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Third Republic 1893-1914 - La Belle Époque / Fin de Siècle

The French called the era from around 1890 to 1914 La Belle Époque ["The Beautiful Era"]. It was an epoch of beautiful clothes and the peak of luxury living for a select few - the very rich and the very privileged through birth. The name encompasses the realities of expansion, carefree attitudes, a faith in progress, and an affluence spreading down through society, together with a nostalgia. The Belle Epoque had notable features, such as dress, art and, with the optimism generated by a new century, engineering feats and technological progress. Art included painting such as the Impressionists, furniture and architecture, much styled by Art Nouveau and the English Arts and Crafts movement. In retrospect it was an era very separate from the 20th century, despite belonging at its start. The attitudes and lifestyles of two decades were swept away by war. The term Belle Epoque was not widely used by the French.

After the 19th century Great Depression of from 1873 to 1896, France entered a period of sustained growth in what some termed the Second Industrial Revolution. The World Fair of 1889, when the Eiffel Tower was opened to the public, and the Universal Exhibition of 1900 put Paris and France on the map as lively, expanding places in international society.

Fin de siècle (French for "end of the century") was a cultural movement between 1890 and the beginning of World War I. As historical term applies specifically to end of nineteenth century and even more specifically to decade of 1890s. Culturally, it is an umbrella term embracing Symbolism, Decadence and all related phenomena (e.g. Art Nouveau) which reached a peak in that decade. Almost synonymous with terms the Eighteen-Nineties, the Mauve Decade, the Yellow Decade, the Naughty Nineties. Fin de siècle however expresses an apocalyptic sense of the end of a phase of civilisation. The spirit was exemplified in France by Toulouse-Lautrec, and in Britain Beardsley and Conder. The real end came not in 1900 but with the Great War in 1914.

In the early nineties, from the Conservative and Republican extremes respectively had been detached two new party groups. From the ranks of the Conservatives had sprung a body of Catholics who, under papal injunction, had declared their purpose to rally to the support of the Republicans; whence they acquired the designation of the "Rallies." And from the Radical party had broken off a body of socialists. While the Moderates were drawing nearer to the Right, the Radical Democrats were seeking an alliance with the Socialists, as advised by Millerand, Goblet, and Lockroy since 1891 in the Petite Republique Franfaise, the former organ of Gambetta.

Pelletan sealed this alliance by founding the Radical Socialist party, while Millerand was employed in bringing the militants of all the fractions of the Socialist party into one camp. The elections of 1893 emphasised the importance of these arrangements in the two opposing groups. The Socialists, with the support of the Radicals, obtained 50 seats in the new Parliament, and shouted victory; while the majority of the Moderates, assisted by the Catholics who had joined their ranks, put forward Casimir Perier and Spuller to denounce this danger from the Left, and to offer as a concession to the Right that the Congregations should be restored.

In 1893 Clemenceau's career, along with the careers of many other prominent republican politicians, apparently was wrecked when, during the Panama Canal scandals, he was accused of dishonesty. Clemenceau met every charge and beat down attacks in the Chamber. Clemenceau could hardly be said to be a man of peace. He fought many duels, including one with M. Déroulède, who accused him of being in the pay of Dr. Cornelius Herz and the Panama ring. Though Clemenceau remained the leading spokesman of French Radicalism, his hostility to the Russian alliance so increased his unpopularity that in the election for 1893 he was defeated for the Chamber, after having sat in it continuously since 1876. His constituents deserted him, and so he dropped out of politics. It was nine years before he was again officially in public life. For that period he was a man of letters, instead of a politician, a reckless duelist, and a bounder of his foes.

In the middle of the nineties some attempts were made to create and maintain homogeneous ministries. The elections of 1893 made a great change in the political situation, for in spite of the Panama scandals of the preceding winter, which the Right had tried to use as a means of discrediting the Republic, and the Radicals as a means of discrediting their more conservative allies, these last gained a large majority of seats. On December 3, shortly after the opening of the session, a ministry of Moderates was appointed with Casimir-Perier at its head.

For the first time in the history of the Republic a homogeneous cabinet was supported by a homogeneous majority. The Republican part of the Chamber contained a number of factions, of which the most important were that of the Radicals, surnamed at this time the Progressive Left, and that of the Socialists, who organized under the name of the Extreme Left. Under the lack of parliamentary discipline, the majority in the Chamber was slowly going to pieces. Instead of being a compact party that could be relied upon, it became a feebler and feebler support, until at the meeting of the Chambers in the autumn of 1895 it had ceased to be a real majority at all.

Because the Chamber of Deputies refused to sustain the ministry and ordered by a vote of 253 to 225 the appointment of a commission to investigate the way in which the agreement of 1883 was made guaranteeing the payment of interest on the bonds of two railroads, Premier Depuy and his colleagues in the ministry resigned on Monday, 15 January 1895. On the day following President Casimir-Perier formally resigned his office.

François Felix Faure, minister of marine in the Dupuy Cabinet, was elected president of the Republic. M. Brisson, president of the Chamber of Deputies, was supported by the Radicals and Socialists, and placed second in the voting. After much casting about, the new president selected M. Alexander Ribot to form a new Cabinet. He was minister of foreign affairs in 1890 and 1892 and premier in 1892 and 1893. M. Faure, the new president, was a man of large practical experience. He served as minister of commerce and marine in four ministries, the last being that of Premier Dupuy. He has been attached to the Moderate Republican group and his election to the presidency is regarded as a triumph for the Moderate party over the Radical and Socialist elements in French politics.

The dreaded radical ministry of Leon Bourgeois caused such loud commotion during its brief existence in 1895. The Bourgeois ministry was composed entirely of Radicals. The Meline ministry of 1896-1898 was composed entirely of Moderate Republicans. But at the elections of 1898 the Republican position in the Chamber broke down and it was necessary to return, with the Dupuy ministry, to the policy of concentration.

A new era in the history of French political parties was marked by the elections of May, 1898. Some 250 seats, and with them the effectual control of the Chamber, were acquired by the Radicals, the Socialists, and an intermediary group of Radical-Socialists. The Moderate Republicans, to whom had been given recently the name of Progressives, were reduced to 200; while the Right retained but 100. The Socialists alone polled nearly twenty per cent of the total popular vote. The remarkable agitation by which the Dreyfus affair was attended had the effect of consolidating further the parties of the Left, and the bloc which resulted not only subsisted steadily from that day to the eve of the Great War present but controlled very largely the policies of the government.

In 1901 Clemenceau founded the weekly paper Le Bloc. The title clung to the party. The French Revolution, he said, was a block, a thing which must be accepted or rejected en bloc. In villainous political slang, Le Bloc was the party which went the whole hog for the Revolution.

In 1901 the seven groups in the Chamber of Deputies could hardly be called parties. They were, with the exception of the monarchist Right and the revolutionary Socialists, unorganized factions of the Republican party which had disintegrated more and more after its chief mission of establishing the Republic had been accomplished. It is true that they had a certain continuity, each group persisting through successive parliaments, and principles of a sort, usually indefinite and formulated not by an official party convention, but by some prominent parliamentary leader, as Gambetta had formulated the Radical program at Belleville in 1869 and Millerand the Socialist program at Saint-Mande in 1896. They were embryo parties, as yet unprovided with machinery for making nominations and fighting campaigns. In the election campaign each candidate announced his own program.

The first conspicuous leader and spokesman of the coalition was Waldeck-Rousseau, premier from 1899 to 1902, and its first great achievement was the separation of church and state, accomplished through the means of the Law of Associations of July 1, 1901, the abrogation of the Concordat, December 9, 1905, and the law of January 2, 1907, restricting further the privileges of the Roman Catholic Church in France.

At the elections of April 1902, the policies of the Government were vindicated by the return of 321 avowed "ministerialists" and of but 268 representatives of the opposition. The same constituency that had forsaken Clemenceau in his hour of trial returned him to the Senate, and in the spring of 1906 he was appointed to public office as Minister of the Interior. On June 3, 1902, the longest-lived ministry since the Third Republic was established was brought to an end by the voluntary retirement of Waldeck-Rousseau. The new premier, Combes, was a member of the Radical party, and the anti-clerical, radical policies of the preceding government were maintained throughout the ensuing two and a half years, as also they were during the premiership of Rouvier (1905-1906). In March, 1906, a new ministry, in which Clemenceau was actual chief, was formed with the Radical Sarrien as premier.

At the elections which came two months later the groups of the Left won another signal victory. Prior to the balloting the majority in support of the radical policy of the Government bloc could muster in the Chamber some 340 votes; afterwards, it could muster at least 400. The Right retained its numerical strength (about 130), but the extreme Left made decided gains at the expense of the moderates, or Progressives. The number of Progressive seats, 120 prior to the election, was reduced by half; while the aggregate of Socialist and Radical-Socialist seats rose to 230. On all sides Moderate Republicanism fell before the assaults of Socialism.

In 1902 Clemenceau became a senator and four years later, at the age of 61, was appointed minister of home affairs. Now a right-wing nationalist, Clemenceau ruthlessly suppressed popular strikes and demonstrations. Seven months later Clemenceau became France's prime minister. On October 25, 1906, Clemenceau became Premier. His period in office (1906-09) was marked by his hostility to socialists and trade unionists. The first advent to power, after thirty-five years of strenuous political life, of one who must be ranked among the ablest oí the twenty-seven prime ministers of the Third Republic was coincident with an important evolution in the history of the French nation. The separation of the Roman Catholic Church from the state, by the law of December 1905, had deprived the Socialists, the now most powerful party of the extreme Left, of the chief outlet for their activity, which hitherto had chiefly found its scope in anti-clericalism.

The Clemenceau ministry, which survived until July 1909, adopted a program which was more frankly socialistic than was that of any of its predecessors. The Briand ministry by which it was succeeded followed in the same lines, three of its members, indeed, being active socialists. During 1907 and 1908 Clemenceau's premiership was notable for the way in which the new entente with England was cemented, and for the successful part which France played in European politics, in spite of difficulties with Germany and attacks by the Socialist party in connexion with Morocco. Clemenceau spent the years before World War I advocating for a strong military, expressing his hatred of Germany, and, once the war began, accusing the French government of defeatism.

In 1909 Clemenceau's old enemy, Delcasse, rose up suddenly and overthrew his Ministry on July 20th, 1909. A discussion over naval affairs sprang up almost over-night. There were scandals, investigations, controversies. In a verbal duel with Delcasse - in the early years of Clemenceau's activity his duels were frequently not verbal - the Premier, to quote a newspaper dispatch, "seemed, for the first time in his Parliamentary career, to lose his head. Certainly he lost his temper, declared that Delcasse had "humiliated France," and stalked out of the room. Delcassé replied with such effect that the Chamber, amid cheers from the Right and Extreme Left, voted against the government 212 to 176. M. Clemenceau, whose ministry had been the longest in the history of the Third Republic, resigned and was succeeded by one of his colleagues, M. Aristide Briand. But Clemenceau's power was not broken, for he kept his place in the Senate. In 1912 he overthrew Caillaux's Ministry and 1913 wrecked Briand's Cabinet.

The President of the Republic was free to summon to the direction of affairs any member of the outgoing Cabinet who could count on the support of a fair number of his colleagues, e.g. Barthou, Stephen Pichon, Doumergue, or Viviani ; but, to judge from his past, Aristide Briand, one of the most representative speakers of the Socialist party, was the best able to give the assurances required by that party. This was the first time in the history of France and of the Republic that the reins of government had been entrusted to a Socialist. But this Socialist was the statesman who had carried into effect, with equal tact and firmness, the rupture of the Concordat, that essential item in the program of the radical bourgeoisie ; he seemed therefore to be the one designated to effect a reconciliation between the bourgeoisie and the working classes, and thus to reconstruct what was then known as the bloc republicain.

The majority of the party groups arrived at the electoral season devoid of harmony and paralyzed by uncertainty of policy. The composition of the Chamber following the elections of 1910 can be stated only approximately. Composing the Right were (i) the Right proper, 19; (2) the Action Liberale Populaire-organized originally to combat the radicalism of Waldeck-Rousseau, 34; (3) the Progressives, now to be identified with the Right, 76-a total of 129. Identified with the Left were (1) the Republicans, 73; (2) the Radicals, 112; and (3) the Radical-Socialists, 149 - a total of 334. Comprising the Extreme Left were the Socialists (Independent 30; Unified, 75), aggregating 105. Finally, of Independents there were upwards of 20.

Emile Loubet was followed as President in 1906 by Armand Fallieres, succeeded by Raymond Poincare in 1913. The Briand ministry (reconstituted in November, 1910) retired in February, 1911. The Monis government which succeeded lacked coherence, as also did the ministry of Caillaux (June, 1911 to January, 1912).

Joseph Caillaux was, in fact, Clemenceau's discovery. The latter found him a university professor, recommended him to Waldeck-Rousseau, and, later, received him into his own cabinet as Minister of Finance. After the overthrow of the opera bouffe ministry of the wine dealer Monis, to which he also belonged, Caillaux was appointed Premier of France. He did not hold office long. But during his short period of office the most important diplomatic incident before the war occurred: the Morocco crisis. He concluded a Morocco treaty with Germany on November 4, 1911, but was defeated two months later. Caillaux's cabinet was overthrown - that was the feat of Clemenceau, the great cabinet-wrecker.

The ministry of M. Poincare, established in January, 1912, was the forty-fifth in the history of French parliamentarism since 1875-a period of but thirty-seven years. Between 1875 and 1900 but four years elapsed without at least one change of ministry. Since 1900 changes have been somewhat less frequent. The Waldeck-Rousseau ministry of 1899-1902 - the longest-lived since 1875 - endured virtually three years; the Combes ministry of 1902-1905 lasted more than two years and a half; and the Clemenceau ministry of 1906-1909 fell but little short of two years and nine months. None the less, a total of nine ministries within the space of thirteen years means an average of but one year and a half to the ministry. It was fair to say that the ordinary "crisis" was not likely to involve a complete ministerial change. Defeated in the Chamber, or unable to make progress, the ministry as a body resigned; but, as a rule, many of the members were immediately reappointed, with perhaps a change of portfolios. A certain continuity arose from the fact that the subordinate officials in the various departments enjoyed a reasonable fixity of tenure.

It seemed that French parliamentarians always chose the moment when the international situation is particularly troubled to overturn ministries. On 16 December 1913 the Barthou ministry, the fifty-fourth that the Third Republic, more famished than Saturn, had devoured in forty-three years, fells, when France was engaged in difficult negotiations with Germany and Italy, when Turkish affairs must be followed with more attention than ever, and when the incidents of Alsace-Lorraine gave evidence of a danger that the blind alone do not see. M. Raymond Recouly pertinently remarked that it might be possible to live under such constant changes of government in an isolated planet or a separate continent, but not in the Europe of to-day.

Caillaux, the master-spirit of the Radicals, was the object of the hostility of the Moderates. They claimed that he used his position to cause speculation at the Stock Exchange, and accused him of "selling out" to Germany in the settlement after Agadir. For the fourth time, 8 Dec. 1913, Caillaux was appointed Minister of Finance. In early 1914 M. Gaston Calmette of the "Figaro" began to assail M. Caillaux in a continuous campaign of carefully documented and utterly damning evidences of political turpiture, with the avowed intention of forcing his resignation. The question was brought up in the Chamber, and both M. Doumergue and M. Jaures were hard pressed to defend their colleague. When M. Calmette promised even more sensational disclosures, on 16 March 1914 Mme. Caillaux went to the editorial rooms of the Figaro and shot down the editor in cold blood with a revolver. Not even the affair of Madame Stendhal had aroused such intense interest in the capital. M. Caillaux was forced to resign immediately.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:45:21 ZULU