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France on the threshold of the 20th century
The French and the army
The military defense of the nation
The idea of revenge after the debacle of the imperial forces, as well the concept of the military defense of the nation, gave substance to the hopes of Leon Gambetta-the Republic stood for the internal union of the army and the people in the defense of the country. In his declaration of 6 September 1870, the Government of National Defense stated its goal: the salvation of the homeland by the army and by the nation.
The law of 27 July 1872 called for mandatory and lengthy military service to make up half of the country's standing forces. The draft concerned men up to twenty-nine years of age, although men up to forty could be called up into the territorial army or the reserves. In the army's barracks, 250,000 conscripts were called up each year, "an interchangeable fulfiller of tasks without illusion, the soldier grinds out his sentence of being merely an anonymous cog in the vast collective machine" (C. de Gaulle).
The popularity of the armed forces
The vast majority of public opinion gave itself over to "seeing and complimenting the French army": applauding its parades and admiring both its troops and leaders. It also made a popular hero out of "gallant general Boulanger," who was director of Infantry from 1882 to 1884, and then War Minister from January 1886 to May 1887. He was admired for his concern for improving the daily life of his soldiers, as well as for his criticism of officers who "made of show of their hostility" towards the Republic, and for his assertions concerning the need for an offensive army that embodied "the nation of today."
The radical ideas put forth in 1869 in the Republican Belleville Program-"elimination of standing armies, [which are] the cause of ruin for nation's finances and affairs, and the source of hatred between peoples"-were forgotten. In 1883, Renan could write that "Death on the field of battle is the finest death of all." Despite the military's role in the crushing of trade union movements-an echo of its victories in the colonies-the hope that it could regain the "lost provinces" ensured true popularity for the French army. It had become the "Sacred Ark."