the scandal undermined support for the Combes government and he resigned. It also undermined morale in the army, as officers realized that hostile spies examining their private lives were more important to their careers than their own professional accomplishments.

In December 1905, the Rouvier government introduced the law on the separation of Church and State, heavily supported by Emile Combes, who had been strictly enforcing the 1901 voluntary association law and the 1904 law on religious congregations' freedom of teaching (more than 2,500 private teaching establishments were by then closed by the State, causing bitter opposition from the Catholic and conservative population). On 10 February 1905, the Chamber declared that "the attitude of the Vatican" had rendered the separation of Church and State inevitable and the law of the separation of church and state was passed in December, 1905. The Church was badly hurt and lost half its priests. In the long run, however, it gained autonomy—for the State no longer had a voice in choosing bishops and Gallicanism was dead.

Panama and Dreyfus scandals[edit | edit source]

Alfred Dreyfus

There were two major scandals that rocked the Third Republic during the 1890s. One entailed the Panama scandals in 1892. Due to disease, inefficiency, widespread corruption, the Panama Canal Company handling the massive project went bankrupt, with millions in losses.

The Dreyfus Affair had a much more profound impact on France, arousing intense antagonisms over religion and culture. In 1894, a Jewish artillery officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was arrested on charges of conspiracy and espionage. Allegedly, Dreyfus had handed over important military documents discussing the designs of a new French artillery piece to a German military attaché; he was convicted and sentenced to Devil's Island, a penal colony in French Guiana. In 1898, writer Émile Zola published an article entitled J'Accuse...! (I accuse...!). The article alleged an anti-Semitic conspiracy in the highest ranks of the military to scapegoat Dreyfus, tacitly supported by the government and the Catholic Church. The real culprit was identified two years later as a high-ranking military officer and aristocrat, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy—but only in 1906, after twelve years in prison, did the government free Dreyfus and give him a formal pardon.

Foreign policy[edit | edit source]

Marianne (left), Mother Russia (centre) and Britannia (right) personifying the Triple Entente as opposed to the Triple Alliance.

French foreign policy in the years leading up to the First World War was based largely on hostility to and fear of German power. France secured an alliance with the Russian Empire in 1894 after diplomatic talks between Germany and Russia had failed to produce any working agreement. The Franco-Russian Alliance served as the cornerstone of French foreign policy until 1917. A further link with Russia was provided by vast French investments in and loans to that country before 1914. In 1904, French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé negotiated with Lord Lansdowne, the British Foreign Secretary, the Entente Cordiale, which ended a long period of Anglo-French tensions and hostility. The entente cordiale, which functioned as an informal Anglo-French alliance, was further strengthened by the First and Second Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911, and by secret military and naval staff talks. Delcassé's rapprochement with Britain was controversial in France as Anglophobia was prominent around the start of the 20th century, sentiments that had been much reinforced by the Fashoda Incident of 1898, where Britain and France had almost gone to war, and by the Boer War where French public opinion was very much on the side of Albion’s enemies. Ultimately, the fear of German power was the link that bound Britain and France together.

Preoccupied with internal problems, France played little attention to foreign policy in the 1911–14 period, although it did extend military service to three years from two over strong Socialist objections in 1913. The rapidly escalating Balkan crisis of 1914 surprised France, and not much attention was given to the possible looming of a larger conflict.

World War[edit | edit source]

French poilus sustained the highest number of casualties among the Entente in the World War.

France entered the World War because Russia and Germany were going to war, and France honored its treaty obligations to Russia. Decisions were all made by senior officials, especially president Raymond Poincaré, Premier and Foreign Minister René Viviani, and the ambassador to Russia Maurice Paléologue. Not involved in the decision-making were military leaders, arms manufacturers, the newspapers, pressure groups, party leaders, or spokesman for French nationalism.

Britain wanted to remain neutral but entered the war when the German army invaded Belgium on its way to Paris. The French victory at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914 ensured the failure of Germany's strategy to win quickly. It became a long and very bloody war of attrition, ultimately resulting in the defeat of France.

French intellectuals welcomed the war to avenge the humiliation of defeat and loss of territory in 1871. At the grass roots, Paul Déroulède's League of Patriots, a proto-fascist movement based in the lower middle class, had advocated a war of revenge since the 1880s. The strong socialist movement had long opposed war and preparation for war. However, when its leader Jean Jaurès, a pacifist, was assassinated at the start of the war, the French socialist movement abandoned its anti-militarist positions and joined the national war effort. Prime Minister René Viviani called for unity in the form of a "Union sacrée" ("Sacred Union"), and in France there were few dissenters.

A state of emergency was proclaimed and censorship imposed, leading to the creation in 1915 of the satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné to bypass the censorship. The economy was hurt by the German invasion of major industrial areas in the northeast. Although the occupied area in 1914 contained only 14% of France's industrial workers, it produced 58% of the steel and 40% of the coal. In 1914, the government implemented a war economy with controls and rationing. By 1915, the war economy went into high gear, as millions of French women and colonial men replaced the civilian roles of many of the 3 million soldiers. Considerable assistance came with the influx of American food, money and raw materials in 1917. This war economy would have important reverberations after the war, as it would be a first breach of liberal theories of non-interventionism. The damages caused by the war amounted to about 113% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 1913, chiefly the destruction of productive capital and housing. The national debt rose from 66% of GDP in 1913 to 170% in 1919, reflecting the heavy use of bond issues to pay for the war. Inflation was severe, with the franc losing over half its value against the British pound.

To uplift the French national spirit, many intellectuals began to fashion patriotic propaganda. The Union sacrée sought to draw the French people closer to the actual front and thus garner social, political, and economic support for the soldiers.

After the French army successfully defended Paris in 1914, the conflict became one of trench warfare along the Western Front, with very high casualty rates. It became a war of attrition. Until spring of 1918, amazing as it seems, there were almost no territorial gains or losses for either side. Georges Clemenceau, whose ferocious energy and determination earned him the nickname le Tigre ("the Tiger"), led a coalition government after 1917 that was determined to defeat Germany. Meanwhile, large swaths of northeastern France fell under the brutal control of German occupiers.

Peace[edit | edit source]

Palais de Rumine: site of the peace treaty that ended the World War.

A change of fortunes in the late spring and summer of 1918 led to the end of the World War. The most important factors that led to French acceptence of an armistice was its exhaustion after four years of fighting and the large territorial gains by Germany beginning in the spring of 1918. Peace terms were negotiated between the great powers: Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Aristide Briand negotiated in a conciliatory manor and even won consessions in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1919. France demolished some forts near the Franco-German border but was allowed to construct new ones. Responsibility for the war, while mostly blamed on Serbia, was shared collectively. Meaning that France was expected to pay war reparations. France gained the output of the German industrial Saar Basin, a coal and steel region, at the expense of allowing Alsace-Lorraine to remain part of Germany. The French colonies, were left alone with the exception of giving territory to Kamerun, allowing it to share a border with the Belgian Congo. From the remains of the Ottoman Empire, Germany's ally during the World War that collapsed at the end of the conflict, France acquired protectorates over Syria and Lebanon.

Interwar period[edit | edit source]

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 102-08429, Koblenz, Französischer Materialzug.jpg

French soldiers observing the Rhine at Deutsches Eck, Koblenz, during the Occupation of the Rhineland

From 1919 to 1940, France was governed by two main groupings of political alliances. On the one hand, there was the right-center Bloc national led by Georges Clemenceau, Raymond Poincaré and Aristide Briand. The Bloc was supported by business and finance and was friendly toward the army and the Church. Its main goals were revenge against Germany, economic prosperity for French business and stability in domestic affairs. On the other hand, there was the left-center Cartel des gauches dominated by Édouard Herriot of the Radical Socialist party. Herriot's party was in fact neither radical nor socialist, rather it represented the interests of small business and the lower middle class. It was intensely anti-clerical and resisted the Catholic Church. The Cartel was occasionally willing to form a coalition with the Socialist Party. Anti-democratic groups, such as the Communists on the left and royalists on the right, played relatively minor roles.

The flow of reparations from the war time Central Powers played a central role in strengthening French finances. The government began a large-scale reconstruction program to repair wartime damages, and was burdened with a very large public debt. Taxation policies were inefficient, with widespread evasion, and when the financial crisis grew worse in 1926, Poincaré levied new taxes, reformed the system of tax collection, and drastically reduced government spending to balance the budget and stabilize the franc. Holders of the national debt lost 80% of the face value of their bonds, but runaway inflation did not occur. From 1926 to 1929, the French economy prospered and manufacturing flourished.

Foreign observers in the 1920s noted the excesses of the French upper classes, but emphasized the rapid re-building of the regions of northeastern France that had seen warfare and occupation. They reported the improvement of financial markets, the brilliance of the post-war literature and the revival of public morale.

Great Depression[edit | edit source]

The world economic crisis known as the Great Depression affected France a bit later than other countries, hitting around 1931. While the GDP in the 1920s grew at the very strong rate of 4.43% per year, the 1930s rate fell to only 0.63%. In comparison to countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, the depression was relatively mild: unemployment peaked under 5%, and the fall in production was at most 20% below the 1929 output. In addition, there was no banking crisis.

In 1931 the well-organized veterans movement demanded and received pensions for their wartime service. This was funded by a lottery—the first one allowed in France since 1836. The lottery immediately became popular, and became a major foundation of the annual budget. Although the Great Depression was not yet severe, the lottery appealed to charitable impulses, greed, and respect for veterans. These contradictory impulses produced cash that make possible the French welfare state, at the crossroads of philanthropy, market and public sphere.

Foreign policy[edit | edit source]

Foreign policy was of growing concern interest to France during the inter-war period, with fears of German militarism in the forefront. The horrible devastation of the war, including the death of 1.5 million French soldiers, the devastation of much of the steel and coal regions, and the long-term costs for veterans, were always remembered. France demanded that Germany assume many of the costs incurred from the war through annual reparation payments. French foreign and security policy used the balance of power and alliance politics to compel Germany to comply with its obligations under the Treaty of Lausanne. The problem was that the United States and Britain rejected a defensive alliance. Potential allies in Eastern Europe, such as Austria, Romania and Serbia were too weak to confront Germany. Russia had been the long term French ally in the East, but now it was controlled by those deeply distrusted in Paris. France's transition to a more conciliatory policy in 1924 was a response to pressure from Britain and the United States, as well as to French weakness.

France hoped to preserve the Entente, but felt betrayed by Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, when he would not sign a defense treaty with France and had not supported many of France's demands at the peace conference. The main goal of French foreign policy was to preserve French power and neutralize the threat posed by Germany. When Germany fell behind in reparations payments in 1923, France prepared to invade the Lorraine region. The British Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who viewed reparations as impossible to pay successfully, pressured French Premier Édouard Herriot into a series of concessions to Germany. In total, France received £1600 million from Germany before reparations ended in 1932, but France had to pay war debts to the United States, and thus the net gain was only about £600 million.

France tried to create a web of defensive treaties against Germany with Belgium, Austria, Romania, Italy and the Soviet Union. There was little effort to build up the military strength or technological capabilities of these allies, and they remained weak and divided among themselves. In the end, the alliances proved worthless. France also constructed a powerful defensive wall in the form of a network of fortresses along its German border. It was called the Maginot Line and was trusted to compensate for the heavy manpower losses of the World War.

The main goal of foreign policy was the diplomatic response to the demands of the French army in the 1920s and 1930s to form alliances against German hegemony, especially with Britain and Austria.

Caution and appeasement was increasingly adopted as Nazism in Germany grew stronger after 1933, for France suffered a stagnant economy, unrest in its colonies, and bitter internal political fighting. This was not a coherent diplomatic strategy or a copying of the British. France appeased Italy on the Ethiopia question because it could not afford to risk an alliance between Italy and Germany. When Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland—the part of Germany where no troops were allowed—neither Paris nor London would risk war, and nothing was done. The military alliance with Austria was sacrificed at Hitler's demand when France and Britain agreed to Mussolini's terms at Naples in 1935.

Popular Front[edit | edit source]


In 1920, the socialist movement split, with the majority forming the French Communist Party. The minority, led by Léon Blum, kept the name Socialist, and by 1932 greatly outnumbered the disorganized Communists. When Stalin told French Communists to collaborate with others on the left in 1934, a popular front was made possible with an emphasis on unity against fascism. In 1936, the Socialists and the Radicals formed a coalition, with Communist support, to complete it.

The Popular Front's narrow victory in the elections of the spring of 1936 brought to power a government headed by the Socialists in alliance with the Radicals. The Communists supported its domestic policies, but did not take any seats in the cabinet. The prime minister was Léon Blum, a technocratic socialist who avoided making decisions. In two years in office, it focused on labour law changes sought by the trade unions, especially the mandatory 40-hour work week, down from 48 hours. All workers were given a two-week paid vacation. A collective bargaining law facilitated union growth; membership soared from 1,000,000 to 5,000,000 in one year, and workers' political strength was enhanced when the Communist and non-Communist unions joined together. The government nationalized the armaments industry and tried to seize control of the Bank of France in an effort to break the power of the richest 200 families in the country. Farmers received higher prices, and the government purchased surplus wheat, but farmers had to pay higher taxes. Wave after wave of strikes hit French industry in 1936. Wage rates went up 48%, but the work week was cut back by 17%, and the cost of living rose 46%, so there was little real gain to the average worker. The higher prices for French products resulted in a decline in overseas sales, which the government tried to neutralize by devaluing the franc, a measure that led to a reduction in the value of bonds and savings accounts. The overall result was significant damage to the French economy, and a lower rate of growth.

Most historians judge the Popular Front a failure, although some call it a partial success. There is general agreement that it failed to live up to the expectations of the left.

Politically, the Popular Front fell apart over Blum's refusal to intervene vigorously in the Spanish Civil War, as demanded by the Communists. Culturally, the Popular Front forced the Communists to come to terms with elements of French society they had long ridiculed, such as patriotism, the veterans' sacrifice, the honor of being an army officer, the prestige of the bourgeois, and the leadership of the Socialist Party and the parliamentary Republic. Above all, the Communists portrayed themselves as French nationalists. Young Communists dressed in costumes from the revolutionary period and the scholars glorified the Jacobins as heroic predecessors.

Conservatism[edit | edit source]

Historians have turned their attention to the right in the interwar period, looking at various categories of conservatives and Catholic groups as well as the far right fascist movement. Conservative supporters of the old order were linked with the "haute bourgeoisie" (upper middle class), as well as nationalism, military power, the maintenance of the empire, and national security. The favourite enemy was the left, especially as represented by socialists. The conservatives were divided on foreign affairs. Several important conservative politicians sustained the journal Gringoire, foremost among them André Tardieu. The Revue des deux Mondes, with its prestigious past and sharp articles, was a major conservative organ.

Summer camps and youth groups were organized to promote conservative values in working-class families, and help them design a career path. The Croix de feu/Parti social français (CF/PSF) was especially active.

Relations with Catholicism[edit | edit source]

France's republican government had long been strongly anti-clerical. The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905 had expelled many religious orders, declared all Church buildings government property, and led to the closing of most Church schools. Since that time, Pope Benedict XV had sought a rapprochement, but it was not achieved until the reign of Pope Pius XI (1922–39). In the papal encyclical Maximam Gravissimamque (1924), many areas of dispute were tacitly settled and a bearable coexistence made possible.

The Catholic Church expanded its social activities after 1920, especially by forming youth movements. For example, the largest organization of young working women was the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne/Féminine (JOC/F), founded in 1928 by the progressive social activist priest Joseph Cardijn. It encouraged young working women to adopt Catholic approaches to morality and to prepare for future roles as mothers at the same time as it promoted notions of spiritual equality and encouraged young women to take active, independent, and public roles in the present. The model of youth groups was expanded to reach adults in the Ligue ouvrière chrétienne féminine ("League of Working Christian Women") and the Mouvement populaire des familles.

Catholics on the far right supported several shrill, but small, groupings that preached doctrines similar to fascism. The most influential was Action Française, founded in 1905 by the vitriolic author Charles Maurras. It was intensely nationalistic, anti-Semitic and reactionary, calling for a return to the monarchy and domination of the state by the Catholic Church. In 1926, Pope Pius XI condemned Action Française because the pope decided that it was folly for the French Church to continue to tie its fortunes to the unlikely dream of a monarchist restoration and distrusted the movement's tendency to defend the Catholic religion in merely utilitarian and nationalistic terms. Action Française never fully recovered from the denunciation, but it remained active.

Downfall of the Third Republic[edit | edit source]

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