French Third Republic

One of the most interesting of regimes in European history, the French Third Republic somehow lasted from 1871 to 1940.  Faced with continual problems of having any legitimacy, the Republic stumbled and bumbled along.  Seemingly endless scandals, bitter church-state relations, and finally, the great victory over Germany in 1918 all characterized the French Third Republic.  this page only covers the time period from 1871 to 1918.  To see how the Third Republic fared between the wars read the pages on Interwar France .

The Third Republic was born in the defeat of 1871 to the hated Prussians. Shortly after taking power, the Republicans had to deal with the reds in the Paris Commune which took months to solve and only made the Prussians press for harsher peace terms. Not only did the Third Republic have to accept the harsh surrender terms of the Prussians, but it also had to witness the crowing of a King of a United Germany at the Palace of Versailles.  Hundreds of years of French foreign policy to prevent German unification had not only failed, but it was celebrated at Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors no less.

With such a humiliating beginning many assumed the Republic would be short-lived as had the Second Republic.  The only group to get through the defeat without much humiliation were the Monarchists.   In elections the Monarchists were easily the strongest party.  Soon a new constitution would be drawn up and the monarchists would create a monarchy, or a republic very close to one.  After all, a Bonaparte had lost the war and the Republicans had submitted to a tough treaty.  Radicals were all dead or imprisoned after the failed and bloody Paris Commune.  The path was open for another Restoration.

However,  it was not to work out that way.  At the vote to get rid of the idea of a President, a monarchist deputy was held up in traffic and failed to arrive for the vote.  As a result, the office of the President was upheld by a single vote.  The Third Republic would remain a republic and with a president.

However, the monarchists continued their electoral successes and finally were able to put Marshal MacMahon in as President.  MacMahon was a monarchist and hoped to pave the way toward a restoration.  However, the Orleanist and Bourbon families could not agree on which man should be king.  As a result, the Republic had time to establish itself.

MacMahon fatally damaged the power of the Presidency when he fired Jules Simon as Premier (Prime Minister) and called for new elections which he hoped would give a larger Monarchist majority.  As it turned out, the electorate viewed MacMahon's move as unjust and returned a larger Republican majority to the Parliament.  This was the crisis known as Seize Mai for day on which Simon was fired.  As it turned out, no president of France would ever have more than ceremonial power for the remainder of the Third Republic.

Not long after Seize Mai the Republicans began to go after the Catholic Church--especially its control over education.  The Church schools were blamed for failing to teach math and science well enough and that was a major cause of the defeat of 1871.  To have any future chance against the Germans in the future, France must have a modern educational system like the Germans.  The Church would not be given a chance to reform as Republicans wanted to simply get the Church out of teaching any schools.  Under Jules Ferry this program began, but it started a round of fighting with Catholics that would last for years.  It would also make many French Catholics enemies of the Republic and create massive divisions in France over every scandal.

Scandals, or affaires as the French called them, were part of the constant fighting over the Third Republic.  The Right viewed the scandals as symptoms of the greedy and small-minded nature of Republicans who worshipped at the altar of money and power.  These scandals usually resulted in the charge of treason or "government of robbers" to be thrown at the Third Republic. Republicans for their part were worried that every scandal might turn into a coup d'etat and so often defended or covered up the corruption that sooner or later became public.  Example included the backlash against Jules Ferry's educational reforms, the Panama Scandal, the Dreyfus Affaire, the use of masons to secretly inform on Catholic generals in the army and the near-comical Madame Caillaux Affaire.

In a movement known as the Ralliement, the Pope himself had, in the 1890s, ordered French Catholics to not oppose the Third Republic per se, but to only oppose objectionable legislation.  To oppose the Republic itself left those Catholics open to charges of treason.  The Pope made clear that since the Third Republic was legally the government, it was wrong for Catholics to show such disrespect.  However, French Catholics so hated the "slut", "the whore," as they called the Third Republic, that they ignored the Pope and continued their subversion.  It was this unremitting hostility that would cause so much damage to the Church when Emile Combes persecuted the Church after the Dreyfus Affaire.

For their part the Right was, indeed, trying to overthrow the Republic.  Their best chance was in the late 1880s when General Boulanger had only to give the sign and he could overthrow the Third Republic but was more interested in celebrating his success by spending the evening with his mistress.  The witless Boulanger fled the country soon after when the Republicans realized the man was no Bonaparte and tried to arrest him.  Another nightmare for the republicans was the Panama Affaire, where the failure to complete the Panama Canal had caused huge cost overruns with attendant bribes to cover up the failure.   Finally, the Right badly mishandled the Dreyfus Affaire--mostly by trying to insist that an innocent man was spy.  It only got worse when it appeared that the Monarchist Generals were putting all sorts of innocent people into jail rather than admit they were wrong in the first place.  Finally, Dreyfus accepted a pardon (though he was innocent, he was horrified that his beloved army had been dragged trough the mud on his account so he accepted the pardon and the guilt to help the army save face) and the scandal quieted down.  However the Republicans would make the Right pay for the Dreyfus Affaire. On taking power, the priest-hating Premier, Emile Combes, decided to destroy the power of the Catholic  Church once and for all by closing down all Catholic churches for two years, expelling all Catholic teachers, most Catholic priests, seizing Church property, forbidding Catholic priests to perform Church services and not allowing the Catholic Church to conduct weddings or do much at all in the way of education.  To top it off, the Third Republic broke off relations with the Catholic Church in the Vatican.  Later the Republicans used anti-Catholic Freemasons to spy on Catholic Generals in the military and began to purge those Generals who practiced Catholicism. The problem with the purges were that France was robbed of its best Generals on the verge of World War One and had mostly politically-reliable mediocrities in the army to fact the German in the summer of 1914.

By 1914, the Third Republic was more secure, but still had not established its legitimacy in the eyes of its opponents. French Catholics had not agreed to the legitimacy of the Republic, but had surely been persecuted into an uneasy acquiescence.  Into this deeply divided nation the German army marched in 1914.  One could expect a nation so badly divided to be easily defeated.  However, the French quickly rallied to the Third Republic and though the Germans had uninterrupted success for the first 40 days of the war, the French army had not turned and ran, but rather had a mostly orderly retreat to the gates of Paris.

Monarchist, Republican and Socialist all put aside their differences and fought to save France from the second defeat in 45 years at the hands of the Germans.  Monarchist Generals were reinstated, Republicans followed their orders and socialist soldiers ignored the pleas of the hard-core reds who urged overthrowing the Third Republic in a time of great crisis. 

In lat September, the Miracle of the Marne began as the French suddenly, and most unexpectedly to the Germans, launched a counterattack along the Marne river just outside of Paris and drove back the Germans dozens of mile to save France.  The German high command fired the general who let victory slip from his grasp and the Germans and French settled down to four years of bloody trench warfare.

The trench warfare of 1914-1918 was much worse for France than for Germany.  The Germans nearly always succeeded in their offensives for the rest of the war and easily defeated nearly every single offensive launched by French and British forces and with very heavy French losses.  By 1917, French soldiers mutinied and refused to make any more attacks on German positions.  It had become pointless and they would no longer obey such orders.  For two week the mutiny continued and it later spread to the factories where strikes developed.  Finally, after two weeks reforms were instituted and the soldiers and factories got back to their jobs.  However, the French army gathered some of the worst mutiny leaders and shot every tenth man (decimation) before sending them back into the line with a warning not to do it again.

In the fall of 1917, horrible news hit France.  The Russians had quit the war.  The Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin had taken over in Russia and Russia had deserted France.  Lenin was a tool of German intelligence services and German gold was bankrolling the Bolsheviks to get them out of the war.  French supplies were sitting in Russian ports in massive quantities designed to help the Russians.  Now the Bolsheviks could get their hands on the war supplies or, even worse, give them to their German sponsors.  The French reacted by dispatching some French soldiers to safeguard the supplies and to help out the anti-Bolsheviks (Whites) in Russia.  It was crucial for the Whites to restore an anti-German government in Russia.  However, the Whites failed to do so and Russia simply fell into a long, bloody Civil War.

With Russia out of the way, the Germans transferred millions of new soldiers to France for a huge new offensive in March 1918.  This crushing blow hit  French army reeling from poor morale due to the Bolshevik double cross and recent mutinies.  The sledgehammer attacks fell right where the British and French armies met.  The effect was terrific.  Mass surrenders of British and French forces began to snowball.  The Germans were gaining miles of territory in an area where success had been measured in hundreds of yards.  The Germans were spreading out their breakthrough and were again nearing Paris.

One ray of hope came from the Americans.  The US had entered the war in April of 1917, but do to the size of the US, the distance to France, training needs, and lack of any US-manufactured weapons, the US army was only just now showing up in France in the spring of 1918.  In addition the US had insisted on having their own separate command and the best unit the US offered, the First Division had broken and ran in their first engagement against the Germans.  The US would have two million soldiers in France by the spring of 1919, but it looked like that would be too late.  Finally, the US had been given the Meuse-Argonne-Champagne region where French soldiers had first started the mutiny.  It did no look good.

By April of 1918, the French and British were surrendering in mass numbers and the Americans were in one of the toughest sectors of the entire line and had given no indication of fighting well at all.  The days were dark in Paris and all seemed lost.

And yet, there was hope.  The Germans were getting exhausted by their long march and needed to rest. They also needed to re-supply.  As they did so, the French and British began to slow their advance.  Then two huge bits of good news came from the American sector.  The US Marines and the 3rd Infantry Division had both held their ground and inflicted very bloody losses on the Germans.  The Germans called the Marines "teuffelhunden," or "devil dogs" and the 3rd Infantry did so well at holding along the Marne that their nickname to this day is "Rock of the Marne."  The other bit of good news came from the US 1st Infantry Division.  The Big Red One had launched an attack in the Champagne region and had taken the position.  The victory in Champagne create an earthquake in the German general staff.  The German strategy for four years was based on the idea that the allies could never take a German position.  But now the Americans had taken a position which had cost the French 250,000 men in four failed tries and had generated on mutiny.  But the Americans had done so on their first attempt. There would only be another million and half more Americans over the next few months to come.  General Ludendorf had a mental breakdown when he read the news and realized the impact.

At the same time, the French military had rallied yet again and were now driving back the Germans.  The French were combining the use of tanks and aircraft with their infantry attacks on German positions and the Germans could not handle such tactics.  The British too were using better attacks and their Canadian and Scottish units had never really collapsed and were now delivering terrific blows against the Germans.

By the summer of 1918, the Germans were steadily losing ground.  By October, the Germans were nearing a full retreat that might turn into a rout.  German units were starting to have their own mutinies in October and it was clear the Germans were on the verge of collapse.  The Austrians sued for peace and now the Germans were on their own.  By November, it was clear the Germans would soon collapse.  In late October more German units were mutinying and finally the Kaiser fled Germany after the General Staff advised an armistice to forestall a complete collapse. Finally, Germany went into revolution and agreed to an armistice.

After nearly collapsing in the spring of 1918, France had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and in only seven months had finally defeated the hated Germans.