Second and Third Republics of France

Second and Third Republics of France
Second and Third Republics of France

The regimes of the Second Republic and Third Republic solidified the republican tradition in France. Modern France has emerged as the product of the competing ideologies of the French Revolution and the Counterrevolution, of how much of the changes made by the French Revolution to keep and how much of the Old Regime to restore.

The enduring success of the Second and Third Republics resulted in the victory of the French Revolutionary tradition over that of the Counterrevolution and established the groundwork for the construction of a common French culture.

Following the “experiment” of the Second Republic, the Third Republic, while not popular, proved to be a durable, long-lasting regime that provided the stability France desperately needed while establishing a republican form of government.

The French Revolution resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy and its replacement by the First Republic, which ended following Napoleon I’s coronation. Following Napoleon’s demise in 1814, the French monarchy returned, only to be overthrown in the Revolution of 1830. Louis-Philippe, a member of a cadet branch of the royal family, became king of the French until he was overthrown in the Revolution of 1848, amidst which the Second Republic began.

While initially plagued by the instability and chaos surrounding the Revolution of 1848, the Second Republic solidified itself by November. A democratic republic was proclaimed with direct universal suffrage and a separation of powers. A single permanent assembly of 750 members serving three-year terms voted on legislation introduced by a council of state, whose members were elected by the assembly for sixyear terms.

The executive branch consisted of a president who served one four-year term without the possibility of standing for reelection, and his self-appointed ministers. Governmental revision was extremely difficult, requiring three-quarters of the majority of a special assembly to approve the measure three times in succession.

Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I, won the presidential election by taking advantage of the nostalgia surrounding his uncle’s regime and its remembered stability and order. The government was plagued by struggles between conservatives, liberal republicans, and socialists.

In 1850 a liberal victory at the polls encouraged conservatives to pass the Falloux Law, which returned the church to its previous role as popular educator, thereby reversing one of the primary ideologies of the French Revolution. Napoleon III struggled with his parliament and continued to maneuver his loyal supporters to positions of authority.

The Second Republic ended in 1852 when LouisNapoleon organized a coup. The French Second Empire lasted until 1871, when France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. After Napoleon III’s capture, General Louis-Jules Trochu and politician Leon Gambetta overthrew the Second Empire and proclaimed a government of national defense, which later became the Third Republic. Following war with Prussia, France was plagued by an insurrection known as the Paris Commune that established a radical leftist regime that held control for two months until its suppression in May 1871.

During the early Third Republic, there was strong favor for a constitutional monarchy. Yet the two competing contenders for the throne, Henri, comte de Chambord, head of the elder branch of the royal family, and Louis-Philippe, comte de Paris, head of the family’s younger branch, could not come to terms.

Although a compromise between the two factions was reached allowing Henri to ascend to the throne with Louis-Philippe as his heir, Henri refused to acknowledge the tricolor, the flag of the French Revolution. Since a constitutional monarchy did not come to fruition, a “temporary” republic was proclaimed.

In 1875 a series of parliamentary acts laid the foundations for the organization of the Third Republic. A bicameral legislature was created, along with a ministry under the direction of a prime minister responsible to both parliament and the president. The issue of monarchy versus republic continued throughout the 1870s. By 1877, however, public opinion swayed in favor of a republic.

President Patrice MacMahon attempted to salvage the monarchist cause by dismissing prime minister Jules Simon, a republican. MacMahon appointed monarchist duc de Broglie to the position and dissolved parliament. In the general election held in October 1877, the republicans made a triumphant return, thereby eliminating the possibility of a restored monarchy. MacMahon resigned in 1879 and in 1885, the French crown jewels were broken up and sold.

There were no strong, clear political parties during the Third Republic but, rather, coalitions of similar-minded politicians and factions. Consequently, ministries during the Third Republic changed often as various radicals, socialists, republicans, and monarchists battled for control.

The Third Republic weathered many scandals during its existence while remaining intact. One of the most infamous scandals was the Dreyfus affair, which involved the imprisonment of an innocent French officer on espionage charges.

The case unleashed the growing anti-Semitism within France and divided the nation. A preoccupation among many French politicians was revenge against Germany for the humiliating defeat of 1871. France became involved in colonial activities to compensate for its losing the economic race with Germany.

The Third Republic was active in building a common French culture for the process of citizenship education. The government promoted national holidays and a common French language to eliminate diverse dialects spoken in the countryside. In 1905 the Third Republic introduced several anti-clerical laws meant to separate church and state.

Such efforts outlawed religious control of education. Increased industrialization led to the construction of railroads and the ability to travel more easily throughout the country. A rise in education furthered literacy, which paralleled the development of popular presses and widely circulated newspapers.

The Third Republic’s greatest success occurred when it rallied the French nation to defeat the invading German army after a long standoff during World War I. The Third Republic collapsed following the invasion of Nazi Germany, which occupied much of France for the duration of World War II. The remainder of France was governed by a Nazi collaborative regime based at Vichy.