Third Republic - 1870-1940
When the third republic was established in 1871 it was not only imperial institutions and the form of government which had to be replaced. Of the plaster statue raised by Napoleon III. nothing remained. The army had to be made over; public education had to be reorganized; political liberty had to be created; the colonies were uncared for ; promises had been made to the workman which had not been realized ; deceitful hopes had been raised among them ; the finances had been badly managed ; foreign and civil war had added the last straw to our misfortunes. A great deal of courage was necessary to take up the work.
Under the Third Republic, France experienced an endless succession of barely distinguishable ministries that achieved very little and were involved in repeated crises. The French political situation was viewed in Britain and Germany as both tragic and farcical. In France the parliamentary system did not work well. The parties in the Chamber of Deputies presented such a series of dissolving views that it is very difficult to draw an intelligible picture of them.
The various groups of Monarchists and Bonapartists together formed in the Chambers the party of the Reactionaries, or as it is more commonly called, the Right or Conservatives.
The rest of the members were supporters of the Republic, and formed nominally a single party, but they had really been held together only by a desire to maintain the existing form of government, and seldom acted in concert except when they thought that threatened. They had always comprised men of every shade of opinion, from conservatives to radicals and even socialists, and would speedily have broken up into completely hostile parties, if it had not been for the fear of the Reactionaries. Even under the pressure of this fear their cohesion was very slight, for they have been divided into a number of groups with organizations which, though never either complete or durable, had been quite separate ; and again, these groups were often subdivided into still smaller groups, whose members were loosely held together by similarity of opinions or desire for advancement, usually under the standard of some chief, who held, or hoped to win, a place in the cabinet.
The political history of France since the beginning of the Third Republic presented, instead of an alternation between two parties of opposing programs, like those of Belgium or England, a continual evolution along one line, the constant growth of the strength of parties which represented the democratic, anti-clerical tendency.
Power could not pass alternately, as in England and the United States, from the party on one side over to the party in opposition. This alternation, this game of see-saw between two opposing parties, did not exist, and had never existed, in France. The reason why is simple. If the party of the Right, hostile to the Republic, should come into power, the temptation would be too strong for them to maintain themselves there by establishing an autocratic government, which would put an end to the parliamentary regime, as in 1851. The electors are conscious of this tendency of the Conservatives, and would not run the risk of entrusting the Republic to them. When they were discontented with the Republicans in power, they vote for other Republicans. Thus, new Republican groups are being ceaselessly formed, while the old ones fall to pieces.
After the first election under the new constitution - that of 1876 - the Senate remained in the control of the Conservatives, but the Chamber of Deputies was found to contain a Republican majority of more than two to one. From that day the Republican ascendancy in the lower house was maintained uninterruptedly; and since 1882 there was likewise always a Republican majority in the Senate. It is to be observed, of course, that Republican control in both chambers has meant regularly not the absolute dominance of a single compact party group, but the preponderance of a coalition of two or more groups broadly to be described as "republican."
Chosen by the members of Parliament, the President belonged normally to the party group which was at the time in the ascendant. There was no living functionary who occupied a more pitiable position than a French President. The old kings of France reigned and governed. The Constitutional King, reigns, but does not rule. The President of the United States governs, but he does not reign. It was been reserved for the President of the French Republic neither to reign nor yet to govern. The Ministry was the real executive. In earlier days the ministers of war and of the marine were selected not infrequently from outside Parliament, but this practice was later discontinued.
In France there was a multiplicity of parties and no one of them was likely ever to be in a position to dominate the Government alone. No ministry can be made up with any hope of its being able to command a working majority in the Chamber unless it represents in its membership a coalition of several parties. A Government so constituted, however, is almost inevitably vacillating and short-lived. It was unable to please all of the groups and interests upon which it relied; it dared displease none; it ended not infrequently by displeasing all.
One of the peculiarities of the Third Republic was the instability of its Cabinets. The Ministry held by a precarious tenure. Party discipline was much less prevalent in France than in Great Britain or the United States. For this reason any fortuitous event, chancing to produce in the country a temporary excitement on some political or semi-political subject, was likely to storm into the Assembly, break the party lines, and drive the Ministers from power. Their own following breaks line in the presence of the excitement, and an unexpected minority vote for the Government leads to a resignation and readjustment. Possibly with the morrow the circumstances have changed, and the Chamber may even regret its hasty and passionate action ; but it is then too late to mend the broken vessel.
A Minister maintained in power for a long course of years, ought to excel a stop-gap Ministry which a parliamentary coalition called into being to-day, and a chance vote overturns to-morrow. The former, without in the least being either a Richelieu or a Bismarck, would know by long practical experience. Without genius at all, experience is enough to teach him what each of them desires, what wires must be pulled, what he can venture, and what he ought to fear. Prom retaining his position he is able to engage in operations that involve long periods for their evolution, to pursue designs slowly, to take advantage successively of the faults of his adversaries so as to produce situations from which he can profit, or which may be essential to secure alliances he needs.
From whence comes the Minister of whom an unstable parliamentary regime calls to pilot his country through the numerous rocks of contemporary politics ? He is raised suddenly and without preparation from very different occupations. And this savant, this litterateur, is obliged to hold his own with old players who know all the moves thoroughly. How can he fail to make mistakes every moment ? How is he to check the often contradictory indications that reach him ? How can he escape being the dupe of preconceived ideas or of the ideas of other people ? He is beaten in advance.
And even if he were to conceive a wise and able policy, it would be impossible for him to put it into execution in the short time he is suffered to retain the portfolio. Presently, some Ministerial crisis or another would carry him away, and another would succeed him as little prepared as he was for the functions he has to perform.
Cabinets were short-lived; and the effects of their policy seldom appearing clearly before they have given up office, or even before they have been turned out by Parliament, they can never be made to account for their actions; that the line followed by a Government is seldom adopted by the Government which comes after it, and that, as M. Clemenceau once said, with his usual bluntness in the Chamber, the French Republic is governed incoherently. Add that the rule has almost invariably been that the more difficult parts, those of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, War, Finance, and the Navy, are hardly ever entrusted to technicians, and that, in the words of M. Faguet, the lack of proper capacity is generally associated with the dread of responsibilities. Illustrations could be numberless. The history of the Ministry of Navy alone would appear as a long tale of expensive and dangerous inconsistency.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|