Background

The First Republic of France is better known as one of the many Governments that exchanged rule during the French Revolution. The "republic" was for most of its existence under the control of Maximilien Robespierre, better known as that guy who beheaded countless thousands of French with the new invention, the guillotine. The First Republic was overshadowed by Robespierre and 'The Terror.'

The Second Republic of France was the direct result of the "fourth" French revolution in 1848. All of 1848 was a bloody, bloody, mess for France (and most of Europe) and consisted of several violent uprisings within France alone. It eventually led to the emergence of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, or Napoleon III. Eventually Nappy 3 got France into the Franco-Prussian War in which France got thrashed. By January 1871 both Germany and France were ready to call it quits.


The Third Republic

Otto Von Bismark, for all intents and purposes, the unifier of Germany, only liked dealing with real governments, he allowed France to hold an election for a new National Assembly to create and draft a constitution, and then to accept Germany's terms of peace. Six hundred some odd deputies were elected by universal manhood suffrage, and were split pretty evenly between three factions, Republicans, Bourbonites, and Orléanists.

However, a group French republicans that had been in the siege of Paris and did not recognize the Assembly's authority. A civil war erupted and from March to May 1871, a revolutionary government known as the Paris Commune ruled from Versailles. The Commune was anti-wealthy and against the clergy, and in favor for governmental intervention of the conditions of the labor class, but was not socialist in any dramatic way. It was, however, led by many socialists, and was supported by some, Karl Marx for example, who hoped the Commune would be the end of the bourgeoisie. The Commune lost the short civil war and many of its supporters were denounced, arrested, exiled, or even put to death.

Despite finally unifying under a Bourbon, the monarchists of the National Assembly lost by one vote as to what the new government of France would be; a Republic. The new government would include a president, a two-chambered parliament, and a cabinet which was headed by a premiere. The parliament was much like the early version of the United State's congress; the Senate was elected indirectly (in a complicated fashion), the Chamber of Deputies was elected with universal, direct male suffrage. By 1877 the positions had been filled and strengthened by an unsuccessful attempt to dissolve the Chamber by the president, Marshal MacMahon.

Initially, the French people remained horridly factioned and most distrusted the republic completely. The Chamber of Deputies had twelve distinct political parties at first, none of which had any sort of commandable majority. This proved to be problematic, especially when constructing laws and policies. The Catholic clergy, upper classes, and professional military officers distrusted the republic the most, with good reasons. In 1880 the government created a public school system and passed anticlerical legislation to reduce the influence of the church within the new schools.

The major divides amongst the French people over their political views became very problematic on two occasions prior to World War I. The first event occurred between 1886 and 1889 and is called the Boulangist movement. This movement was spearheaded by General Boulanger and its primary objective was to have a war of revenge against Germany. Boulanger was popular amongst those who disfavored the republic and at a time was a threat to seize power as a dictator. But the movement was a "comical failure" and the disheartened General went into self-exile.

In 1894 the Dreyfus Affair caused political turmoil within France and around the world. Alfred Dreyfus a Jewish military officer that was accused of selling secrets to the Germans. He was tried and then exiled to Devil's Island. As time went by evidence turned up that continually proved Dreyfus' innocence and pointed the guilt to another officer who was a gambling addict and had built up many debts over the years. Traditionalists, royalists, anit-Semites, and militarists all supported the exile of Dreyfus, and some even went to the lengths of forging documents to damn Dreyfus further. The country remained deeply split over the issue until finally, in 1906, Dreyfus was fully exonerated.

The Third Republic weathered the years between the Dreyfus affair and World War I as well as any government would have. The only major blow to France that occurred during the war was the massive loss of life and the fact that the war took place almost exclusively on French soil. After the war, political parties representing big business and the socialist and French communist parties all had increased power, and in fact, a radical socialist group had control of the government from 1924-1926. A financial crisis ensued, and in 1926 reached a climax, of sorts, and action had to be taken in part of the government in the form of Raymond Poincaré and a "national union" ministry. In 1930 the Great Depression had already taken full effect in Germany and the United States, and elsewhere, but in France, the effects of the depression were not felt as much as in either of those countries. At the worst, in 1935, only one million people were unemployed, but most were working part time. Political instability was rampant during the interwar years; forty separate ministries in the 20 year span. Five of the ministries in 1933 alone. Facisism rose, and those who supported it wanted to model France much like Hitler and Mussolini had modeled Germany and Italy respectively. Many of these fascists rioted in 1934 over a political scandal and called for the overthrow of the republic. French Socialists led by Léon Blum became the dominant party within the Chamber, and pledged its support to the republic. In the short year his party was in power, Blum raised wages, created the 40-hour work week, gave workers vacations with pay, and also granted the right of collective bargaining.


The fall of the Third Republic

When World War II began in 1939 the Third Republic faced yet another crisis. France thought it was well defended against the German war machine with the Maginot Line, a line of fortifications along the Franco-Germanic border. On May 10th the Germans invaded Belgium and Luxemburg, or more accurately, drove their tanks through Belgium and Luxemburg and into France, completely surpassing the Maginot Line, and effeciently catching France with its trousers down and bent over. By June 13th Paris had been captured and nine days later the Third Republic of France sued for peace. Hitler then set up a provisional government known as Vichy France. This ended the 69 year life span of the republic; the longest lasting government in France since the fall of the monarchy in 1792. Despite having almost no single majority party for any great length of time, the system worked, and quite possibly saved France from many more bloody revolutions.

Sources:

Palmer, R.R. and Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World. 6th Edition. New York. 1950.

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