1 pages essay


French History

Section 5: The Third Republic and World Wars I and II (1870-1945)


In this section we will study the Third Republic (1870-1940) and the political instability that marked this period, nationally and internationally. During this era France experienced intense political upheaval, a loss of power on the world stage, hard won victory in World War I, and Nazi invasion. We end this module with World War II and the German Occupation.

Key terms and concepts: Cohabitation, Until-the-Bitter-End-Ism, the Third Republic, World War I, World War II, Nazi Occupation, Communards, the Dreyfus Affair, Vichy government, Free French, French Resistance movement


Table of Contents:

· Chapter 6: Until-the-Bitter-End-ism  (Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, pp. 75-83)

· Bismarck and the End of French Dominance in Europe (1870-1871)

· The Third Republic (1870-1940)

· World War I (1914-1918)

· Between the Wars (1919-1938)

· World War II (1939-1945)

· Aftermath of World War II: The Abolition of the Third Republic (1945)

· Sources

Objectives for this section :

After completing the following readings, see if you are able to do these things:

· Briefly describe how France lost dominance in Europe at the end of the 19th century.

· List three accomplishments of the Third Republic during its early years, from 1871-1914.  

· Explain briefly how France was inevitably drawn into World War I and what legacy it left for the next generation of French people.

· Describe the convergence of social, political and economic circumstances between the wars that paved the way for Hitler's rise and the spread of war to France.

· List three measures enacted by de Gaulle and his provisional government that helped restore order to French society after the Liberation.

Chapter 6: Until the Bitter End-ism (Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, pp. 75-83)

Study Questions:

· Define cohabitation and say why the French were uncomfortable with it during the Mitterrand and Chirac years.

· In what sense does "Until-the-Bitter-End-Ism" apply to the French quest for an "absolutist " democracy?

· How does the Tocqueville concept of "self-interest well understood" which made democracy work in America compare to the French approach?  

· How has it come to be that in France bosses have the last word?

· N-B state in Chapter 6 "Until-the-Bitter-End-Ism," that the French have a penchant for controversy and doing battle with one another--a state of mind N-B suspect may arise from their love of power as well as from their history. From your readings in French history, what evidence is there to support this hypothesis?

In Chapter 6, N-B look at the French disdain for compromise and the tendency to take things to the limit. They use the term jusqu'au-boutisme or "until-the-bitter-endism" to describe this behavior, which is a character flaw that 800 years of history have sought to cure. The form of democracy France has achieved reveals the balancing act of crafting governmental structures that contain extremism but do not repress it--what N-B call an "absolutist" democratic government. By looking at French history through this lens, it is possible to gain insights into the tumultuous regime changes, coups d'état, and civil wars that have divided the nation so often, yet in the final analysis have left open some pathway to reunification and allowed for France to persevere as a single entity.

Bismarck and the End of French Dominance in Europe (1870-1871)

After Napoleon III left for England, France's government was headed by interim leader Léon Gambetta. 

Léon Gambetta

Gambetta's mission was to defend the nation and negotiate with Bismarck, who wanted Alsace plus one-third of Lorraine and the city of Metz. When Bismarck laid siege to Paris, the French chose to resist, so Gambetta tried to rally the French fighting force from a temporary capital in Tours to defeat them. However, extremely cold weather during the winter of 1870-71 and incessant bombing practically broke the will of the French in the face of Bismarck's demands for total capitulation. On February 12, 1871, a National Assembly convened in Bordeaux, where the new government headquarters had regrouped after fleeing Tours. The head of the executive branch met with Bismarck at Versailles to discuss the conditions to end the German occupation. France was to pay Germany five billion gold francs, concede Alsace, part of Lorraine, and the city of Metz. After the peace treaty was signed, France retained only the part of its territory around Belfort, making Germany the supreme power in Europe.

The Third Republic (1871-1914)

The head of the National Assembly was a 68-year-old man named Adolphe Thiers (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., who was chosen to head the Provisional government because he favored the Monarchists and was likely to help them restore the king to power.

    Adolphe Thiers

But reason was overruled in Paris by the uprising of the Communards, who refused to accept France's defeat at Sedan. With the red flag as their symbol, they reverted to the ideals of the Revolution: separation of Church and State including the banishment of Catholic schools, and the reinstitution of the Revolutionary calendar. Thiers' army of 100,000 under the command of General McMahon crushed the rebellion, trying, executing, jailing, and deporting to overseas penal colonies 20,000 Communards during what came to be known as "The Terrible Year." (Mermier 75). 

As president of the Third Republic, Thiers reorganized the army and put finances in order. However, when he failed to back the Monarchists in their plan to restore the king, he lost their support and in 1873 was forced to resign. It was the Sedan army general Marshal MacMahon, who replaced him and  who in turn delegated the power to a conservative Orleanist (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. named Albert de Broglie.

Patrice de MacMahon, Marshal of France  Albert de Broglie

The Third Republic was nevertheless held together by Marshal MacMahon since the Royalists were split into two factions: those who favored the return of Henri, Count of Chambord who called themselves Legitimists, and the Orleanists who favored Philippe, Count of Paris, Louis-Philippe's grandson. 

Henri, Count of Chambord   Philippe d'Orléans

In either case, the Count of Chambord, "Henri V", refused to rule under the Republican Tricolor flag, requiring instead that the country revert to the white fleur-de-lys of the monarchy. But the Assembly had a greater concern:  the menace of a third faction seeking to return to power-- Bonapartists.  It was this fractious political and social climate that led to Marshal MacMahon's being elected for seven years.

In its early days, the Third Republic tried to impose some sort of moral order on French society  by restricting the press and the University, and by creating more Catholic institutions to shore up its conservative mandate. But the Monarchists were divided to the point that eventually MacMahon was forced to resign in 1879, putting an end to any dream of bringing back the king. To solidify the end of the monarchy, the French crown jewels were sold in 1885.

 Crown of Louis XV, Louvre, Paris

MacMahon was replaced as president by Assembly majority leader Jules Grévy, who began his term by driving through legislation declaring July 14 a National holiday to commemorate the fall of the Bastille and making the Marseillaise the national anthem of the French Republic.

 Jules Grévy  Georges Clemenceau   Jules Ferry  Sadi Carnot


Three Crisis Figures of the Third Republic (1889-1894)

 General Georges Boulanger    Ferdinand de Lesseps  Alfred Dreyfus

The Third Republic lasted for seventy years. Under this form of republican parliamentary democracy, the prime minister had more power than the president, but the president bestowed continuity and experience onto the institutions. Members of the Radical Party like Clemenceau (Radical-Socialists) and the Opportunists vied for power, creating and dissolving governments with regularity. The Opportunists under the leadership of Jules Ferry became increasingly dominant and were able to effect slow, cautious change. As prime minister, Ferry passed many laws whose underlying political theme was anticlerical. The most important of these laws was passed in 1882, which made education compulsory for children 6-13 free and separate from the Church.              

In addition to educational reforms, Ferry was an imperialist who collaborated with the German chancellor Bismarck to expand colonial markets. Grévy was forced to resign in 1887 and a new president Sadi Carnot was elected. Jules Ferry continued to serve under Carnot, but was forced out of office after a temporary French defeat in Indochina. In 1889, General Georges Boulanger, who had promised to avenge the French defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1870, won an election by a coalition of factions and the parliament awaited a coup. Unsure of his plan and lacking the necessary resolve despite encouragement from his backers, Boulanger failed to act. Threatened with arrest, he fled to Brussels where he committed suicide following the death of his mistress.

The crisis of boulangisme was the first of three to destabilize the Third Republic.  Next came the Panama Affair in 1892, when the Panama Canal Companyof Ferdinand de Lesseps (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. was in serious debt and the people of Paris continued to invest without being advised of the situation. Thousands people lost money and although the government itself was not threatened by the scandal, people lost faith in politicians since Lesseps and other government personalities were accused of a cover-up. In the wake of this scandal, new Socialist, pro-Marxist and Anarchist parties appeared, managing to win 37 seats in the 1893 elections. (Mermier, p. 78)

The third and most well-known crisis of the Third Republic was the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906). The case involved the 1894 treason conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer, who was a member of the intelligence section of the General Staff and falsely accused of passing secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island, the penal colony in French Guiana. After a long and complicated investigation that turned public when novelist Émile Zola published his famous letter entitled "J'accuse" ("I accuse") in Clemenceau's newspaper L'Aurore in 1898, many anti-Dreyfusards rallied against Zola, causing the author to be condemned.

"J'accuse" Émile Zola Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy

However, the trial revealed to the public the sordid details of the affair that implicated another French officer, Major Walsin Esterhazy. Eventually the trial was revised, Dreyfus was freed, rehabilitated, and decorated with the Legion of HonorEsterhazywho had fled to England, eventually confessed to spying for the Germans.

The Dreyfus Affair left deep divisions within France that cut across families, friends, and provided the means for individuals to blackmail each other for personal or political gain. Those who defended Dreyfus wanted to limit the power of the army. Those who thought Dreyfus was guilty wanted to preserve the honor of the army and accused the Jews of trying to plot against the nation. Groups like Action Française with Charles Maurras and Léon Daudet on the Right and Socialists, Free Masons, La Ligue des Droits de l'Homme (The League of Man's Rights) on the Left.    

 Charles Maurras   Alphonse Daudet  Émile Combes

Maurice Rouvier


To view a video lecture on General Boulanger, the Dreyfus Affair, and the rise of anti-Semitism in France during this period go tohttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONXHQmbH0_M (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. https://ilearn.laccd.edu/images/play_overlay.png


The Third Republic also saw the creation of the first labor union in 1902, the CGT, or General Confederation of Labor. 

Confédération Général de Travail

Organized labor favored strikes and overthrow of the government, even if the motivation was more anarchistic than socialistic, making the position of the prime minister even more precarious.

The Radical Georges Clemenceau (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.  became prime minister in 1906.  During his three years in office, he tried to implement vast social programs, but in the end only saw the chasm between his own Radical Party and the Socialists grow wider. He was succeeded by Aristide Briand (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., who remained in power for two years.  Briand faced many problems, most notably the peasant revolt in Languedoc that followed the devastation of the French wine industry due to a phylloxera infestation.

 Aristide Briand   Phylloxera 


In 1912, Raymond Poincaré became prime minister, then was elevated to president one year later. Poincaré was committed to a policy of national defense, which was what would be needed in the years ahead. The friendly alliances that had bound nations to each other following the French Revolution gradually drew them into war which, in hindsight, all agreed was inevitable. The trigger took place in Sarajevo, in 1914, when a Bosnian nationalist student assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian government sent an ultimatum to Serbia, which Serbia ignored, causing Austria to declare war; Germany approved, not realizing that Russia would intervene, which it did; France was committed to assisting the Czar, and so was drawn into the struggle. By the end of "the war to end all wars" in 1918, the old world order of absolute monarchies had been decimated. The Great War pitted Austria, Hungary and Germany against Serbia, France, Britain and Russia, with the U.S. coming in to assist the French. Ten million lives were lost across Europe .



Raymond Poincaré Archduke Franz FerdinandAssassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  World War I Alliances (Central - in red, Allies in brown)


 World War I (1914 -1918)

The Third Republic with Georges Clemenceau (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. at its helm struggled through the German invasion, The French mobilized quickly, seeking to avenge their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The soldiers were easy targets in their red caps and trousers, and the war was fought mainly in trenches with the French and their British allies holding the line in famous battles such as the First Battle of the Marne (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (1914). But the Germans were technologically advanced and Germany was the most highly industrialized nation on the continent. In 1915 they  introduced chemical warfare, which was very effective, bringing the number of French dead to 400,000 and 600,000 wounded. (Mermier, p.82).  The war dragged on, becoming nothing but a war of attrition for everyone. Early in 1916, the Germans launched a new offensive on Verdun saying that they intended to march on Paris. General Henri-Philippe Pétain (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. was in command of French forces. German and French troops were exhausted, governments were changing one after another, and socialists and pacifists around were clamoring for an end to the conflict.

 Philippe Pétain

In October of 1917, the Russian Revolution broke out, keeping the Russians too busy to wage war. It was at this point that 1 million American troops under the command of General John J. Pershing arrived to help the French. At first Kaiser Wilhelm II  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.refused to give up the fight, but the Germans were making separate armistices with the French and their allies. 

 General John Pershing  Kaiser Wilhelm II

 On November 11, 1918, at Verdun, Berlin accepted an armistice.  A peace treaty known as the Treaty of Versailles (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. was signed on June 28, 1919, according to which France recovered Alsace and Lorraine and Germany was forced to pay heavy war reparations.

Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, 1919

The humiliating defeat in Germany and harsh conditions of the treaty coupled with the economic crisis and rise of fascism, whereby the all-powerful state seized control of the organization of vital industries led to increasing social unrest and financial tensions between nations that was to erupt in war again 20 years later.

Between the Wars (1919-1938)

After the peace, internal conflicts and social divisions once again cleaved the French into Socialists and Communists, Left anticlerical and Extreme Right traditional Catholic parties. The example of the Russian Revolution beckoned workers to join trade unions and band together into coalitions such as La Chambre bleu-horizon and  a Center-Right  group known as the Bloc National, a big business ultra-Catholic coalition supported by Charles Maurras' Action Française. With its economy in decline and inflation on the rise, in 1922 French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré pressured the Germans to pay off their war debt. But Poincaré's government soon toppled in 1924, and the governments that followed were not able to control the deteriorating financial situation. Poincaré's return as Président du Conseil in 1926, helped usher in an economic turnaround for France through the successful automobile manufacturing, petrochemical, and electronics industries. However, just after Poincaré became ill and resigned, the crash of the New York Stock Market on October 29, 1929 brought on a crisis that proved to be catastrophic for Europe. Germany's economic woes were so dire that the situation was ripe for someone with charisma and a plan to restore national pride to rise to power. In 1930, the Nazis gained 107 seats in the Reichstag; Adolph Hitler was named chancellor of Germany by Hindenberg in 1933. Upon Hindenberg's  death the following year Hitler became both chancellor and president under the title of Reichsführer in 1934.

 Adoph Hitler


As Hitler's power was consolidated in Germany, France was floundering in economic deficits and high unemployment. Forty-two governments came and went between the two wars, and the Left battled the Right over the political and social issues that continued to divide the nation. In 1935, a coalition of left-wing Radicals, Socialists, and Communists came together under Léon Blum to form the Front Populaire.

 Léon Blum

Blum was the first Jew in history to hold the post of prime minister of France. His government introduced the 40-hour work week and nationalized the Bank of France and the armaments industry. The government ran into problems with its foreign policy in 1936 when Spain asked for aid against the military uprising led by a junta that included Francisco Franco.

 Generalissimo Francisco Franco

Blum initially promised help but was opposed by Britain and right-wing members of his cabinet. He then called for other European countries not to intervene in Spain, a decision that alienated his own left-wing coalition.  When he suggested National Defense Loans as a solution to France's economic crisis, many people chose to take their loans outside France. In 1937, the Popular Front was ousted and Blum was replaced by  Édouard Daladier.

Édouard Daladier

By the time of the Nazi invasion in 1940, the Third Republic was thoroughly disliked. Daladier had tried joining with Neville Chamberlain of Britain to appease Mussolini and Hitler. By giving in to the Führer's demands, they allowed Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia and invade Poland. When France and England declared war on Germany in 1939, it was because they had no choice--the dream of peace was something they had imagined or hoped for, but was not to be won by diplomatic means.

World War II (1939 -1945)

 France had built the Maginot Line to avoid invasion by the Germans. However, they simply went around it since it did not extend all the way to the sea, invading Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, thus sending French troops into retreat along roads already crowded with civilians. On June 12, 1940, the Germans entered Paris without firing a shot.

 Maginot Line


Prime Minister Pierre Laval convinced the National Assembly to abdicate its powers to Marshal Pétain, now 84 years old, who became head of the new collaborationist regime. 

Pierre Laval


France was divided into two zones: the north and west, including the entire Atlantic coast, were to be controlled by Germany; the remaining  two-fifths of the country would be administered by the French government with the capital at Vichy under Pétain.

Occupied France during World War II (yellow = German control; green = French control under Pétain in Vichy)

Furthermore, all Jews in France would be handed over to Germany. The French Army was reduced to 100,000 men and the French prisoners of war would remain in captivity. The French had to pay the occupation costs of the German troops and prevent any French people from leaving the country. 

Pétain was a war hero whom many French trusted to make the best decisions for France.  Pétain called his Vichy government L'État Français (The French State) whose motto was  "Travail, Famille. Patrie." ("Work, Family, Fatherland."). This was a government based on moral order and the basic values of the land.

Meanwhile, General Charles de Gaulle  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.had left for England after refusing to submit to the collaborationist regime of Vichy.

Charles de Gaulle

With Winston Churchill at his side as a staunch opponent of Pétain's collaborationist régime (unlike U.S. President Roosevelt, who recognized Vichy as the legitimate government of France), De Gaulle established himself as the leader of the "Free French." Pétain promptly denounced him, then later had him tried in absentia at a court martial at which he was sentenced to four years in prison. At a second court martial hearing just one month later, he was sentenced to death. From England, De Gaulle made efforts to unify the French Resistance movement or Maquis.

 French Resistance Fighters  Cross of Lorraine and Jean Moulin 

Jean Moulin   Klaus Barbie

Those who followed De Gaulle's call rallied around the general under their symbol, the Cross of Lorraine. Under the leadership of Jean Moulin and other brave maquisards, members of the undercover resistance went on death-defying missions behind enemy lines in France to blow up supply lines, bridges, ammunition depots, communications, and railways. Many of the maquisards, including Jean Moulin, who was caught by the infamous Klaus Barbie (the "Butcher of Lyon")  met their fate trying to free their countryTheir efforts helped to turn the tide of the war, and by about 1943, the balance of power began to shift in favor of the Allies.

Stalin kept the Germans busy in Russia while General Dwight D. Eisenhower worked with British and other Allied forces to bring together land, naval, and air forces in England for Operation Overlord, the D-Day assault on Hitler's fortified bunkers along the Normandy coast of France, which took place June 5-6, 1944.  Later in the year, another landing took place on the Mediterranean coast of Provence while French general Leclerc, integrated into General Patton's divisions as part of Operation Cobra, continued on with the liberation of France.

 Dwight D. Eisenhower, Operation Overlord    George S. Patton, Operation Cobra

 General Le Clerc

 Hitler and his henchman Goebbels committed suicide in their bunker on April 19, 1945.  On May 7, 1945, the Germans signed their capitulation in Reims.



 Liberation of France, August 24, 1945


Aftermath of World War II: The Abolition of the Third Republic (1945)

After the liberation of France, anarchy ensued as a purge of those who had collaborated or were associated with Vichy during the Occupation were executed. Women who had been fraternizing with the Germans were humiliated -- their heads were shaved and they were paraded through the streets so they could be spat upon. It is thought that 10,000 people were summarily put to death during this period, including Prime Minister Laval. Pétain was sentenced to death, but de Gaulle, who returned to establish a provisional interim government  that was made up of many members of the Resistance and two communists, had his sentence reduced to life imprisonment. (Mermier, p. 90)

De Gaulle and his government immediately outlawed all executions and street lynchings, replacing them with more orderly judicial proceedings.  He saw to it that the nation's major industries--its coal mines, airlines, automobile manufacturing, gas and electric companies--were nationalized and that many major banks also came into the service of the State. Finally, he called for a referendum to put an end to the Third Republic, which was approved by 96% of the voters on October 21, 1945. (Mermier, p. 90)



Sauvigny, Bertier de and David H. Pinkney. History of France. Forum Press, 1983 Mermier, Guy R.  France: Past and Present.  Peter Lang, 2000.