Third French Republic

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Third Republic

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The French Third Republic, sometimes written as the IIIrd Republic (1870-1940), was the governing body of France between the Second Empire and the Fourth Republic. It was a parliamentary republican democracy that was created following the collapse of the Empire of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War. It survived until the invasion of France by the German Third Reich in 1940.

In many ways it was an accidential and unloved republic, that stumbled from crisis to crisis before its final collapse. It was never intended to be a longterm republic at all.

Napoleon III of France became the second Emperor of France in 1852, following in his uncle's footsteps. However, the French Second Empire lasted only twenty years because of the rise of another world power, one that was to upset the balance of power in Europe and eventually bring about World War One - the German Empire. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia, who sought to bring his state to ascendancy in Germany, realized that if a German Empire was to be created, the French Empire, which would never tolerate a powerful neighbor at its borders, must fall. Through clever manipulation of the Ems Dispatch, Bismarck goaded France into the Franco-Prussian War, which led to the collapse of the Empire. After defeat at the hands of the Prussians, France was ruled by the Third Republic, although the Paris Commune held out for six months.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the regime of Napoleon III, the clear majority of French people and the overwhelming majority of the French National Assembly wished to return to a constitutional monarchy. In 1871, the throne was offered to the Comte de Chambord, alias Henry V, the Legitimist pretender to the French throne since the abdication of Charles X, who had abdicated in favour of him, in 1830. Chambord, then a child, had had the throne snatched from his grasp in 1830. In 1871 Chambord has no wish to be a constitutional monarch but a semi-absolutist one like his grandfather Charles X. Moreover, and this became the ultimate reason the restoration never occurred, he refused to reign over a state that used the Tricolor that was associated with the Revolution of 1789 and the July Monarchy of the man who seized the throne from him in 1830, the citizen-king, Louis Philippe, King of the French. However much France wanted a restored monarchy, it was unwilling to surrender its popular tricolour. Instead a "temporary" republic was established, pending the death of the elderly childless Chambord and the succession of his more liberal heir, the Comte de Paris.

In 1875, a series of parliamentary Acts established the organic or constitutional laws of the new republic. At its apex was a President of the Republic. A two-chamber parliament was created, along with a ministry under a prime minister who was nominally answerable to both the President of the Republic and parliament. Thoughout the 1870s, the issue of monarchy versus republic dominated public debate. By the late 1870s, with public opinion swinging heavily in favour of a republic, the President of the Republic, Patrice MacMahon, duc de Magenta, himself a monarchist, made one last desparate attempt to salvage the monarchical cause by dismissing the republic-orientated prime minister and appointing a monarchist duke to office. He then dissolved parliament and called a general election. If his hope had been to halt the move towards republicanism, it backfired spectacularly, with the President being accused of having staged a constitutional coup d'etat, known as le seize Mai after the month in which it happened. Republicans returned triumphant, finally killing off the prospect of a restored French monarchy. MacMahon himself resigned in 1879, leaving a seriously weakened presidency, so weakened indeed that not until Charles de Gaulle eighty years later did another President of France unilaterally dissolve parliament. To mark the final end of French monarchism as a serious political source, in 1885 the French Crown Jewels were broken up and sold. Only a few crowns, their precious gems replaced by coloured glass, were kept.

Though France was clearly republican, it was not in love with its Third Republic. Governments collapsed with regularity, rarely lasting more than a couple of months, as radicals, socialists, liberals, conservatives, republicans and monarchists all fought for control. The Republic was also rocked by a series of crises, none more famous that the Dreyfus Affair, in which it was alleged that a Jewish officer in the French Army was a German spy. This claim played on all the fears and perspectives of all sides. Monarchists and right wing Roman Catholics, many of whom were anti-semitic, and in some cases blaming a "Jewish plot" for the triumph of republicanism, immediately attacked Dreyfus and refused to consider the possibility that he was innocent. Others on the left, still fighting the 'monarchy versus republic' battle, championed his cause, irrespective of his guilt or innocence. When it became clear that he was indeed totally innocent and the victim of a conspiracy, the state itself failed to accept his innocence straight away, and even when he was released from his exile, whispering campaigns still suggested he was actually guilty. In the aftermath of the affair, when the truth finally did come out, the reputations of monarchists and conservative Catholics, who had expressed unbridled anti-semitism were severely damaged. So too was the state by its unwillingness to right what had clearly been a major wrong visited on an innocent and loyal officer.

Throughout its seventy year history, the Third Republic stumbled from crisis to crisis, from collapsing governments to mentally unstable presidents. It struggled through the German invasion of World War One and the inter-war years. When the Nazi invasion occurred in 1940, so few people loved the the Third Republic that few had the stomach to fight for its survival, even if they disapproved for the collaborationist Vichy regime that assumed control of part of France. When France was finally liberated, few called for the restoration of the Third Republic.

Adolphe Thiers, its first president, called republicanism in the 1870s "the form of government that divides [France] least." France might have agreed about being a republic, but it never fully agreed with the Third Republic. In 1945, the old republic was not resurrected. Instead a new republic, the Fourth Republic emerged. France's longest lasting regimé since before the 1789 revolution, the Third Republic, was confined to the history books, as unloved at the end as it had been when first created seventy years earlier.