After four years of uncertainty over the leadership of the country, the Third Republic is firmly instituted in Versailles on 1875, thus quashing monarchists quarrels and hopes that they would return in favour.
Interestingly enough, and against many odds, the Third Republic would prove an ocean of stability following much upheaval and institutional instability.
The Third Republic is proclaimed in France on September 4, 1870 after the defeat at Sedan.
Reeling still from its defeat with neighbouring Germany (Prussia) and the reality of an occupation – large swathes of land were still under German control, France has to contend with a social and financial crisis.
Its dreams of glory and prestige in tatters France is looking to find itself again. This time sovereignty would find its greatest expression yet in the formulation of a republic.
As a condition sine qua non to peace Otto von Bismarck demands that France establishes an assembly of elected members.
Elections are held in February 1871. Led by right-wing monarchists (Orleanists and Bonapartists) the new Assembly meets in Bordeaux and elect Thiers as Chief Executive – the term president was not yet used. After so much political and constitutional instability, the ruling elite was rather keen not to upset socio-political sensitivities, or bring up memories of institutional battles.
With much more than just a system of governance in the balance, France wanted first and foremost to secure its sovereign integrity by asserting order over its territories. While systems of governance more often than not are the expression of a political vision, they are also the expression of a nation’s sovereign rights, and in time of extreme duress, necessity trumps form.
By the time France saw the rise of the Third Republic, most were more preoccupied with the nation’s survival, than an imperious need for democracy-building. THat is not to say that France had abandoned its revolutionary dreams, only that stability was taking precedent.
As it happened, the Third Republic would allow for both: stability and democracy-building.
Thiers first executive order would be to sign a peace treaty in between France and Germany in Frankfurt in May. He then set out to quell the rebellion – the Commune, to assume control of France and establish the uncontested authority of the new Republic.
It would take four years of political divisions for the Third Republic to assert itself over a myriad of political factions.
The Third Republic was definitively established in January 1875 on an amendment which allowed for the President of the Republic to be elected for a period of seven years, renewable, by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate in the National Assembly. The Wallon amendment states:
“The president is elected to the absolute majority of votes by the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies united in National Assembly. It is appointed for seven years; he is re-elected. “
The amendment was adopted on the 30th by 353 votes to 352: the establishment of the Third Republic came down to a single deciding vote. Three additional amendments followed, later composing the 1875 Constitution, which remained in force until 1940.
The early days of the Third Republic saw a shift which many may not have predicted in the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s truce with the Church, and Monarchists’ control over power. Breaking away from traditions, and following the resignation of President Patrice de MacMahon, France will de facto become secular, democratic, and parliamentary – ruled by a majority republican. From 1879 onwards, Republican France is asserted.
It would take a few more decades however for France to seal its break from the Church and forever think secular. France’s “laïcité” – French-style secularism – is an ideology, defining what it means to be French.
The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and State is passed by the Chamber of Deputies on 9 December 1905. Enacted during the Third Republic, it established state secularism in France. The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law continues to be seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité (secularism).
As Tim King, a political analyst based in France writes on the matter: “The 1905 law separates; it does not discriminate. Indeed it stresses freedom of conscience. It doesn’t mention the wearing of religious insignia in schools or public buildings. Its purpose is to reinforce one of the three pillars of republicanism: égalité The ideal of equality lies behind the French policy towards immigrants – welcomed as equals, but only as long as they become like the French, adopting French language, culture and values. Republicanism is not merely the reverse of the take it or leave it British attitude towards monarchy. If you have a problem with republicanism, you have a problem with being French. Laïcité is an absolute, an exception française.”
Born in institutional and political tumult, the Third Republic carries within the seed of its own instability. Indeed, the characteristics of its institutions are not predisposed to stability. After 16 May 1877 crisis, which marks the end of the dual parliamentarism, the architecture of the regime is ambiguous in its repartition of power – which ambiguity one must note is by design. In view of France’s past experiences with a strong Executive, the Third Republic ambitions to temper political wills on the basis of displacement and dilution.
The characteristics of this republic are:
The President of the Republic has a ceremonial role.
The Chamber of Deputies is elected by direct universal suffrage.
The Senate is elected by indirect universal suffrage.
The President of the Council, comparable today to the President of the Council of Ministers, is one of the main ministers but not the Prime Minister, that is to say, he is not the head of government.
The architecture is simple but effective in generating an institutional status quo that will manifest in the coming and going of governments, break-up and make-up of political factions, and thus dramatic political chaos. If France has the republic it wanted, or at least that its political philosophers imagined, its efficiency and ability to own the political landscape leaves something to be desired, by the weakness of its institutions architecture.
The Third Republic rises on the following syllogism – one which in hindsight makes little to no sense at all: “The nation is sovereign, or the parliament represents the nation, so the parliament is sovereign.”
Imagined to counter a strong Executive, the Third Republic’s main difficulty came from an excessive valuation of parliamentary power. Parliament, with its two chambers – each made of several hundred members, did not allow for the rise of any clear political majority, and only coalition majority.
While such political pluralism does, on paper, appeal to the idea that in a democracy, all ideas ought to be represented, it de facto hampered the State’s ability to not only make decisions but embrace any potent governing vision.
The regime of the Third Republic was a malfunction festival which resulted in ministerial instability. But from such chaos democratic progress nevertheless came … so much so that such progress came to define what it is that makes France’s Republic so French!
In 1901 freedom of association is proclaimed and in 1905, most dramatic of all, the law of separation in between the State and the Church passes.
It is under the Third Republic as well that France witnessed the birth its secular and compulsory education system – one aimed to train future citizens in the way of the Republic.
France’s republican institutions will ultimately fail the nation, when, surrounded by increasingly belligerent and authoritarian neighbours in the 1930s: Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, Parliament will fail to agree on a budget, and doing so, hampered France’s ability to repel military aggression – or at least make provision for a potential military confrontation.
For France, the interwar period (in between WW1 and WW2) is marked by a degeneration of its parliamentary system, and political inertia in that no decision will be made to safeguard the nation against a growing list of enemies – not least of all Germany.
Voices such as that of young officer de Gaulle are ignored.
In 1933, Hitler comes to power. In September 1939, he enters Poland. As a result, Britain and France declare war on Germany.
But where France struggles to find political cohesion, autocratic Germany plows through … quite literally by-passing France’s defenses. Hitler’s armies breach into France through the ‘hole of the Ardennes’ prompting a veritable exodus.
As Hitler’s march on, government is forced to relocate from Paris to Bordeaux in the south-west. In June 1940, in a last ditch effort to offer France some modicum of unity and purpose Marechal Pétain – a hero of WW1, is appointed as prime minister.
With the imminent fall of France in June 1940 in World War II, Pétain is appointed Prime Minister of France by President Lebrun at Bordeaux, and the Cabinet resolved to make peace with Germany. The entire government subsequently moved briefly to Clermont-Ferrand, then to the spa town of Vichy in central France. His government voted to transform the discredited French Third Republic into the French State, an authoritarian regime aligned with Nazi Germany.
A day after Pétain signs the armistice – June 17, 1940, Gen. Charles De Gaulle calls on the BBC: “France has lost a battle but not the war.”
So begins the competition between two frances: that of the Vichy regime and that of Free France regime.