French Third Republic

Dafato Team | Jun 22, 2022

Table of Content


The French Third Republic (in French Troisième République française) was the republican regime in force in France from 1870 to 1940. It was the first lasting French regime since the fall of the Ancien Régime in 1789. Indeed, France had experienced, in eighty years, seven political regimes: three constitutional monarchies, two short-lived republics (for twelve and four years respectively) and two empires. These difficulties help to explain the indecision of the National Assembly, which took nine years, from 1870 to 1879, to renounce the monarchy and propose a third republican constitution.

Forming a compromise constitution, the constitutional laws of 1875 established a bicameral parliamentary republic. Marked by the coup d'état of 1851, led by their first elected president, the republicans accorded in practice to the president a merely representative role. The Third Republic constituted what Philip Nord called "the republican moment", that is to say: a period marked by a strong democratic identity, which the laws on education, secularism, the rights to strike, association and assembly illustrate. The Third Republic was also a time when the life of the French was "passionately political, as much as the life of a people can be in a non-revolutionary period". It is what Vincent Duclert calls "the birth of the idea of France as a political nation".

The Third Republic was also a period marked by a whole series of social reforms to which society aspired, notably the adoption of more favorable legislation for employees.

Born in defeat, the Third Republic evolved from its proclamation to its fall in a context of confrontation with Germany. The Third Republic is the regime that allowed the republic to establish itself in a lasting way in French history after the failure of the first (1792-1804) and second (1848-1852), which had only lasted twelve and four years, respectively.

Background: republicanism and revolutions

France had already experienced republican regimes on two occasions, so the ideology of republicanism was not alien to the political history of the country. Thus, in the context of the French Revolution, the First Republic was established after the dethronement of Louis XVI, which existed between 1792 and 1804, when Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved it when he proclaimed himself emperor. Likewise, after the Revolution of 1848 that dethroned King Louis Philippe I, the Second Republic was proclaimed, which lasted until 1852, when Louis Napoleon Bonaparte established the Second Empire.

The Franco-Prussian War

On July 19, 1870, the Franco-Prussian war had broken out between the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia, in which the latter had obtained the military collaboration of other German states (such as the Grand Duchy of Baden or the kingdoms of Württemberg and Bavaria). Once the war campaigns between the warring troops had begun, the course of the war soon turned in favor of Prussia, which won continuous military victories over the French. The French Emperor Napoleon III himself had assumed the military command of his forces, but at the end of August he was surrounded by a large contingent of French soldiers in the fortifications of Sedan, where he endured a heavy siege by Prussian troops. With no real possibility of breaking the siege or saving his troops, Napoleon III agreed to capitulate to the Prussian military leaders on September 2, 1870, and was left as a prisoner of war along with several thousand of his soldiers. This decision was crucial for the politics of France, as the country was suddenly left without a head of state.

Proclamation: the Government of National Defense

In the midst of the popular fury against Napoleon III after the defeat of Sedan, the politician Léon Gambetta, leader of the republican opposition in the National Assembly, proclaimed the Republic in Paris on September 4. On the same day, a Government of National Defense was established in the capital headed by General Louis Jules Trochu, military governor of Paris, and composed among others of Gambetta, Jules Favre, Jules Ferry, Henri Rochefort, Jules Simon, Emmanuel Arago and Adolphe Crémieux.

The efforts of the new regime did not prevent the Prussian forces under the command of General Helmuth von Moltke from laying siege to Paris from September 19. The efforts of the Government of National Defense proved in vain and it was not possible to rebuild a French army capable of lifting the Prussian siege of Paris, which capitulated on January 28, 1871 after several months of deprivation and famine. General Moltke received orders from Otto von Bismarck to leave a Prussian garrison in Paris, but to withdraw most of his troops to positions of easy defense near the city. At the same time, the so-called National Guard, which had been charged with ensuring the defense of the capital during the Prussian siege, was garrisoned there.

The Government of National Defense agreed an armistice with the Prussians on January 28, 1871, in order to hold legislative elections for the National Assembly on February 8. As a result of these elections, Adolphe Thiers became president of France on February 18; however, Thiers was not officially proclaimed "president", but "head of the Executive Power of the Republic", considering that the republican regime was not yet regulated by a Constitution. Of the 768 seats in the National Assembly, only 675 could be filled because of the war; likewise, the royalists proved to be an absolute majority, winning 396 seats.

Uprising: the Paris Commune

The National Guard, made up mostly of individuals from the popular classes and members of the petty bourgeoisie, maintained a great resentment against the Government of National Defense, which was unable to prevent the surrender of the city of Paris. In fact, the National Guard refused to hand over to the government troops their cannons and heavy weapons; finally, on March 18, 1871, it revolted and took control of Paris, setting up a popular municipal government known as the Paris Commune, in opposition to the policy of the Government of National Defense installed in Versailles and presided over by Adolphe Thiers. The Commune would be fought by government forces and would end up violently crushed in a military campaign -including a severe and destructive urban combat inside Paris- that ended on May 28, 1871.

After the Treaty of Frankfurt signed on May 10, 1871, the French government made peace with the German Empire, agreeing to the partial withdrawal of Prussian troops from French soil. France ceded to Prussia the French province of Alsace, part of the Vosges and part of the province of Lorraine, which were annexed as "imperial territory". In addition, it agreed to pay war reparations in the amount of 5000 million gold francs, while Prussia occupied with its troops several departments of northern France until full payment of the debt.

Taking advantage of the fall of Napoleon III, several monarchist groups tried to establish a constitutional monarchy in France, for which there had already existed for many years two factions aspiring to the French throne. The first was the legitimists, who supported the Bourbon heirs of Charles X (overthrown in 1830) and recognized as king his grandson Henri d'Artois, Count of Chambord. The other side was that of the Orleanists, supporters of the heirs of Louis Philippe I, the "Citizen King" overthrown in 1848, with his grandson Louis Philippe, Count of Paris, as legitimate heir.

Both groups agreed that the Count of Chambord would reign as Henry V of France, and that at his death, as he had no children, the Count of Paris would inherit the throne. Henri d'Artois returned briefly to France in July 1871 and, installed in Chambord, rejected the tricolor flag and asked to restore the old royalist flag (white with fleurs-de-lis) used during the Restoration. These conditions caused the division among the royalists and the alienation of public opinion, making impossible the projected "restoration", to the point that Adolphe Thiers himself, despite his conservatism, preferred to begin to formalize the Republic.

Although, after the resignation of Thiers in May 1873, the monarchist Marshal Patrice de Mac Mahon occupied the presidency and a monarchist majority remained in the National Assembly until the legislative elections of 1876, the intransigence of the Count of Chambord favored the republican cause and divided the monarchist deputies. For his part, the Count of Paris, who had sworn allegiance to "Henry V of France", had to wait until his death in 1886 to claim the throne; however, by that time, the republic was already firmly established.

Monarchy or Republic: the Wallon Amendment

Although the royalist general Patrice de Mac Mahon was elected president of France in 1873 to rule for a term of seven years, the republicans soon gained greater political preponderance. The unpopularity of the monarchy defined the political debate when the National Assembly discussed a new Constitution during 1874, to the point that, on January 30, 1875, the republican deputies considered themselves strong enough to propose the Wallon Amendment to the constitutional draft to add: "The president of the Republic is elected by the Senate and by the Chamber". This phrase was approved in the National Assembly by a single vote - 353 in favor and 352 against - and, with this, France was officially consecrated as a republic.

Republican foundations: constitutional laws

Between February and July 1875, the foundations of the republic were laid with the adoption of constitutional laws. A Parliament was created with two chambers: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of France, as well as the offices of President of the Republic and President of the Council (or Prime Minister). The head of state was the President of the Republic, while the head of government was the Prime Minister, who was elected by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. These legislative bodies were elected by universal suffrage - directly in the case of the Chamber and indirectly in the case of the Senate - and, meeting together, were responsible for electing the president; a parliamentary motion of censure could force the immediate resignation of the prime minister, but never of the president, whose term of office lasted seven years.

Republic vs. monarchy: elections vs. presidency

The general elections to the Chamber of Deputies on February 20, 1876 gave a clear victory to the Republicans, so the President of the Republic successively appointed as presidents of the Council two conservative Republicans, Jules Dufaure and Jules Simon, who did not win the confidence of Parliament. By May 16, 1877, popular opinion had ceased to support the monarchy and now supported the definitive establishment of the republic.

The President of the Republic, Patrice de Mac Mahon, Duke of Magenta and a convinced royalist, maneuvered at the last moment to restore the monarchy by dismissing Prime Minister Jules Simon and putting in his place the royalist Duke de Broglie, against the parliamentary majority. Mac Mahon then dissolved the Chamber of Deputies and called elections in October 1877, which confirmed the Republican majority. The president did not recognize the result of the elections, which had been held by universal male suffrage, and tried again to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies, but the Senate refused. The maneuver did not obtain the result Mac Mahon expected, and he was accused of attempting a coup d'état. The municipal elections of January 1878 gave the majority of the municipalities to republican mayors, a success that was confirmed by the elections to renew one third of the Senate in January 1879. Isolated and without support, the "royalist president" Mac Mahon was forced to resign on January 28, 1879.

Affirmation of parliamentarism

The Chamber and the Senate then elected to succeed him the lawyer Jules Grévy, a moderate Republican. The new President of the Republic declared at his inauguration that he would "never go against the will of the chambers" and renounced his legal right to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies, thus initiating with this gesture a fundamentally parliamentary regime - one of the main characteristics of the Third Republic. Following Grévy's example, most of the following heads of state remained in a discreet role behind the presidents of the Council of Ministers who assumed in practice the government of the country.

In 1879, Jules Grévy appointed to the presidency of the Council of Ministers the republican Jules Ferry, who became one of the most prominent personalities of the Republic. In June 1882, the Parliament passed the law of alienation, which allowed the Government to sell most of the Crown jewels, in order to pay for the free access of the population to the national museums and also to launch a major propaganda coup against the monarchists with the slogan: "There can be no king if there is no crown and no scepter".

After the fall of the Second Empire and the defeat of the Paris Commune, a strong ideological current of republicanism and secularism was established in France, already exposed by Léon Gambetta, who on May 4, 1877 delivered in the Chamber of Deputies a speech against "that spirit of invasion and corruption" which in his eyes was clericalism, and which ended with a phrase that would become famous: "Clericalism, there is the enemy! "("Le cléricalisme, voilà l'ennemi !"). From then on, an open anticlerical policy was launched, inspired by the ideal of laïcité and which would culminate in the approval in December 1905 of the law of separation of the Churches and the State, essentially directed against the Catholic Church, considered by many Republicans as a bastion of the most reactionary and illiberal conservatism.

Secularizing legislation

In 1881-82, the government of Jules Ferry passed new educational laws establishing free (June 16, 1881), compulsory and secular (March 28, 1882) public primary education - from 6 to 13 years of age - laying the foundations of French public education. These laws were completed with that of October 30, 1886, called the Goblet law, which allowed only lay teachers in public primary schools: teachers who were clerics had to leave their posts within five years, although none was set for female teachers, and there were still schools in the hands of nuns in 1914.

This separation of Church and State in the school sphere was soon extended to others. In the funeral field, the law of November 14, 1881 secularized cemeteries, while another of November 15, 1887 put an end to restrictions on civil funerals and allowed the cremation of corpses. As for public health: hospitals were secularized, expelling chaplains and progressively replacing nuns with registered nurses -although this process was very slow-; hospital wards lost their Catholic names and received others that recalled great inventors or doctors. Measures were also taken to laicize public space: crucifixes were removed from the walls of hospitals, schools and courts; processions were restricted outside places consecrated to worship and the wearing of the cassock in the street was restricted. Other laws followed, aimed at strengthening the absolute pre-eminence of the State and the freedom of conscience of all citizens: such as that of 1883, which prohibited the rendering of military honors inside a religious building; the Naquet law of July 27, 1884, which recognized no marriage other than civil marriage and regulated divorce; or the Freycinet law of July 15, 1889, which obliged members of the clergy to fulfill their military duty.

The public debate

At the same time, a campaign of anticlericalism was unleashed through republican and free-thinking newspapers, pamphlets and books. In one of them it was said:

We are not clumsy to that extent! Unrestraint, laziness, intolerance, gluttony, frail rapacity are so many other gates that open to us the clerical citadel. If you block those doors, you will see how difficult it will be for us to make the assault!

In the estela of Eugène Sue aparecieron muchos otros novelistas, como Marie-Louise Gagneur -La Croisade noire (1865), Un chevalier de sacristie (1881), Le roman d'un pêtre (1882) y Le crime de l'abbé Maufrac (1882)-, Hector France -Le péché de soeur Cunégonde (1883) y Le roman du curée (1884)- o Jules Boulabert -Les ratichons (1884)-. Autores más prestigios también mostraron clérigos antipáticos e incluso repulsivos, como Émile Zola en La Faute de l'abbé Mouret (1875) o La Terre (1887).

Separation: 1904-1905

The anticlerical and secularist rules increased under the government of Émile Combes with the passing of the 1904 laws, which prohibited religious congregations from teaching in schools. Some 12,500 religious schools were closed - except in Alsace-Lorraine, in German hands - and most of these expelled religious orders settled in Spain, where they founded schools. This anticlerical policy led to a break with the Holy See in 1904.

In 1905, the National Assembly approved the law of separation of the Churches and the State, which abolished the Concordat of 1801: from that moment, the Republic did not recognize any cult. One of its promoters was the Association of Freethinkers of France, which held various events, some of which ended in altercations with Catholics, causing injuries and some deaths. The law, however, did not fully satisfy some of them because it made some concessions to the Catholic Church, such as the fact that it would continue to have the exclusive use of the temples.

Economic development

France was a country that had reached a certain level of economic growth during the time of the Second Empire, when capitalism and industrialization transformed the country's economy and the lives of its inhabitants. Already in the days of Napoleon III, big businessmen had achieved a high level of political influence, but this increased after the proclamation of the Republic, when the structure of the new political regime allowed the wealthier French bourgeoisie to greatly displace the old aristocracy in terms of power and influence.

Heavy industry developed again, placing France as an industrialized nation, although immediately after Great Britain and Germany in terms of volume, catching up with agriculture, which had traditionally been the country's main economic activity. Industrialization fostered international export trade, positioning the French economy as a supplier of a variety of consumer goods. Nevertheless, agricultural production never entirely lost its importance and profitability in the French economy thanks to the application of technology in its exploitation; new technical applications boosted the industrialization of agricultural products and their derivatives (such as silk and wine).

In parallel, a characteristic of the French economy in this period was the expansion of small commercial or industrial enterprises throughout the country, but many of them were located in small provincial towns rather than migrating to large urban centers. Small businessmen gradually became a political pressure group demanding stability and a liberal tax policy from the government.

In 1882, a major bankruptcy on the Paris stock exchange sank the Union Générale bank and caused a severe financial depression; however, this was overcome by 1890. Economic growth allowed the banking institutions created during the Second Empire, such as the Banque de Paris (1869) - merged in 1872 to create the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, which in turn evolved into BNP Paribas - to prosper and expand internationally, Crédit Lyonnais (1863) -which in 1900 would be considered the bank with the largest capital on the planet- or Société Générale (1864), while financial liberalization allowed the emergence of new entities such as Crédit Agricole, founded in 1885.

Political developments

The growth of the economy led to the emergence of a massive urban proletariat in Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and Marseilles. With it appeared the first workers' claims and, around 1880, the first unions that managed to organize to demand improvements in the standard of living: the Fédération Nationale des Syndicats, in Lyon in 1886, or Confédération Général du Travail, in Limousin in 1895. As early as 1905, the French Section of the Workers' International was created, unifying various socialist groups (Guesdists, Blanquists, reformists, etc.) shortly after, headed by Jean Jaurès.

Meanwhile, the middle class grew more slowly, although it reached higher levels of sophistication in its consumption habits; it was mostly aligned with the Radical Party, founded in 1901, of a republican and secularist nature. The monarchists and clericalists remained outside these groups; in spite of this, the constant demands of the workers and of the socialist and anarchist formations caused a progressive right-wing shift in the Radical Party. The leaders of radicalism maintained a liberal ideology in political and economic matters, but rejected outright the doctrines of socialism or Marxism. Thus, the radical ranks were nourished by an incipient anti-clerical republican elite, without roots in the aristocracy, which defended capitalism and based its power on money.

Although census suffrage had been abolished in 1848 and universal male suffrage had been extended since 1848-51 and established by the law of November 30, 1875, political influence was gradually shifting towards the wealthier strata of society, with a succession of political parties and electoral campaigns that animated the political life of France. Notwithstanding this growing elitism, the Third Republic maintained throughout its existence a liberal and democratic political system, which allowed considerable freedom of expression - legally protected since July 29, 1881 by the law on freedom of the press - and recognized various fundamental rights to its citizens, leaving aside the authoritarianism that still prevailed in many other countries of Europe. Through this system, representative democracy was established with validity.

However, the primacy of the Legislature over the Executive could generate serious political instability and fleeting governments. These dynamics, channeled during the first decades of the Third Republic, led to a series of political crises after the First World War -common to the crisis of liberal regimes-, with the rise of ideologies far from the "republican ideal" and which gained presence among voters, such as communism -the PCF (1920)- and fascism -the Croix de Feu (1927) and the French Social Party (1936)-.

In 1887, taking advantage of the distance between the proletarian population, the middle classes and the political elites, a fleeting populist movement led by General Georges Boulanger emerged. This put the Republic before a real crisis; due to his high popularity among the people, the monarchists and the Bonapartists, the Government feared that, if his supporters won the elections to be held in July 1889, Boulanger would attempt a coup d'état and impose a dictatorship. However, the general did not take this step and, after a threat of arrest, fled to Belgium, which put an end to his movement.

Social changes

The modernization of the country came under the protection of the state to a greater extent than in the imperial era. Railroads spread throughout France and reached even the provinces that had previously been farthest from the centers of power, connecting with rural populations in the last decades of the 19th century. Literacy levels increased thanks to the laws that established free, universal and compulsory schooling in 1881-82, and this favored the mutual integration of the provinces; in turn, it imposed the presence of the State in the regions of the country. Literacy also made the written press more accessible to all social classes, leading to a great profusion of publications of all kinds in a volume hitherto unknown in France.

During the last years of the 19th century, France also experienced a renewed prestige in scientific and technological innovation, as economic growth and prosperity allowed Paris, as in the years of the Second Empire, to regain its place as a "great global city", "capital of the world" or "capital of the 19th century" as one of the main centers of the Belle Époque.

Meanwhile, the doctrines of positivism spread among the intellectual elites a disdain for metaphysics and religion along with confidence in the power of science and technology, as well as a belief in the goodness of progress, ideas that were to some extent also incorporated into the French republican ideal.

As the centenary of the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution approached, the government of the Third Republic saw a great opportunity to celebrate French republicanism, philosophical positivism and the scientific and technological progress of the world. To this end, it organized the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, in which many countries participated and the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated as a "temporary structure". The success of this event led to its repetition in 1900, also in Paris, as a celebration of progress and science, also taking advantage of the beginning of the new century, although this last exhibition was much more expensive than its predecessor and, therefore, did not generate great profitability.

Background: the overseas colonies

The French Third Republic, like the other European powers, entered the race of colonialism and imperialism with renewed impetus. Although France had possessed colonies since the eighteenth century, many of these had been lost - such as Canada or Haiti - or had lost importance - the enclaves in India - and only a few remained economically active - such as Martinique or Guadeloupe. This previous colonial experience served as a valuable "starting point" for the new imperialist adventures that France was resuming after many decades.

Colonialism and imperialism

The French colony of Algeria, seized in 1830, was reorganized through land seizures, intensification of farms and introduction of crops (olive trees, vines, vegetables or citrus fruits) to make it a net exporter of agricultural products to the metropolis; a scheme that they would later try to copy throughout the French colonial empire.

French imperialism also directed its efforts to the division of Africa. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, France had its possessions in the north and west of the continent, as well as the island of Madagascar, recognized. French financial and military might made Morocco and Tunisia protectorates, while warlike and scientific expeditions imposed French dominion over vast areas of West Africa and the Niger and Chad river basin. This colonial expansion would reach the coasts of the Gulf of Guinea and part of the Congo River basin, where they established the colonies of Guinea (1890), Ivory Coast (1893) and Dahomey (1894), included in French West Africa, created in 1895 and consolidated in 1904. In 1896, they formalized their dominion over the Gulf of Aden with the enclave of Djibouti and the creation of French Somalia.

Adding to the previous and contemporary European incursions in the Asian continent, France incorporated territories in its southeastern part. In 1867 it had obtained from Emperor Tự Đức of Annam the regions of Saigon, Vien-Hoa and My-tho, included in French Cochinchina. Jean Dupuis resumed his explorations in 1873 and seized the forts of Hanoi; the following year, an agreement opened three new ports to French trade. Faced with misunderstandings regarding the treaty with Annam, the French government launched an expedition against Tonkin in July 1881, completed with the conquest of Hanoi in April 1882. They resumed colonial operations in February 1883; with the capture of Hué in August, it created by treaty the Protectorate of Tonkin. Hostilities would continue during the following years, both with Emperor Tự Đức and with Qing China, until the former recognized the French protectorates over Annam and Tonkin on August 25, 1884, and the latter settled the conflict with France by signing the Treaty of Tianjin on June 9, 1885.

Having stabilized its presence in the region, in October 1887, France assumed sovereignty and formed French Indochina, with its capital in Saigon and comprising Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina and Cambodia. Territorial conflicts would not cease: they confronted Siam in 1893 and took advantage of border disputes to impose favorable agreements in 1902, 1904 and 1907.

In competition with the British, the French were present in the Polynesian archipelagos with military, exploratory and Catholic missions since the second half of the 18th century. French colonization of the Pacific had begun in 1842 with the control of the Marquesas Islands and the Kingdom of Tahiti. This protectorate, confirmed by the Jarnac Convention of 1847, was extended to include the Windward Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago and the islands of Tubuai and Raivavae, and was joined by New Caledonia in 1853.

In 1880, Pōmare V, the last ruler of Tahiti, definitively ceded the territories of the Protectorate. From then on, France continued to annex nearby territories. The Convention of Jarnac having been repealed, it took the Leeward Islands in 1887, although stubborn resistance did not allow them to be included in the EFO until 1897. The Gambier Islands were incorporated in 1891, at the request of their inhabitants; the Austral Islands, still independent, were also incorporated around the same time: Rapa in 1867, Rurutu in 1900 and Rimatara in 1901.

United with the other French colonial dominions, they became known as the "colony of Tahiti" and, from 1903, as the "French Establishments of Oceania" (EFO). These depended on the Settlements Service, in the Ministry of the Navy, until 1894, when a Ministry of Settlements was created, the only interlocutor in metropolitan territory.

Colonial activity

The main goal of French colonial expansion was economic and consisted in securing sources of raw materials, markets for French products and integrating the colonies into its economic system. Thus, the metropolitan authorities attached great importance to the construction of infrastructures (railroads, ports and roads) in the colonial territories, as well as to the technification of agricultural and mining exploitation. The boom in international trade also caused France to impose extraterritoriality laws and zones of influence on the territory of independent but economically weak states such as the Ottoman Empire and the Qing Empire.

Nevertheless, the internal public opinion in France did not show greater enthusiasm for the colonial expansion, being that the greater impulse given to it came from important capitalists together with high state officials, like the prime minister Jules Ferry, a promoter of colonialism. Colonialist propaganda in France did not achieve the popular success it had in other European countries, except when in 1898 the Fachoda Incident broke out against Great Britain, an occasion when French nationalism served as a justification for aggressive imperialism; once the incident was resolved with the British government, colonialist enthusiasm waned again.

French imperial expansion was aimed at the economic exploitation of remote lands and was not intended for the massive settlement of colonists overseas, except in the case of the French in Algeria. Other territories such as New Caledonia or French Guiana were intended to be "colonized" as simple remote penal establishments for the convicts of the metropolis. As a result of this policy, the French settled in the colonial empire never became very numerous and, for the most part, were garrison soldiers, administrative officials, private entrepreneurs or missionaries (the latter were of great importance to spread Western culture and the French language among the native elites of each colonized people and maintain the alliance of these elites with the French Administration.

The Dreyfus case (1894-1906)

The Dreyfus affair was a social and political episode of great importance in the ideological struggles of the Third Republic, against a background of espionage and anti-Semitism in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), of Alsatian-Jewish origin, was accused of treason for spying for the German Empire. This scandal, unleashed by Dreyfus' sentencing to life imprisonment in French Guiana, showed a wave of open anti-Semitism in part of the French public opinion and generated, also, a current of defenders of the accused, causing French politics (and society) to be practically divided into two camps: the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards.

The end of the scandal was precipitated by the publication in 1898 of "J'accuse...!" ("I accuse...!"), a lengthy article by the novelist Émile Zola to defend Captain Dreyfus against the accusation of espionage. The court case provoked serious political and social tensions in France which, at its height in 1899, revealed the deep fractures underlying the Third Republic. The virulence of the scandal also showed the subsistence in French society of a core of violent nationalism and anti-Semitism that coexisted with republican egalitarianism.

A series of journalistic campaigns and the support of Army officers such as Major Georges Picquart led to the discovery of the real traitor. The real spy turned out to be Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterházy, a Frenchman of Hungarian aristocratic descent, a furious anti-Semite who was protected by several military authorities. The discovery of a serious "miscarriage of justice" in the case forced the Army high command to reopen the proceedings against Captain Dreyfus and, subsequently, to grant him a pardon when it was shown that there was no evidence against him.

The Panama Scandal (1887-1888)

Another high-profile court case that shocked the Third Republic was the Panama scandal of 1887, involving the famous businessman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had already directed the construction of the Suez Canal during the Second Empire. In 1882, Lesseps embarked on a project to build a canal through Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and sought financing through a company called the Universal Panama Canal Company. Lesseps' plan was hampered by Panama's rugged tropical geography, climatic difficulties and yellow fever, in addition to the fact that the difference in level between the oceans to be connected required the construction of large and costly locks not foreseen in the budget, to the point that the work turned out to be much more onerous than planned.

To go ahead with the project and prevent shareholders from withdrawing their funds from the Universal Panama Canal Company, the directors engaged in a grand scheme of political corruption: they paid bribes to journalists, politicians and even members of the French Parliament, in order to hush up the project's losses, encourage the Company's shares to continue to be purchased by the public and ensure through misleading publicity that it would continue to receive bank loans. These intrigues failed completely and, finally, the Company was declared bankrupt in 1888, with losses of 1440 million francs and to the detriment of 850,000 shareholders.

The Masonic File Scandal (1904-1905)

In another scandal, the "affaire des fiches" which occurred between 1904 and 1905, it was discovered that the Minister of War in the government of Émile Combes, General Louis André, had ordered the promotions of Army officers on the basis of the extensive "index" on French officers drawn up by the Grand Orient of France. In these lists, the officers were classified into Catholics and nationalists (or sympathizers of these) and republicans and freethinkers, in order to accelerate the career of the latter and to prevent Catholics from rising in the military ranks. When the facts were discovered, General André resigned in October 1904. Strong protests by the clerical press, army officers and Catholic deputies against the Combes cabinet, accusing the leaders of the Republic of allowing illegal espionage on the religious beliefs of their soldiers and thus violating the freedom of conscience they claimed to protect, led to his resignation in January 1905.

German hegemony (1871-1890)

French foreign policy in the years leading up to World War I relied heavily on hostility and fear of German power. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck saw to it for years that France lacked important allies in Europe and sponsored the League of the Three Emperors, which served as an informal alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia; in addition, he sought pacts with Great Britain and attempted a political rapprochement between Austria-Hungary and the Kingdom of Italy. After Bismarck's resignation in 1890, Emperor Wilhelm II did not maintain his policy and refused to renew the Three Emperors' League with Russia, preferring to align German interests only with those of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the Double Alliance of 1879 - to be joined by Italy in 1882 - despite the Austro-Russian rivalry in the Balkans.

Alliances: towards the Entente Cordiale (1891-1911)

France took advantage of Russia's discomfort with this decision to forge its own political and military alliance with Russia. This was nurtured from 1891 with bilateral military and trade agreements, along with visits by mutual delegations in 1893, and was sealed in 1896 with the visit of Tsar Nicholas II to Paris. The alliance served as a cornerstone of French foreign policy until 1917 and had its most visible manifestation in the extensive investments of French capital, as well as in financial loans from French banks in favor of the Russian government. In addition, the alliance motivated both Russia and France to align their interests in the event of external aggression by a "third power," which provided an effective counterweight to the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary.

It had maintained friendly relations with Great Britain until the Fachoda Incident broke out in 1898, when their respective expansions collided at a French military post on the banks of the Nile, in the territory of present-day Sudan. This event caused a series of public opinion disputes in both countries, but the French government yielded to British interests, judging it unwise to enter into an armed conflict with Great Britain when the latter possessed the largest naval fleet in the world. Nevertheless, in 1904, French Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé negotiated with Lord Lansdowne, the British Foreign Secretary, the Entente Cordiale, which put an end to a long period of tension and mutual suspicion.

The Entente Cordiale functioned as an informal Anglo-French alliance, but was greatly strengthened by the Moroccan crisis of 1905 and the Agadir crisis of 1911. A first result was that the French and British governments abandoned their mutual differences because of their shared fear of the German Empire, a suspicion increased among the British when Germany executed plans from 1906 for its navy to surpass the British navy in power.

War Perspectives (1911-1914)

Preoccupied with domestic problems, the French government showed little attention to foreign policy in the period 1911-14, although in 1913 it agreed to extend military service to three years instead of two, despite objections from the socialists. The Balkan crisis in July 1914, caused by the Sarajevo bombing, caused France to fulfill the terms of its alliance with Russia by supporting it against Austria-Hungary and Germany. It thus entered the First World War.

Background: revanchism and alliances

French revanchism had not been extinguished since 1870, and the events of the first years of the 20th century had led to the strengthening of the political and military alliance between France and Russia - an indirect result of the cooling of ties between Germany and Russia since 1890 - as well as the emergence of the Entente Cordiale between France and Great Britain. After the estrangement caused by the Fachoda crisis in 1898, Great Britain began to appreciate the advantages of a rapprochement with France and thus having a great allied power on the European continent, against the potential "German threat" that the British government had perceived since the Agadir crisis in 1911.

With this, at the beginning of 1914, France was incorporated into a system of alliances with Great Britain and Russia, as opposed to the Triple Alliance, constituted since 1882 by Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (although the alliance between these last two states was quite difficult and full of frictions that Germany tried to attenuate).

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914, caused political tension to flare up among the countries of Europe and raised the risk of a major war between the Triple Alliance and the Entente Cordiale. France did not remain unaffected by these convulsions. On July 31, the socialist leader Jean Jaurès, a supporter of peace, was assassinated in Paris by an ultranationalist militant after having opposed the entry into a hypothetical armed conflict. And when Germany declared war on France on August 3, 1914, the government presided over by Raymond Poincaré managed to form a political truce between the different parties to face the war challenge together - including the socialists - through the "sacred union" (union sacreé).

The "sacred union

The sacred union did not eliminate the differences between French political factions, but the need to expel the German invaders provided a solid basis for cooperation. The French triumph at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914 allowed the sacred union to continue to be respected, while, thanks to firm leadership, Poincaré imposed his political direction on Prime Minister René Viviani. Likewise, the Minister of War, Alexandre Millerand, handed over the administrative management of the Armed Forces to the professional military led by General Joseph Joffre, Chief of Staff of the Army.

Throughout 1915, the absence of significant war results impatient politicians and public opinion. The heavy loss of French troops at the Battle of Verdun in mid-1916 caused Joffre to be replaced in December by General Robert Nivelle. However, poor conditions at the front and the failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 - in parallel and coordinated with the Battle of Arras and the Second Battle of the Aisne - led to the outbreak of widespread mutinies among French soldiers. The mutinies had been dampened by August, but caused concern about the attrition of the home front in France, in addition to the replacement of Nivelle by General Philippe Pétain in May 1917. The decline in living standards and the duration of the war caused discontent among the French proletariat, and, in September 1917, the Socialists left the government in protest.

On November 16, Poincaré entrusted the post of Prime Minister to Georges Clemenceau, who insisted on continuing the war until the final triumph, reestablishing civilian power over the military and ordering new sacrifices to the rear. By that date, the Government had imposed a tight control over the economy both to keep the productive apparatus functioning and to sustain the costs of the war effort; even more so considering that, since September 1914, the Germans had invaded the northeastern departments bordering Belgium, where most of the steel and coal required by France was produced. The mobilization of peasants and workers led to sharp declines in industrial and agricultural production after 1916, as these activities could not be covered, even despite the massive mobilization of women to work in the war industry.

The year 1918 began with new discontent among the civilian population, but the regime managed to form a renewed national cohesion when the German troops launched their great spring offensive in March, which lasted until the beginning of July. The government of Clemenceau took advantage of the difficult situation to repress all signs of pacifism and to impose new efforts, until, in August, the allied troops were able to counterattack successfully and precipitate the total defeat of the German Empire in November.

After the Treaty of Versailles

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 meant for the Third Republic an opportunity to "annul" the "German danger" with the support of Great Britain and the United States. In addition to recovering Alsace-Lorraine and Article 231, which placed all the "responsibility" for the war on "Germany and her allies", the French government obtained the occupation of the German region of the Saar by way of compensation - maintaining its military occupation until 1935.

Another important consequence was the sudden expansion of the French colonial empire in Africa and the Middle East, where Great Britain and France divided the former German colonies and the territories of the extinct Ottoman Empire, having agreed on their fate through the Sykes-Picot agreements of May 1916. Thus, the former German colonies of Cameroon and Togo came under French control, while French administration was established over Syria and Lebanon. Although the French economy was heavily damaged by the war effort of 1914-1918, France's chances of economic recovery remained considerable due to its control of new colonial territories and access to their raw materials.

The recovery of the 1920s

The defeat of Germany and the disintegration of Austria-Hungary, together with the social-political crisis in Russia after the revolutions of 1917, favored France as the greatest political and military power on the continent; even with the serious losses suffered, it achieved a position of preeminence shared only with Great Britain.

France thus focused its efforts on the industrial and commercial neutralization of Germany. However, the British government showed little interest in supporting this project, preferring a rapid German economic recovery in order to be able to collect war reparations. Nor did the United States encourage such plans for the same reason, especially since, at the end of Woodrow Wilson's presidential term, the American government agreed not to participate in the League of Nations.

Despite this diplomatic setback, France demanded payment of its war reparations from Germany more aggressively. To ensure the collection of these, French troops occupied the Ruhr area in 1923, although the French government failed in its efforts to obtain further concessions from Germany, and the military occupation lasted until 1925.

Similarly, under Aristide Briand, France undertook to build a series of "defensive alliances" with Poland (1921 and 1923), Czechoslovakia (1924-25), Romania (1926) and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (1927), with the goal of containing by means of diplomacy any possible German territorial or economic ambition, and to establish itself as a new "key power" in continental Europe through a system of alliances with the countries enlarged (or newly formed) after the Austro-German defeat. As an example of French intentions, the construction of the Maginot Line (completed in 1936) began in 1930 as a system of military fortifications designed to frustrate any possible German invasion from the east.

In the parliamentary elections of November 1919, the "Bloc national" won, formed by republican and right-wing liberal, nationalist and conservative parties united around the figure of Georges Clemenceau by patriotism -the sacred union- and the fear of Bolshevism. Likewise, Clemenceau took advantage of his popularity gained among civilians and military during the conflict, thanks to his reputation for being implacable and hard on the country's enemies. However, Clemenceau's popularity was not enough to sustain his government, especially when French diplomacy, although it had obtained very favorable clauses in the Treaty of Versailles, did not obtain the desired payment of the German war reparations, seen as the "remedy" for the country's financial difficulties.

After the 1924 elections, power passed to the radical-socialists of Édouard Herriot, dissatisfied with Clemenceau's management, albeit briefly, since on July 23, 1926 he was replaced by Raymond Poincaré. Poincaré's government tried to revitalize the economy -in vain- by increasing taxes and fiscal incentives, as it became very difficult to count on the payment of German reparations to balance the budget.

The French economic recovery of the 1920s - especially in international trade and industry - was slow but steady. France still retained much of its industrial infrastructure and controlled valuable markets and supplies of raw materials. However, it also had to attend to its new status as a debtor of the United States and finance the reconstruction of the devastated regions of the Northeast with its loans. Thus, by 1926, the production and economic growth rates of 1913 had been reached.

The crisis of the 1930s

The Great Depression of 1929 affected France belatedly and comparatively less severely; but it nevertheless caused economic damage in a country whose recovery was not yet complete: unemployment increased, and the regained industrial and commercial prosperity was abruptly halted, with the consequent discontent among the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. Economic difficulties were aggravated by scandals linked to cases of large-scale political corruption, in which a number of influential politicians and businessmen were the main suspects.

Among these scandals was that of Marthe Hanau, in 1928; a banker who, through her newspaper, promoted savings investments in insolvent companies, taking advantage of her husband Lazare Bloch's friendships with politicians. Also famous was the Albert Oustric scandal, in 1930, whose central character was a banker who carried out a large fraudulent bankruptcy with the help of political leaders. However, the most impressive for the French public opinion was the Stavisky case of 1934, which would even cause the resignation of Prime Minister Camille Chautemps in the face of accusations of massive embezzlement and fraud, carried out by the Franco-Russian banker Alexandre Stavisky to keep his bankrupt companies afloat, without hesitating to avoid judicial investigations by bribing important politicians, such as the deputy mayor of Bayonne, Dominique-Joseph Garat.

The participation in these scandals of businessmen of Jewish or foreign origin, or of politicians associated with Freemasonry, generated a fertile ground for the anti-Semitic, xenophobic and anti-democratic propaganda that extreme right-wing groups such as Action Française, the Jeunesses Patriotes (relaunched in 1932), the Croix-de-Feu or the Parti Fasciste Révolutionnaire, successor of Le Faisceau, began to openly launch. Meanwhile, the death of the already elderly leaders Georges Clemenceau (at 88, in 1929), Aristide Briand (at 69, in 1932) and Raymond Poincaré (at 74, in 1934) left France without important referents of the old republican politics, celebrated by the public opinion by virtue of their moral firmness and their refusal to profit from public funds or to take advantage of their power for their own benefit.

Although a "republican elite" had been formed in the world of politics and business since the beginning of the 20th century, generating a gap between society and governments, the situation had become more complex by the early 1930s, as real mass movements emerged: communism and fascism. Thus, in the face of growing popular discontent against politicians and businessmen, and the progressive distrust of citizens in democratic institutions, movements of fascist inspiration appeared with renewed force on the French political scene - the Francista Party (1933), French Solidarity (1933) or the Croix-de-feu, dissolved and reintegrated in 1936 in the French Social Party -, while the previously minuscule French Communist Party (1920) increased its influence and implantation among the proletariat.

By the middle of the decade, the Fascist movements already stood out for their activity in French politics. They had shown their strength in the riots of February 6, 1934, when they held a demonstration in Paris in front of the Chamber of Deputies against the radical centrist Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, whom they accused of corruption for protecting politicians implicated in the Stavisky case. The demonstration led to a street riot that left eight right-wingers dead after fights with the police in the Place de la Concorde.

Some of these far-right groups called themselves "patriotic leagues" and embraced extreme nationalism mixed with xenophobia and anti-Semitism. They rejected parliamentary democracy, which they accused of "inaction" and "ineffectiveness" in putting an end to the economic crisis; on the contrary, they postulated that the solution to the country's problems lay in an authoritarian and violent regime. As for other movements in Europe at the time, their main reference point was Italian fascism and, from 1933 onwards, National Socialism.

Faced with the growing fear of being displaced by the extreme right in the preferences of the working masses and the petty bourgeoisie, the socialists of the French Section of the Workers' International and the communists began approaches to support each other. This union was joined by the left-wing members of the Radical-Socialist Republican Party, thus founding the Popular Front in 1935. This would win the May 1936 elections and succeeded in elevating the Socialist Léon Blum to the post of Prime Minister.

The Popular Front

The Blum government established a series of social reforms in favor of French workers, embodied in June 1936 in the Matignon agreements between the French employers' organization (the Confédération générale de la production française) and the trade unions. While maintaining the economic structure of capitalism, it won and secured labor rights for the French proletariat: the forty-hour week, collective contracts or paid vacations -which their German or British counterparts had enjoyed for years-. The parliamentary support of the Rassemblement Populaire regime were the Socialists and the Radical-Socialists, while the Communist Party had less influence on the concrete political acts of the Government, even though it managed to become more visible.

But the tension in Europe's international politics undermined Blum's plans to push forward his reformist policies. During the Spanish Civil War -which began two months after the Front Populaire had come to power-, the French regime avoided intervening in favor of the Republican side, fearing that, in doing so, it would be overthrown by a coalition between the radicals and the right-wing parties -which in fact would happen with the government of Édouard Daladier in April 1938-. On the other hand, since the end of the First World War, French public opinion had maintained a pacifist attitude and was opposed to any belligerent action in Europe, unless it was directly directed against a threat from Germany. Likewise, fascist propaganda and the German "economic miracle" caused the former Eastern European allies to cool their diplomatic ties with France, where French fascism made no secret of its sympathies for the rebels. There was also no guarantee that Great Britain would support the French war effort in favor of the Spanish Republic, while the support of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for the Spanish rebels discouraged Blum from pursuing a policy of solidarity with the Republican Government, otherwise rejected by the still powerful French right wing.

In any case, Blum succeeded in getting his government to allow the covert sale of arms to the Spanish Republicans, as well as facilitating the transit of arms for the Republic through French soil. As a result, political relations with Italy were seriously damaged, through diplomatic and journalistic quarrels. At that time, the French political class resolved not to confront Germany or Italy without the prior political and diplomatic support of Great Britain; however, such support did not materialize, since the Government of Neville Chamberlain postulated maintaining the policy of appeasement towards Nazis and Fascists. The French government ended up sharing this position in international forums such as the League of Nations, to the point of not taking any action in March 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, despite the fact that it constituted a serious violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

In reaction to the international tension caused by the rearmament of the Third Reich, the Blum Government increased expenditure on armaments and sponsored a slight rearmament from the end of 1936. But the gradual erosion of popular support due to the economic crisis, which had persisted since 1931, caused the Front Populaire to abandon the Government definitively in April 1938. It was replaced by the cabinet of the radical centrist Édouard Daladier, who left without effect the brief rearmament of the Armed Forces and resumed the policy of appeasement: France would avoid getting involved in international struggles without the effective help of Great Britain. Thus, the Daladier regime would avoid any conflict with Germany and Italy, unless the British Government took the first step towards it. In the event of British silence in the face of the Nazi-Fascist powers, France would follow Britain's example.

Failure of appeasement

The military threat of the Third Reich could not be averted by the policy of appeasement established by the government of Édouard Daladier as early as 1938 and followed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. When Hitler launched his threats against Czechoslovakia using the Sudeten crisis as a pretext in mid-1938, France avoided making its military-political alliance with the Czechoslovaks effective until Britain did so. The Daladier regime then agreed to participate in the Munich Conference of September 1938, which ended in a resounding diplomatic triumph for Nazi Germany by getting the French and British to refuse to defend Czechoslovakia militarily against a German attack, under the pretext of avoiding a full-scale European war.

Although France had begun a small rearmament program in 1936 and reinforced it in 1938, the French Army General Staff was largely unprepared to deal with Blitzkrieg tactics. French military leaders underestimated the impact of aviation and tanks in modern warfare and overvalued, instead, static defenses such as the Maginot Line, as well as the power of light artillery against tanks. However, after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, the French and British governments agreed to stop any further German expansion by force, giving guarantees of military aid to Poland in the face of a possible German attack.

After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, France and Great Britain formally went to war with Germany. However, the French government refrained from launching warlike operations against German territory, except for the short-lived Saar Offensive, which General Maurice Gamelin promptly ordered cancelled in the first days of September 1939. During the following months, France maintained what was known as a "mock war" (drôle de guerre), with no troop movements along the German border.

German invasion of France

The calm on the front ended when the Third Reich launched its invasion against Denmark and Norway in April 1940, thus forcing the urgent dispatch of French troops in support of Norway, although still without warlike movements on the Franco-German border. The struggle directly involved the territory of France from May 10, 1940, with the simultaneous German invasion of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, with the German troops then attacking French territory.

Although French troops were prepared to face the fight with British military support, the remarkable early German victories caused serious demoralization among the French public. In addition to the fact that the French military effort was not prepared for the German Blitzkrieg, it ran up against the open hostility of local fascists and far-right pro-German groups, and the refusal of the Communist Party to support the struggle in order to abide by the non-aggression pact signed by the Soviet Union and the Third Reich on August 28, 1939.

The powerful advance of the Wehrmacht broke the Franco-British front and disorganized the French defenses by overrunning them from Belgian territory, rendering the Maginot Line useless. The successful coordination of the German Luftwaffe with its infantry and Wehrmacht tank divisions quickly overwhelmed the French forces. In mid-May, the total loss of Holland, capitulated on May 15, plus the uninterrupted succession of German victories complicated the French situation, aggravated by the surrender of the Belgian armed forces to the Germans on May 28. All this caused the French demoralization to spread from the popular masses to the Government itself, while public opinion showed skepticism and anger towards the political class, which during the previous years of struggle for power had not been able to foresee a reaction to the German invasion.

A violent Franco-British counterattack at Arras succeeded in temporarily halting the German troops on May 21, but soon the German units regained strength and resumed their sustained advance, forcing the British to evacuate their troops at Dunkirk between May 26 and June 3 to avoid a massive encirclement. By this time, the French Armed Forces had lost almost all their tank and tank units, as well as most of their operational troops, so that they lacked sufficient reserves to stop the German advance.

The Wehrmacht High Command ordered to continue the advance on the Somme River on June 5, without the French being able to prevent it. Faced with this, on June 10, the French Government ordered the evacuation of Paris and declared it an "open city", in an atmosphere of crude defeatism among politicians and the popular masses. Four days later, the German troops entered Paris without encountering resistance after barely 34 days of fighting. This ended up sinking the mood of public opinion and caused the cabinet and the National Assembly, refugees in the city of Bordeaux, to agree to reach an armistice with Germany.

French surrender and the end of the Third Republic

On June 16, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned before President Albert Lebrun when it became evident that his ministers were pressing for an immediate armistice with Germany. Reynaud was succeeded by the aging Marshal Philippe Pétain, who, in an atmosphere of defeatism and demoralization, demanded an immediate cease-fire with the Germans as a preliminary to assuming the premiership.

To make the cessation of fighting a reality, Pétain sent General Charles Huntziger as head of the French delegation that signed with the Germans the armistice of June 22, 1940. Afterwards, the National Assembly taking refuge in Bordeaux was pressured by the right-wing politician Pierre Laval to hand over dictatorial powers to Marshal Pétain, threatening that the Nazis would tighten the conditions of the armistice in case of refusing this demand. These pressures were joined by various French politicians disappointed in republican parliamentarism or open Nazi sympathizers.

Despite Laval's threats, at the session of July 10, 1940, 80 parliamentarians rejected the granting of full powers to Pétain, while 569 voted in favor. With this last act, Marshal Pétain assumed dictatorial powers and united in his person the powers of president and prime minister. As a sign of his rejection of parliamentarism, Laval succeeded in having Pétain designated not "president of the Republic" but "head of the French State"; with this, the Third Republic was extinguished, being replaced in practice by the so-called "Vichy regime".


  1. French Third Republic
  2. Tercera República francesa

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?