A French propaganda poster from 1917 is captioned with an 18th-century quote: "Even in 1788, Mirabeau was saying that War is the National Industry of Prussia."
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 resulted in the defeat of France and the overthrow of Emperor Napoleon III and his Second French Empire. After Napoleon's capture by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan (1 September 1870), Parisian deputies led by Léon Gambetta established the Government of National Defence as a provisional government on 4 September 1870. The deputies then selected General Louis-Jules Trochu to serve as its president. This first government of the Third Republic ruled during the Siege of Paris (19 September 1870 – 28 January 1871). As Paris was cut off from the rest of unoccupied France, the Minister of War, Léon Gambetta, who succeeded in leaving Paris in a hot air balloon, established the headquarters of the provisional republican government in the city of Tours on the Loire river.
After the French surrender in January 1871, the provisional Government of National Defence disbanded, and national elections were called with the aim of creating a new French government. French territories occupied by Prussia at this time did not participate. The resulting conservative National Assembly elected Adolphe Thiers as head of a provisional government, nominally ("head of the executive branch of the Republic pending a decision on the institutions of France"). Due to the revolutionary and left-wing political climate that prevailed in the Parisian population, the right-wing government chose the royal palace of Versailles as its headquarters.
The new government negotiated a peace settlement with the newly proclaimed German Empire: the Treaty of Frankfurt signed on 10 May 1871. To prompt the Prussians to leave France, the government passed a variety of financial laws, such as the controversial Law of Maturities, to pay reparations. In Paris, resentment against the government built and from late March – May 1871, Paris workers and National Guards revolted and established the Paris Commune, which maintained a radical left-wing regime for two months until its bloody suppression by the Thiers government in May 1871. The following repression of the communards would have disastrous consequences for the labor movement.
Composition of the national Assembly – 1871
The French legislative election of 1871, held in the aftermath of the collapse of the regime of Napoleon III, resulted in a monarchist majority in the French National Assembly that was favourable to making a peace agreement with Prussia. The "Legitimists" in the National Assembly supported the candidacy of a descendant of King Charles X, the last monarch from the senior line of the Bourbon Dynasty, to assume the French throne: his grandson Henri, Comte de Chambord, alias "Henry V." The Orléanists supported a descendant of King Louis Philippe I, the cousin of Charles X who replaced him as the French monarch in 1830: his grandson Louis-Philippe, Comte de Paris. The Bonapartists were marginalized due to the defeat of Napoléon III and were unable to advance the candidacy of any member of his family, the Bonaparte family. Legitimists and Orléanists came to a compromise, eventually, whereby the childless Comte de Chambord would be recognised as king, with the Comte de Paris recognised as his heir. Consequently, in 1871 the throne was offered to the Comte de Chambord.
Chambord believed the restored monarchy had to eliminate all traces of the Revolution (including most famously the Tricolor flag) in order to restore the unity between the monarchy and the nation, which the revolution had sundered apart. Compromise on this was impossible if the nation were to be made whole again. The general population, however, was unwilling to abandon the Tricolor flag. Monarchists therefore resigned themselves to wait for the death of the aging, childless Chambord, when the throne could be offered to his more liberal heir, the Comte de Paris. A "temporary" republican government was therefore established. Chambord lived on until 1883, but by that time, enthusiasm for a monarchy had faded, and as a result the Comte de Paris was never offered the French throne.
The Ordre Moral government
The term ordre moral ("moral order") was applied to the policies of the early governments of the Third Republic in reference to the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, whose political and social innovations were viewed as morally degenerate by large conservative segments of the French population.
In February 1875, a series of parliamentary acts established the constitutional laws of the new republic. At its head was a President of the Republic. A two-chamber parliament consisting of a directly-elected Chamber of Deputies and an indirectly-elected Senate was created, along with a ministry under the President of the Council (prime minister), who was nominally answerable to both the President of the Republic and the legislature. Throughout the 1870s, the issue of whether a monarchy should replace the republic dominated public debate.
In France, children were taught in school not to forget the lost regions of Alsace-Lorraine
, which were coloured in black on maps.
On 16 May 1877, with public opinion swinging heavily in favour of a republic, the monarchist President of the Republic, Patrice de MacMahon made one last desperate attempt to salvage the monarchical cause by dismissing the republican prime minister Jules Simon and appointing the monarchist leader Albert, duc de Broglie, to office. He then dissolved parliament and called a general election for the following October. If his hope had been to halt the move towards republicanism, it backfired spectacularly, with the president being accused of having staged a constitutional coup d'état known as le seize Mai ("the 16 May Crisis") after the date on which it happened. Indeed, it was not until Charles de Gaulle, 80 years later, that a President of France next unilaterally dissolved parliament.
Republicans returned triumphantly after the October elections for the Chamber of Deputies. The prospect of a monarchical restoration died definitively after the republicans gained control of the Senate on 5 January 1879. MacMahon himself resigned on 30 January 1879, leaving a seriously weakened presidency in the hands of Jules Grévy.
The Opportunist Republicans
Following the 16 May crisis in 1877, Legitimists were pushed out of power, and the Republic was finally governed by republicans referred to as Opportunist Republicans for their support of moderate social and political changes in order to establish the new regime firmly. The Jules Ferry laws that made public education free, mandatory, and secular (laїque), were voted in 1881 and 1882, one of the first signs of the expanding civic powers of the Republic. From that time onward, public education was no longer under the exclusive control of the Catholic congregations.
To discourage French monarchism as a serious political force, the French Crown Jewels were broken up and sold in 1885. Only a few crowns, their precious gems replaced by coloured glass, were kept.
In 1889, the Republic was rocked by a sudden political crisis precipitated by General Georges Boulanger. An enormously popular general, he won a series of elections in which he would resign his seat in the Chamber of Deputies and run again in another district. At the apogee of his popularity in January 1889, he posed the threat of a coup d'état and the establishment of a dictatorship. With his base of support in the working districts of Paris and other cities, plus rural traditionalist Catholics and royalists, he promoted an aggressive nationalism aimed against Germany. The elections of September 1889 marked a decisive defeat for the Boulangists. They were defeated by the changes in the electoral laws that prevented Boulanger from running in multiple constituencies; by the government's aggressive opposition; and by the absence of the general himself, who placed himself in self-imposed exile to be with his mistress. The fall of Boulanger severely undermined the political strength of the conservative and royalist elements within France; they would not recover their strength until 1940.
Revisionist scholars have argued that the Boulangist movement more often represented elements of the radical left rather than the extreme right. Their work is part of an emerging consensus that France's radical right was formed in part during the Dreyfus era by men who had been Boulangist partisans of the radical left a decade earlier.
The Panama scandals of 1892 involved the enormous cost of a failed attempt to build the Panama Canal. Due to disease, death, inefficiency, and widespread corruption, the Panama Canal Company handling the massive project went bankrupt, with millions in losses. It is regarded as the largest monetary corruption scandal of the 19th century. Close to a billion francs were lost when the French government took bribes to keep quiet about the Panama Canal Company's financial troubles.
The welfare state and public health
The state had a smaller role in France than in Germany before the First World War. French income levels were higher than German income levels despite France having fewer natural resources, while taxation and government spending were lower in France than in Germany.
France lagged behind Bismarckian Germany, as well as Great Britain, in developing a welfare state with public health, unemployment insurance and national old age pension plans. There was an accident insurance law for workers in 1898, and in 1910, France created a national pension plan. Unlike Germany or Britain, the programs were much smaller – for example, pensions were a voluntary plan. Historian Timothy Smith finds French fears of national public assistance programs were grounded in a widespread disdain for the English Poor Law. Tuberculosis was the most dreaded disease of the day, especially striking young people in their 20s. Germany set up vigorous measures of public hygiene and public sanatoria, but France let private physicians handle the problem. The French medical profession guarded its prerogatives, and public health activists were not as well organized or as influential as in Germany, Britain or the United States. For example, there was a long battle over a public health law which began in the 1880s as a campaign to reorganize the nation's health services, to require the registration of infectious diseases, to mandate quarantines, and to improve the deficient health and housing legislation of 1850.
However, the reformers met opposition from bureaucrats, politicians, and physicians. Because it was so threatening to so many interests, the proposal was debated and postponed for 20 years before becoming law in 1902. Implementation finally came when the government realized that contagious diseases had a national security impact in weakening military recruits, and keeping the population growth rate well below Germany's. Another theory is the low rate of French population growth, relative to Germany, was due to a lower French birth rate perhaps due to the provision under French Revolutionary law that land must be divided up among all the sons (or a large compensation paid) —- this led peasants to not want more than one son. There is no evidence to suggest than French life expectancy was lower than that of Germany.