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The Third Republic 1870-1914

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Main Topics

  1. The Paris Commune
  2. The Establishment of the Third Republic
  3. The Constitution
  4. The Boulanger Affair
  5. The Panama Scandal
  6. The Dreyfus Affair
  7. Church-State relations
  8. Colonialism
  9. La Belle époque
  10. French Foreign Policy

Republics in French History

France had a long history of political turmoil. Prior to 1870 there had been the French Revolution and the Terror. The rule of Napoleon Bonaparte (1799-1815) had brought great victories and eventual defeat for France. There had been revolutions in 1830 and 1848 that had removed Charles X and Louis Philippe respectively.

Key points:

France during the Third Republic was politically very unstable. This instability was caused by rivalry between monarchists and republicans.

There were a number of scandals that threatened the existence of the Republic but it survived longer than any other regime since 1789. It was also a period of imperial expansion and scientific and artistic achievement.

1. The Paris Commune

Commune = Town or local Council

In September 1870 the Third Republic was proclaimed after the defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan. The new government continued resistance to the Germans who then laid siege to Paris. To defend Paris, a National Guard was raised which soon numbered 360,000 men. The siege of Paris was harsh with food shortages and over 40,000 people died.

In February 1871, France surrendered and the Prussians paraded through Paris on March 1. The French government was established at Versailles not at Paris. Parisians were angered by this and they opposed the policies of the government, headed by Adolphe Thiers. They felt it was too conservative, too royalist, and too ready to accept a humiliating peace with Prussia.

The National Government at Versailles now attempted to restore order within Paris. In March regular troops were sent into Paris to seize the cannon of the National Guard. Many of the troops deserted and the officers were imprisoned. Paris was now in revolt

The Paris Commune was elected on 28 March, with its seat at the Hôtel de Ville. Its symbol was the red flag. The Communards' policies included economic reforms and reform of the church. It contained many shades of political opinion— Anarchists, Socialists, Jacobins and Communists.

A civil war was now fought between the Commune and the troops of the Versailles government. The Second Siege of Paris began. The Commune was suppressed by government troops led by Marshal McMahon during the last week of May 1871. This became known as the 'Semaine Sanglante' (the Bloody Week). Hostages were shot on both sides including the Archbishop of Paris.

Bismarck allowed French prisoners of war to pass through German lines and attack Paris About 25,000 Communards were killed, and after a further 35,000 arrests, many were deported to the penal colony New Caledonia in the Pacific. All remaining communard prisoners were finally released in 1880.

The Commune was seen by many including Karl Marx as the first example of a Communist revolution. It served as an inspiration to later revolutionaries such as Lenin. It also embittered relations between the classes in France. French politics were divided on what attitude people took to the Commune.

The Treaty of Frankfurt

The National Assembly approved the Treat of Frankfurt with Germany that ended the Franco-Prussian War. Under the Treaty

The loss of Alsace-Lorraine was to poison relations between Germany and France. One of the most important issues in French politics was the desire for revanche or revenge against the Germans for this insult to French honour.


  1. The Establishment of the Third Republic

At first the majority of Frenchmen favoured the return of the monarchy. Monarchists won the elections of 1871. However they were divided on the issue of who was to be the new king. As the Bonapartists were discredited by the recent war, there were two main claimants to the throne of France:

  1. The Comte de Chambord who was the grandson of Charles X (King:1824-1830) and a member of the Bourbon family
  2. The Comte de Paris from the Orlean family was the grandson of Louis Philippe (King 1840-1848)

The Comte de Chambord was old and childless and very conservative. He wanted to replace the tricolour with the pre-Revolutionary flag. This was very unpopular. It was hoped that he would stand aside for the Comte de Paris. However he refused to surrender his title to the Orleanist claimant.

ThiersThe first president, Adolphe Thiers, was a moderate republican. He commented that “there is only one throne of France and two men can not sit on it”. Thiers made many political enemies and was replaced by the monarchist, Marshal McMahon.

The failure of the monarchists to agree on a suitable candidate played into the hands of the republicans. Briefly discredited by the Commune, the Republicans won a number of by-election victories as popular opinion moved in their favour.

In 1875 a new constitution was approved that made France a republic. It was passed by one vote. In 1876 this new arrangement was strengthened when the Republicans gained an overall majority in the Chamber of Deputies (parliament). The monarchists still controlled the senate.

The elections of 1877 were won by the republicans and McMahon resigned as president in 1879. The government returned to Paris from Versailles.

Thereafter all Presidents and Prime Ministers were republicans. A series of political measures reflected the victory of Republicans. They were designed to increase patriotic identity to the republic in France and they included:


  1. The Constitution:

The President was the head of state and had little political power:

The Senate was elected by mayors and councillors in departments (counties) throughout France. It was nicknamed the “Chamber of Agriculture” because the countryside was over represented. Senators were elected every nine years. Conservative, rural interests dominated in the senate and were thereby able to block progressive legislation in the areas of women’s rights and worker’s rights.

The Chamber of Deputies was chosen every four years. It contained 600 members elected by universal male suffrage. It chose the government or ministry. There was no organised party system although there were four main political groupings in the Chamber:

Moderate Republicans (Opportunists)

Political force after 1890. Many were revolutionaries who followed the theories of Karl Marx.
Formed most of the governments during this period. Middle class and social conservatives. It was said that their hearts were on the left but their wallets were on the right. Very anti-clerical. Powerful influence after Dreyfus Affair. Very Catholic. Saw the Republic as weak and corrupt. Divided between Bonapartists and more traditional monarchists

Because there were so many different factions, all governments were coalitions. On average a ministry lasted eight months. Most governments contained six or seven ministers. Often the new government contained nearly all of the same men as the previous one!

Ministries gave a lot of local favours to MPs (who were relatively poorly paid) in exchange for his support. This led to a lot of Clemenceaucorruption.

Some of the most important political figures during the Third Republic were Leon Gambetta, Jules Ferry (Opportunists). Emil Combes, George Clemenceau (Radical) and Aristide Briand (Socialist)

The Third Republic faced four major crises between the years 1879 and 1914. They exposed the fundamental political difference between Frenchmen, Monarchists versus Republicans. However the Republic survived.


  1. The Boulanger Affair 1886-9

It was Bonapartism without a Bonaparte” Cobban

BoulangerThe split in French society was shown clearly by the support for General Boulanger. The army was traditionally dominated by monarchists. General Georges Boulanger was one of the few republican generals in the army. In 1886 he was appointed Minister of War, largely by the influence of Georges Clemenceau.

He brought in measures that improved the welfare of his troops and this earned him great popularity. He also attacked German policy and was nicknamed “General Revanche”. His popularity and his speeches attacking Germany worried the government and he was removed as Minister of War in 1887.

He was now a national figure around whom opposition to the government especially from the right began to rally. His support increased when it was revealed that the President’s son in law, Daniel Wilson, was selling favours from the Elysee Palace. As a result the President, Jules Grevy, was forced out of office.

Monarchists hoped that his popularity might be used to overthrow the republic. Economic conditions were poor and he received support from socialists and the unemployed as well.

In 1888 he was removed from the army and this allowed him to stand for election. He won a number of spectacular by-election victories culminating in an overwhelming success in Paris. His supporters urged him to stage a revolution. But Boulanger hesitated and the moment was lost.

The government then began legal proceeding against him and he fled the country. A few years later he committed suicide on his lover’s grave. With his flight the movement collapsed. The elections of 1889 resulted in a clear majority for the Republicans.


  1. The Panama Scandal

The next crisis to hit the Republic was the Panama Scandal. Because of his success with the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps was chosen president of the French company that worked on the construction of a canal across Panama from 1881 to 1888. French investors eagerly invested in the project. Engineering difficulties and a high death rate among the workers plagued the project.

de LessepsThe crisis broke when members of the government were charged with having taken bribes from the Panama Canal Company to withhold from the public the news that the Company was in serious debt. This meant people in Paris continued to invest, and lost more money as a result. Overall one billion francs were lost affecting 800,000 investors.

All but one of the accused went unpunished due to lack of evidence (he foolishly confessed!). The heat was taken away from the government somewhat by the fact that two German Jews (Baron Reinach and Cornelius Herz) were also involved in the scandal and they received most of the coverage from the press and public. Georges Clemenceau was defeated in the 1893 election because of his association with Cornelius Herz.

Although three governments collapsed, This crisis differed from the Boulanger affair in that the Republic was never really in threat of being overthrown. However, it did raise doubts in the public eye and meant that politicians were no longer trusted. To monarchists it proved that the republic was corrupt. It also created a climate of anti-Semitism that was to come to the fore during the Dreyfus affair.


  1. The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire)

DreyfusIn 1894 a list of French military documents (called a bordereau) was found in the waste paper bin of the German embassy in Paris. French counter-intelligence suspected Captain Alfred Dreyfus, from a wealthy Alsatian Jewish family. He was one of the few Jews on the General Staff (the Holy of Holies).

After an irregular court martial where documents were withheld from the defence, Dreyfus was found guilty and sentenced to Devil’s Island off French Guiana.

Very few people believed his protestations of innocence even though hand writing experts had disagreed at his trial. Documents were forged by an intelligence officer Major Henry to prove Dreyfus’s guilt.

PicquartThere the matter might have rested but for Colonel Picquart. In 1896 Picquart, the new head of French counter-intelligence, realized that documents were still being passed to the Germans. He found the real culprit a Major Esterhazy whose handwriting was the same as that on the bordereau.

The War office became alarmed. They wanted to hush the affair up and Picquart was transferred to Tunisia (to a dangerous area!). But events were beginning to move in Dreyfus’s favour. Picquart confided his views while on leave to a lawyer who persuaded the leading politician Scheurer-Kestner to call for a retrial.

When Matthieu Dreyfus accused Esterhazy of being the original spy the government ordered a trial of Esterhazy. In January 1898 he was acquitted after a trial that lasted only two days.

J'accuseEvents took a dramatic turn when the famous author, Emile Zola published an open letter called “J’Accuse” in Clemenceau’s newspaper, L’Aurore. He accused the army of a mistrial and a cover up. The government reacted by prosecuting Zola for libel. He was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison.

Public opinion in France was now bitterly divided. The affair reflected the divisions in French society.

For supporters of Dreyfus or Dreyfusards the fate of an innocent man was at stake, some also saw it as an ideal opportunity for a campaign against the enemies of the republic. They were mainly anti-clericals, freemasons and intellectuals (writers, artists). The socialist leader Jean Juares was a supporter of Dreyfus.

For anti-dreyfusards, the honour of France and the army was more important than the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus. They saw Dreyfusards as unpatriotic and opposed to everything they held dear. Many were anti-Semitic and felt that Jews were not loyal to France. Anti-Jewish riots broke out in many towns including Algiers.

Anti-Dreyfusards consisted of the Army, monarchists and Catholics. The Assumptionist Order and its newspaper, La Croix, played a prominent role in the campaign against Dreyfus.

In the summer of 1898, the new war minister hoped to prove once and for all the guilt of Dreyfus. He put Piquart on trial and made a speech to parliament outlining the case against Dreyfus. However it was discovered that some of the written evidence against Dreyfus was forged. Major Henry, under questioning, confessed and committed suicide.

The case was referred to the appeal court. In June 1899 after a number of delays a new trial was decided. Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island “white-haired and broken.” (Cobban) He was again found guilty but with extenuating circumstances and he was given a presidential pardon. In 1906 he was exonerated completely. He served honourably in World War One and died in 1935.

The affair had bitterly divided France and it seemed that the system was on the verge of collapse. In 1899 a government of Republican Defence was formed led by Waldeck-Rousseau. The major result of the affair was a renewed outbreak of anti-clericalism.


  1. The Struggle between Church and State

These notes may also be used to prepare questions on Church-State relations in Germany and France.


Anti-Clericalism refers to measures that were taken to reduce the power of the church, usually in the area of education.

Relations between Church and State in France had been regulated by the Concordat of 1801. By this agreement the state paid the salaries of priests and nominated bishops.

Reasons for the dispute:

Historically the Catholic Church was identified with the Monarchy and conservative forces in France. This was especially true during the French revolution when hundreds of priests were guillotined for their opposition to the First Republic. Because of this most Catholics were monarchists and opposed the Third Republic. Liberals, especially the Radical party, as throughout the rest of Europe, saw the Church as the main threat to individual liberty and an enemy of progress. The main area of struggle between Church and State was education where the Church exercised a large measure of control. It was felt that Church control of education had prevented the development of a modern system of education that existed in France’s great rival, Germany. As the clergy were in the main monarchist, the government ferared their influence on the educational system.

Although born Catholic most Frenchmen were non-practising whereas Church attendance was much higher among La Lanternewomen. In some areas of France the Catholic Church was very popular and these included:

The main Catholic groups in French society were:

  1. The Aristocracy
  2. The wealthier Middle-classes
  3. Higher government officials in the Army and the Civil Service
  4. Peasants in the regions listed above.

The dispute between Church and State grew increasingly bitter. It reflected the very deep divisions present in French society during the Third Republic, especially during the Dreyfus affair (l’Affaire) of the 1890s.

Between 1879 (when the Anti-Clericals took power) and 1914 there was not a single Catholic minister or head of state.

Quotes on reasons for the Anti-clerical policy

As the clergy were in the main monarchist in their political sympathies this was a reason for fearing their influence on the educational system.” Cobban

French education, it was alleged, was still following the methods and aims of the seventeenth century.” Cobban

The anti-clerical, republican left took power in the National Assembly in 1879. Their anti-Catholicism was a vestige of the Revolution, and they stayed in power until 1914.” Sevillia

The Ferry Laws

Between 1879 and 1885 the “Ferry Laws” were passed. They were named after Jules Ferry. He was one of the ablest politicians of the Third Republic. These laws were the first major attempt at reform of the Education system. The main aspects of these laws were:

  1. Jules FerryThe granting of degrees was confined to the State.
  2. Free education in public primary schools introduced and religious instruction was excluded from State schools (“ecole sans Dieu.”)
  3. Unauthorised congregations under the Concordat of 1801 were forbidden to teach (among these were the Marists, Jesuits [later expelled from France] and Dominicans).
  4. Authorised Catholic orders were denied the right to teach in State run schools.
  5. Increased provision was given to the training of teachers by the State.

These laws were not strictly enforced especially the ban on Catholic orders teaching in state schools. However the laws created a deep division between the Church and the Republican government.

On the Ferry laws

The goal was not to outlaw Catholic schools but to rather to expand the rival public-school system.” Wright

It was the beginning of a conflict which was to embitter the politics of the Third Republic almost to the end.” Cobban

The Dreyfus Affair

In the 1890’s the “Railliement” was a movement inspired by the moderate Pope Leo XIII. He advised Catholics to rally to the republic and defend the interests of the church by taking a greater role in the political life of France. There was no great support for it among Catholics and it was destroyed by the divisions and bitterness that gripped France during the Dreyfus affair.

The Dreyfus affair persuaded Republican politicians that a new set of anti-clerical laws was needed. They pointed to the strongly anti-Dreyfus attitude of Catholics in France and the actions of the right wing, anti-Semitic, Assumptionist Fathers. This convinced them of the unacceptable nature of Clerical influence in France.

The persecution of the Catholic Church

In 1901 each religious order had to apply for legal authorisation and no member of an unauthorised order was allowed teach (Waldeck-Rousseau government). The Assumptionist Order was dissolved. The elections of 1902 saw a victory for the anti-clerical coalition.

CombesThe new administration of Emil Combes applied the 1901 law ruthlessly and religious orders found it very difficult to gain legal authorisation. 81 congregations of women and 54 of men were dissolved. By 1903 over 14,000 schools run by unauthorised orders were closed.

In 1904 members of religious orders were forbidden to teach. Almost all religious orders were banned. Their property was sold often at well below its real value.

Between 30,000 and 60,000 priests and nuns were exiled. Some went to Ireland, Britain, Italy, Spain and Canada. Catholics regarded this period as one of intense persecution. The rest of Europe was appalled at what it saw as French extremism. The same year France withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican after a papal protest against the visit of the president of France to his Italian counterpart.

On Emil Combes

No one has a good word to say for this product of a seminary education ......... for Combes was originally intended for the priesthood.” Cobban

Combes shared none of Waldeck-Rousseau’s spirit of moderation but was a dedicated fanatic who saw clerical plots and intrigues everywhere.” Wright

The Separation of Church and State

In 1905 the Law of separation of Church and State was passed which ended the Concordat of 1801. All ties between Church and State were cut. State salaries for priests and Bishops were ended and in theory all Church property was now controlled by the State. Two people were killed and many injured when Catholics staged sit-ins to prevent the state from assessing Church property. In some remote regions bears were chained to church doors.

The more moderate government of Briand allowed the Church to use its own property.

The divisions of this period died, along with so many Frenchmen, in the trenches. When the war ended most of the measures against the Church were reversed and priests and nuns returned from exile. The church emerged from the period smaller in numbers but with more committed members and an independence that it had not had in previous French history.


“On the whole separation....tended to reduce the tension between Church and State ......with the decline of clerical interference in politics the violence of anti-clerical sentiment inevitably declined.” Cobban

The clerical threat gradually lost most of its potency after 1905.” Wright

Catholics experienced this period as one of intense persecution” Sevillia


  1. Colonialism

The empire built up under the Third Republic was the greatest France had ever possessed. This was ironic as most political groups in France had at first opposed colonialism. The left were against it because it strengthened the army and the right because it distracted from the struggle with Germany. The man most associated with this period of empire building was Jules Ferry.

The primary motivations for this empire building were economic, religious and prestige. For example in 1870 two-thirds of the missionary priests outside Europe were French.

France’s first step on the path to imperial expansion was the occupation of Tunis in 1881. This was followed by Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), Madagascar and much of West and North Africa (e.g. Morocco). By 1914 she was the second largest colonial power in the World and the largest in Africa.


  1. La Belle Epoque (The Beautiful Period)

Moulin Rouge posterWhile France may have been unstable politically the era of the Third Republic saw a flowering of the arts that was unparalleled in any other period of French or for that matter any other country’s history. This period of artistic achievement became known as the Belle époque.

Paris was the centre of fashion and culture in Europe. It became the pleasure ground of the world, a Mecca for artists and writers.

In painting, the period was most associated with the impressionist school of painting. Famous artists such as Manet, Monet, Degas, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso all worked in France during these years.

In the area of music composers such as Bizet, Saint Saens, Debussy, Ravel and Faure rivalled the traditional dominance of Germany.

Writing flourished including the Naturalist school led by Emile Zola, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, the short stories of Guy de Maupassant, the novels of Anatole France and the work of the philosopher, Henri-Louis Bergson.

The period saw scientific and technological achievements. Among these was the work of Louis Pasteur and Marie and Pierre Curie, the building of the Eiffel Tower and the opening of the Paris metro. The Lumiere brothers made the first short films and the first film studio was opened in 1896.

Authors Quoted

Alfred Cobban: A History of Modern France, vol. 3: 1871 - 1962
Gordon Wright: France in Modern Times
Sevillia Jean: When Catholics Were Outlawed


  1. French Foreign Policy 1871-1914

The major aims of French foreign policy in this period were:

Relations with each of the major powers


At first both distrusted each other because of their respective political systems. One a republic, the other was an autocracy.
Two factors led to an alliance in 1894:

This alliance put an end to twenty years of isolation for France. It formed the core of the Triple Entente and left Germany facing the prospect of a two front war.


Initially relations were poor. Both countries had been traditional enemies stretching back to the Middle Ages. There was intense colonial rivalry between the pair in Africa. The "Fashoda Incident" of 1898 nearly led to war.

However as Britain became more alarmed at her international isolation and at the rising power of Germany, relations improved. An "Entente" or understanding was agreed in 1904. Colonial differences between both powers were resolved especially over Egypt and Morocco.


Relations between both powers were good as they had no serious conflict of interest.


Relations between both hampered by Germany's possession of Alsace and Lorraine. This prevented any genuine reconciliation between both countries. France was afraid of Germany's military power and sought allies to counter this.

Germany was wary of a re-emergent France. Initial German policy was to isolate France under Bismarck. There was a brief “entente” during the 1880’s.

After 1905 German policy changed to one of trying to undermine France's relationships with her new found ally, Britain e.g. the First and Second Moroccan crisis (1905, 1911).


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