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Third Republic 1886-1889 - The Boulanger Affair

Politics were truly in a condition of permanent instability. To how great an extent this is true may be judged from the fact that in the ten years following the resignation of President MacMahon there were fourteen different cabinets. The country grew weary of the incessant change of ministries, and of the intriguing and wrangling in the Chamber. It felt that the best men were not at the head of the state, and it conceived a profound disgust for parliamentary government, and a good deal of contempt for politicians.

At this time General Georges Boulanger, protégé of Georges Clemenceau, came forward and promised reform. Encouraged by this situation, Boulanger began courting the favor of the army and the workingmen in somewhat the same way that Napoleon III had done when he was planning to make himself master of France. A popular officer, Boulanger had become prominent as Minister of War from January 1886 to May 1887 in the Freycinet cabinet. He won popularity in the army through various reforms (improvement of soldiers' food and living conditions, and so on), heavy expenditures on the army, and his aggressive hostility towards Germany. Boulanger talked of avenging the defeat that France had suffered in the conflict with the Germans - always a popular theme - and he won some distinguished adherents by his denunciation of party divisions and corruption.

At the beginning of 1887 an issue had already been raised between that kind of political sentiment which was represented by Boulanger and the adverse opinion which called for retrenchment, reform, and peace. The former policy signified high taxation and lavish expenditure, especially in reorganizing and mobilizing the army. It also expressed the principle of rectifying the boundary of France, and therefore of hostility to Germany. It appealed to all the old war passions, and was not far from publicly inscribing Revenge on its banner as the motto of the Republic. For these reasons the Opportunists in the French Assembly - those who desired that France should pursue the even tenor of her ways, accept economy as her law, and peace with her neighbors as a principle of action - looked first with alarm, and then with auger, upon the course which the War Minister was determined to pursue.

Boulanger began to receive unsolicited electoral support in special elections for the Chamber of Deputies (1887). The government feared this support and assigned him to an obscure military outpost (Clermont-Ferrand). Meanwhile, Daniel Wilson, the son-in-law of President Grévy, was discovered to have trafficked in medals of the Legion of Honor, and the so-called Wilson scandal forced Grévy from office (Dec. 2, 1887).

Under the administration of Carnot the famous Boulanger plot threatened to destroy the French commonwealth. General Boulanger gained notoriety by his bold attacks on the government, his demands for a dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies, and for a revision of the constitution. Boulanger was deprived of his command in 1888 for twice coming to Paris without leave, and finally on the recommendation of a council of inquiry composed of five generals, his name was removed from the army list. He was, however, almost at once elected to the chamber for the Nord, his political program being a demand for a revision of the constitution.

Clemenceau was responsible for the inclusion of General Boulanger in the Freycinet cabinet as war minister. In the chamber he was in a minority, since genuine Republicans of all varieties began to see what his success would mean, and his actions were accordingly directed to keeping the public gaze upon himself. A popular hero survives many deficiencies, and neither his failure as an orator nor the humiliation of a discomfiture in a duel with M. Floquet, then an elderly civilian, sufficed to check the enthusiasm of his following. During 1888 his personality was the dominating feature of French politics, and, when he resigned his seat as a protest against the reception given by the chamber to his revisionist proposals, constituencies vied with one another in selecting him as their representative.

At last, in January 1889, he was returned for Paris by an overwhelming majority. The radical Republicans who favored socialism, and who hoped to gain something by upsetting the government, joined hands with the Royalists in pledging him their enthusiastic support. Some Royalists went further and contributed large sums of money for the use of their chosen representative. The Bonapartists, who hoped for the overthrow of the Republic and cared little what the name of the next Emperor might be, trooped after him almost to a man. Boulanger boasted that he would "unseat Carnot" and reconstruct France, that he would make himself dictator, restore the monarchy, and place the Count of Paris on the throne.

He had now become an open menace to the parliamentary Republic. When Boulanger showed himself as an ambitious pretender, Clemenceau withdrew his support and became a vigorous combatant against the Boulangist movement, though the Radical press and a section of the party continued to patronize the general. Had Boulanger immediately placed himself at the head of a revolt he might at this moment have effected the coup d'état which the intriguers had worked for, and might not improbably have made himself master of France; but the favourable opportunity passed. The government accused Boulanger of conspiring to overthrow the Republic. To the astonishment of his friends on 08 April 1889 General Boulanger fled by express train to Brussels, and thence to England.

This episode served rather to discredit the monarchists than to weaken the republic. By following Boulanger, the Bonapartists and many of the Monarchists put themselves in a totally false position, and learned their own weakness and the vitality of the Republic. Their real bond of union, or perhaps it would be better to say their real basis of strength, was the Catholic church, of which they tried to be the support and the shield. Gambetta early saw that the strength of the Reactionaries was based upon their alliance with the church. But the Boulanger episode led the church to doubt the wisdom of allying herself with a discredited party against a powerful republic. In November 1890, Cardinal Lavigerie, one of the most influential of the French prelates, declared that the church was not necessarily opposed to the republican form of government in France.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:38 ZULU