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France on the threshold of the 20th century /
A steady but controversial government /
A parliamentary democracy

A parliamentary democracy

A radical and secular Republic

The year 1879 marked the true beginning of France's Third Republic, and a series of Republican governments-with their Opportunist, Moderate and Radical factions-followed one after another. Republicans were responsible a number of democratic advances, including the general amnesty for the CommunardsGeneral amnesty for the Communards
The government savagely put down the Paris Commune in 1871, and executed 30,000 of its partisans. A series of court martials, which ended only in 1874, handed down sentences to another 14,000 people. After a sustained campaign led by Victor Hugo, a general amnesty voted in 1880 allowed all those who had been deported, mainly to New Caledonia, to return to France.
(July 1880), as well as legislation concerning public education (1880-1882), divorce and trade unions (1884). These were not enough, however, to erase the Scandal of the DecorationsThe Scandal of the Decorations
Deputy Daniel Wilson was compromised for having trafficked in decorations in return for money. His father-in-law, Jules Grévy, was forced to resign as president of the Republic, taunted by comic songs about « what a shame it is to have a son-in-law ».
(1887) and the Panama ScandalThe Panama Scandal
In 1892, legal proceedings were started against various elected officials who had financed newspapers and padded their election funds with money from a company that had been set up to dig a canal in Panama. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had created the Suez Canal, owned the company. Clemenceau and other members of Parliament were compromised and lost their seats in the 1893 elections.
(1892). From 1898 to 1907, French political life was a turbulent affair: Madeleine Rebérioux has shown how the Radicals, "by gaining control of the State and the municipalities and putting their people in place, and by increasing the number of committees, were able to convince their rural and petit-bourgeois constituents that colonial expansion was an interesting necessity-and that any expansion at all was a virtue." France, although socially conservative, nevertheless became a democracy that served as a role model the world over. In 1905, the separation of Church and State-the path to which had been prepared in various ways-established the originality of the French model.

Prosperity and favors

A Republican government ensured economic prosperity. Its supporters were encouraged by the prefects, as Ernest-Charles Hendlé acknowledged in Rouen in 1882: "A government that is aware of its duty and its mission owes justice and impartiality to all, and it reserves expressions of friendship and the favors available to it exclusively for those who defend and support its institutions." Hendlé died in office in February of 1900; Drumont described him as a prefect of the "Panamist and Jewish Republic," but Le Temps hailed one whose example had guided "an entire generation of civil servants."

Like his colleagues, Charles-Henri Lefebfre du Groriez, who was prefect of the department of Savoie from 1883 to 1905, stated that he was guided by a single policy: "union between all Republicans who are wise, honest and patriotic." La Croix de Savoie condemned his "elastic points of view," but even this newspaper was forced to acknowledge that the majority of Catholics had rallied to the Republic, encouraged by the papal encyclical Au milieu des sollicitudes, published on 20 February 1892.

The supremacy of legislative power

Parliament kept tight control of executive power, and 45 successive governments were formed between 1870 and 1906. The president of the Republic was kept in a representative role. Jean Casimir-Périer, who was elected president on 27 June 1894, wanted to "neither ignore nor prescribe" those rights granted to him by the constitutional laws of 1875. He was criticized, and resigned as president on 16 January 1895. Leon Gambetta had predicted the arrival of a "new social layer" in political life, and this was confirmed. However, under this republican government of progress and reason-which had dissolved the Concordat of 1801 with the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant religions-social changes came about only slowly.


Tricolor flags, symbol of the Republic

NADAR. Portrait of Casimir-Perier, President of the Republic