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France: Third Republic (1870-1940)

Last modified: 2017-03-30 by ivan sache
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French national flag - Image by Željko Heimer, 22 September 2001

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The birth of the Third Republic (1871)

After the disaster of Sedan (2 September 1870) and the capitulation of the Emperor and the whole French army, the Republic was proclaimed in Paris without violence on 4 September 1870. Gambetta proclaimed the deposition of the Empire at the Assembly while Favre proclaimed the Republic at the Town Hall. A National Defence Government (11 members) was formed, while the Legislative Corps and the Senate were abolished.
The new government decided to carry one the war against Prussia. On 8 February 1871, a new National Assembly (c. 400 Monarchists, 200 Republicans and 30 Bonapartists) was elected and the government was dissolved. On 12 February 1871, the Representatives gathered in Bordeaux granted to Thiers the title of chef du pouvoir exécutif de la République en attendant qu'il soit statué sur les institutions de la France (Head of the executive power of the Republic until the institutions of France are prescribed). Most Representatives considered the Republic as provisory and expected a rapid monarchic restoration. The Assembly ratified peace with Germany on 1st March. The insurrection known as La Commune broke out in Paris and lasted until the "Bloody Week" of May 1871.
On 31 August 1871, a law proposed by Rivet, a friend of Thiers, appointed Thiers as President of the French Republic until l'établissement des institutions définitives du pays (the establishment of the definitive institutions of the country).
[ C. Salles. La IIIe République, à ses débuts : 1870-1893. Histoire de France Illustrée (Larousse, 1988)]

Ivan Sache, 16 December 2001

The flag affair and Count of Chambord's renunciation (1873)

Henri Dieudonné, Count of Chambord, was the posthumous son of the Duke of Berry, and the grandson of King of France Charles X. Therefore, Henri was a direct descendant of the great Kings of France, Hugh Capet, Philip II Augustus, Louis IX (Saint Louis), Louis XIV et Louis XV. He was also the descendant of the Valois and Francis I by way of his paternal grandmother. The French historian Pierre Miquel wrote that Henri was "the most titled kid in Europe" and that "his genealogic tree was a huge forest inhabited by kings, queens and Eeperors".

Henri was born on 29 September 1820, at 2 AM, at the Pavilion of Marsan, part of the Royal palace of the Tuileries in Paris. Louis XVIII, then King of France and Henri's grand-uncle, ordered to fire the cannon to celebrate his birth. Thousands of inhabitants of Paris filed past the princely cradle and were offered fireworks. Short after his birth, Henri, then Duke of Bordeaux, was created Count of Chambord through a public subscription used to purchase the former royal domain of Chambord. The polemist Paul-Louis Courier (1772-1825) was sentenced to two months of jail after having published a pamphlet against this subscription, in which he required the destruction of the castle. Four years later, young Henri, wearing the uniform of a cuirassier colonel, reviewed the troops on the Champ-de-Mars with his grand-father Charles X, who had succeeded his brother Louis XVIII in 1824. In July 1830, the king and his family abdicated and Henri, then aged 10, was proclaimed king of France. A Constitutional monarchy was eventually proclaimed and the throne was granted to Louis-Philippe, King of the French, from the younger royal branch of Orléans. Henri embarked in Cherbourg on 10 August 1830 for a 41-year exile.

During his exile years, Henri traveled a lot with his overthrown grand-father and was already nicknamed "King Henri" in most European courts. Still a child, he said to Legitimist (as opposed to Orleanist) delegates: "I am working very hard to be worthy of the important duties imposed by my birth." His education was carried out by friars sent from Rome, personally supervised by the Pope, who received Henri two times in the Vatican in 1838.
In 1843, Henri received in London 200 Legitimists led by the writer and diplomat Châteaubriand (1768-1848), who acknowledged in him "the kingship of intelligence". Being more and more convinced he would reign, Henri said: "I consider the rights I have been granted by my birth as belonging to France, and [...] I shall not come back to France except when my return is useful to the French happiness and glory". In 1844, Henri settled in the palace of Frohsdorf, near Vienna (Austria), which had been bought for him by one of his numerous supporters.

The riots of February 1848 in Paris appeared to Henri as a sign of the fate. From Venice, he sent to his supporters a government program, which included: a limited opening of the voting system, the decentralization to the benefit of the municipalities, towns and provinces, the support to Catholic education, and the union of all royalists (Legitimists and Orleanists). In June 1848, the bourgeois of Paris ordered the troops to shoot the mob, and Henri's supporters asked him to come back. He hesitated and sought the support of General Bugeaud, very popular after his Algerian campaigns. Nothing was done and Bugeaud died the next year.
However, some progress towards the royalist unity was achieved. The branch of Orléans was prepared to recognize Henri as the king, provided he accepts a monarchy à la Louis-Philippe, that is, parliamentary and tricolor. This was too much for Henri, who answered: "Kingship is an attribute that belongs both to the prince and the people. There is an indissoluble union between them. To question it would destroy the strength of the principle that makes the power of the king". Henri also required the restoration of the white flag with the fleurs-de-lis as the symbol of the monarchy. Several attempts to sway him caused even more intransigenace: "My reign could not be either the resource or the result of a scheme or the exclusive domination of a party" (1850); "Napoléon's glory and genius were not enough to found anything stable. His name and memory could be even less useful. Monarchy in France is the royal house, indissolubly tied to the people" (1852).

The Orleanists insisted on the flag question, but Henri did not bat an eyelid. His position seemed so weak that Napoléon III allowed the opening of a Legitimist office in Paris. Henri clarified his ideas and explicitly refered to the return to the Ancient Regime (pre 1789), close to the clergy and the papacy. "To ban the Christian right from the society would yield disappointment. [...] This would cause the idea of God to disappear from our laws and courts. [...] To save France, God shall came back as the Lord, so that I can reign as the King." At that time, Henri was described as a very convincing orator but a mediocre politician. Having been exiled for so many years, he did not realize the change in the minds, which prevailed any hope of return to the Ancient Regime.

In 1873, the circumstances were extremely favourable to a monarchic restoration. Everybody knew that Henri had no heir and would not have any, thus explaining why the Orléans were prepared to recognize him as the king. There was a royalist majority at the Chamber of Deputees, the President of the Republic was the old royalist Marshal Mac Mahon, and the government was led by the monarchist Duke of Broglie. All monarchists tried to forget what Henri had said on 5 July 1871: "I can come back to France only with my principle and my flag", that white flag which "I have received as a sacred trust from the old king, my grand-father dying in exile." And he added what has remained his most famous sentence: "Henri V cannot abandon Henri IV's white flag". This manifesto was written in the Castle of Chambord, in a room which can still be visited. Henri came back to Austria after a defeat of the monarchists in partial elections mostly caused by his manifesto.
On 5 August 1873, the Count of Paris, Louis-Philippe's grandson, went to Frohsdorf in an attempt of reconciliation. He knew he had to pay that price to be officialy recognized as the crown prince, and thought he would just have to wait for the death of his narrow-minded cousin. The Orleanists reacted very mildly to the meeting, but the Legitimist newspapers were enthousiastic. Pilgrimages and processions for the return of the king grew in number. The writer Ernest Renan (1823-1892), who had lost his Catholic faith, admitted that "if the Count of Chambord accepts the least concession, the Chamber shall proclam him." In the begining of the fall, George Sand (1804-1876) sarcastically wrote to Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) "I smell like a spreading sacristy fragrance."

The monarchic restoration was therefore impending, but the issue of the flag remained unsolved. There were a few proposals of compromise solutions, such as a tricolor flag with a semy of fleurs-de-lis and a white flag with a tricolor cravate. On 4 October, a commission of nine members was appointed by the united monarchists to negociate with the Count. General Changarnier, President of the Commission said that "[he] would let his head being broken for the Count [...] but would never sacrifice the tricolor flag."
To the Representative Chesnelong, sent by the commission to Frohsdorf, the Count did not promise anything about the flag; Chesnelong, desperate, did not give the commission an account of his mission. Newspapers promoting the restoration believed an agreement had been obtained, and published that: "since the Tricolor flag will be the legal flag when the count comes back to France, he shall salute him with joy." Chambord was upset by those news and ruined any hope of restoration. He wrote a manifesto to Chesnelong, which was published by the Legitimist newspaper L'Union. Concerning the flag, the manifesto said: "Today, I am required to sacrifice my honour. What can I answer? Nothing, but I don't withdraw any of my previous declarations. Yesterday's claims give me an idea of tomorrow's requirements, and I cannot accept to inaugurate a restoring reign by an act of weakness [...] My person is nothing, my principle is everything. France shall see the end of its ordeals when it understands that I am the required pilot, the only one able to bring back the ship to the port because I have mission and authority for that."

However, Henri did not understand he had shot his bolt. On 8 November, he came back incognito to Paris by railway and was housed by one of his supporters in Versailles, waiting for the result of the votation at the Chamber. The monarchists understood that they would have to wait for Chambord's death to restore the monarchy with the Orléans and decided to vote the renewal of the President of the Republic, biding their time. De Broglie proposed 10 years but the Representatives decided of seven years, which was the origin of the President's seven-year tenure (septennat), recently shortened to five years (quinquennat) On 20 November, Chambord went back to Frohsdorf, where he would die 10 years later. There was no restoration seven years later, since the majority had become Republican.
[L'homme au drapeau blanc, by Édouard Boeglin, L'Alsace, 29 September 1999]

Ivan Sache, 25 December 2002

The "1875 Constitution"

Discussions on a draft of Constitution started in 1875. On 29 January 1875, Representative Laboulaye (center-right) proposed, to no avail, an amendment introducing the word République, which had been carefully omitted from the first draft. On 30 January 1875, Representative Wallon (center-right) proposed an additional article stating that Le président de la République est élu par le Sénat et par la Chambre. (The President of the Republic shall be elected by the Senate and the Chamber.) The Wallon amendment was adopted by one vote of majority (353/352).
The Law on the Senate (24 February 1875) was completed by Laws on the Authorities (25 February & 16 July), and Constitutional Laws on the Election of the Representatives (2 August 1875) and Sentators (30 November 1875). Eventually put together, the 1875 Laws were subsequently, improperly labelled "1875 Constitution".

The executive power should be exercised by the President of the Republic, irresponsible, elected for seven years by the Congress (Representatives and Senators). The President should appoint Ministers, propose the laws, and could dissolve the Chamber. He should be the Head of the Army, receive the Ambassadors, and ratify the treaties. He could exercise the presidential pardon.
The legislative power should be exercised by the Senate and the Chamber (of Representatives). There should be 300 Senators, over 40-year old, 225 of them being elected for nine years by specific colleges constituted of General Councillors and Municipal Delegates. Senate elections should take place every three years for one-third of the seats. The 75 remaining Senators, the inamovibles (irremovables), should be elected for life first by the Assembly, then by the Senate itself. The Representatives, over 25-year old, should be elected for four years by universal suffrage.
The two Chambers should vote the laws and the budget. The Senate could be upgraded into a High Court of Justice to try the President or Ministers on behalf of the Chamber if necessary.

In June 1879, the "Constitution" was amended in a more Republican direction. The Chambers were brought back from Versailles to Paris, the Chamber of Representatives being relocated in the Palais-Bourbon and the Senate in the Palace of Luxembourg. The 14 July, officially established as the National Day, was celebrated for the first time in 1880.
The "1875 Constitution" established a parliamentary system dominated by the political parties, granting very limited power, if any, to the President of the Republic.
[C. Salles. La IIIe République, à ses débuts : 1870-1893. Histoire de France Illustrée (Larousse, 1988)]

Ivan Sache, 16 December 2001

The end of the Third Republic

In spite of its weakness and shortcomings, the "1875 Constitution" remained in effect until 1940. Following the disastrous defeat of 1940 against Germany, the two Chambers met in Vichy on 10 July 2001. Marshal Pétain was granted the full powers and commissioned to draft a new Constitution by 569 of the 666 voters (80 voted no and 17 did not vote).
[P. Masson. La France en guerre, du Front populaire à la victoire : 1936-1945. Histoire de France Illustrée (Larousse, 1988)].

Ivan Sache, 25 December 2002

The last Tricolor flag in Paris in 1940

On 14 June 1940, the German flag was hoisted in Paris over the Arc de Triomphe, but the French Tricolore flag was still hoisted over the siege of PFG (Pompes Funèbres Générales), located boulevard Richard-Lenoir (close to Bastille square). It seems it was the last Tricolor flag that flew in Paris in 1940.
The flag was first half-staffed, then quickly removed. The PFG supply director, M. Lafont, a former cavalry officer, preserved the flag and exhibited it in his office until the end of the war. A group of German officers entered once Lafont's office for an order, and left without any comment.
On 19 August 1944, during the last fightings for the liberation of Paris, Lafont hoisted again the flag over the building, in spite of the danger.
[PFG website]

Ivan Sache, 16 December 2001