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Some Weak Spots in the French Republic

by Theodore Stanton


Last autumn the third French republic completed the second decade of its checkered existence, and has thus proved itself to be the most long-lived government which France has known since the advent of the great Revolution a century ago. No previous government has been able to stand eighteen years, so that the present republic has outstripped all its predecessors, whether republican, imperial, or monarchical, leaving even the most fortunate of them two or three years behind, and bidding fair to increase the distance indefinitely. Its longevity has been greater than the first and second republics taken together, which covered a period of a little over sixteen years; while if we combine the existence of all three republics, equal to about thirty-six years, we again find that no other regime has shown such prolonged vitality,—the two empires having lived for only twenty-eight years, and the two monarchies for about thirty-three and a half years.

But the early years of the third republic—from 1870 to 1879—like the declining period of the first and second republics, were more monarchical than republican. And again, there are so many weakening influences in the present institutions of France, that the decisive conclusions which might otherwise be drawn from the foregoing considerations need, I regret to say, to be considerably qualified. Previous to the election to the presidency of M. Grévy, in 1879, the government was happily styled “a republic without republicans.” But since that date the same party—the republican—has had supreme control. Practically, therefore, the third republic has been in operation about twelve years, and has, therefore, still to pass that dangerous turning-point in the history of French governments, the twentieth year.

I now come to the consideration of some of the more serious causes of lack of faith in the duration of the present regime. But it should be pointed out right here at the start that many of these blemishes, most all of them in fact, have characterized every government in France, so that they are not peculiarly republican; and I hasten to add that my object in pointing them out, in analyzing them and dwelling on them, is not for the purpose of belittling or ridiculing the estimable government now controlling the destinies of France. As an American and a republican who has observed contemporary French history on the spot since 1874, who has been an eye witness of many of the crucial episodes of this critical period, who has known personally several of the leading actors and who wishes well for the present institutions, I take up this subject not so much in order to find fault with what is, as to endeavor to discover how far these imperfections and weaknesses endanger the existence of a form of government in which all Americans take such a lively and sincere interest. Nowhere else in the civilized world, not even in France itself, would the fall of the third republic cause such deep regret as in the United States. Hence it is that we desire to know what likelihood there is of such a disaster being brought about, in the hope that by calling attention to the dangers, we may, perhaps, do something to prevent such a lamentable catastrophe.

The greatest peril that has threatened the republic since its foundation in 1870, was the recent Boulanger adventure. Though this rather addle-brained general is now quite dead politically, the causes which gave him strength and nearly plunged France once more into a chaos whence would probably have issued a tyranny of some sort, still exist and are continually on the point of cropping out again. The principal one of them is the lack of union among republicans. Just as the republic owed its final triumph to the circumstance that the royalists and imperialists could not coalesce during the years immediately following 1870, so Boulanger, backed by these same royalists and imperialists, nearly won the day two years ago, almost wholly because the republicans were divided among themselves. Union among republicans is scarcely less necessary to-day than it was during the dark days of Marshal MacMahon’s presidency and the threatened Boulangist coup d’etat.

Since the republicans have had control of the two houses, the minority, especially in the chamber of deputies, has been very strong, the Right to-day numbering about one hundred and seventy deputies, and the Boulangists about thirty more, making a grand total of two hundred in a membership of less than six hundred. That is to say, the Opposition, mustering more than a third of the chamber. And when it is borne in mind that this minority is not simply a constitutional Opposition, that its advent to power would mean the eventual overthrow of the republic, we perceive how radically different such an Opposition is from that found in the parliament of other countries, where whether the outs come in or the ins go out, no vital change occurs in the nature of the government.

The existence of this recklessly revolutionary minority and the fickleness of republican union are the chief causes of ministerial instability, one of the worst features of the present regime. The ministry has changed so often during the last twenty years, that many republicans have been led to doubt the advantages of the English parliamentary system, and have turned their eyes toward its modification in the United States, where the existence of the Cabinet is independent of a vote of the House. It was this admiration of the American system which led M. Naquet and M. Andrieux—once prominent republican deputies, and the former still a member of the Chamber—to espouse Boulangism, and the general obtained not a little of his popular strength from his oft-repeated assertion that he would put an end to ministerial instability. That this evil is not exaggerated, though the proposed remedy would probably have been worse than the disease, is shown by the most casual glance at French cabinet history since the fall of the second empire.

Since September 4, 1870, up to the present day, there have been no less than twenty-eight different ministries, which makes, on an average, a new ministry about every nine months. There were three ministries in each of the years 1873 and 1877, while in 1876, 1879, 1882, 1883, 1886, and 1887, there were two each. The longest ministry was the second, presided over by M. Jules Ferry, which lasted from February 21, 1883, to April 6, 1885, or a few weeks over two years. Gambetta’s famous ministry—called in derision “le grand ministère“—lasted two months and a half. M. de Freycinet, the present prime minister, has been in power four times since 1879, the first time for nine months, the second for six months, the third for eleven months, and the fourth since March of last year. Among the shortest ministries were those of M. Dufaure, from May 18 to May 25, 1873; General de Rochebouet, from November 23 to December 13, 1877, and M. Fallières from January 29 to February 21, 1883.

The persistency with which the reactionists refuse to recognize the legal government of France, is another source of weakness in the present institutions. When M. Carnot gives a reception at the Elysée Palace you never see a deputy or a Senator of the Right advancing to salute the president and his wife, and when he offers a grand state dinner to parliament, he does not invite members outside of the republican party because he would run the risk of receiving a curt regret. What is true of M. Carnot and the Elysée holds good also for all the ministers and other high functionaries: they are left severely alone by Monarchists and Bonapartists alike.

This sulking in the tent on the part of the reactionists has in it something worse than their simple absence from all official social ceremonies. The talents, experience, and patriotism of this élite are almost wholly lost to the country, and to the government. From the ministries, the judiciary, the foreign embassies, the prefectures, and the rectorships of the universities, they are necessarily excluded. The ancient nobility of the old regime with its wealth and traditions, and the younger nobility of the first and second empires; the blue blood bourgeoisée, especially of the provinces, and the aristocratic ladies of all classes, turn their backs, almost without exception, on the new order of things, and sigh for court and king or emperor.

In the provinces this detestation of the republic sometimes becomes ludicrous. In Montpelier, for instance, “polite circles” absolutely boycott the republican official world. The prefect has a palatial residence but does not dare to throw open his salons, for none of “the first families” would respond to his invitation. When the mayor of the city, before whom all marriages must be performed, is invited to the reception at the house, none of the reactionary coterie will have a word with him and none of their young men will dance with his daughter. I have heard similar stories from Pan, Castres, and Albi, and doubtless the same thing is true of many other cities. But royalists and Bonapartists would not feel too much out of place in the French republic, for it is astonishing, at least to an American, to see how many monarchical customs have been preserved by the present government. And this brings me to the consideration of a new source of weakness of the republic. I refer to its unrepublican features. A few examples will explain what I mean.

The “military household” is one of the imperial institutions which the third republic accepted and continued. The first president, however, did not revive it. “M. Thiers never had a military household,” M. Barthélémy Saint Hilaire, his private secretary and fidus achates writes me; “however, in order to honor the army, he had two orderlies.” But when Marshal MacMahon became president in 1873, it was only natural that he should surround himself with soldiers. At first the “Cabinet of the Presidency” consisted of three officials, one of them being a colonel. In 1875 this cabinet had grown to five members, two of them colonels, and one an artillery officer. In 1879 the “Cabinet of the Presidency” was reduced to two members with a colonel at its head, but was supplemented with a “military household”—the first appearance of this institution under the third republic—consisting of six officers, so that Marshal MacMahon had seven officers in all as his immediate attendants.

At this point M. Grévy enters the Elysée. He throws out the military member of the Cabinet of the Presidency, but increases by one his military household, so that there were as many officers at the Elysée under the lawyer president as under the marshal president. Nor has M. Carnot, the engineer president, departed from the example set by his two predecessors.

When I asked M. Barthélémy Saint Hilaire the explanation of this custom, he answered: “Our kings were always provided with a military household, in which marine officers also figured. It is doubtless this precedent which has surrounded civilian republicans with a body of officers. The custom is due less to necessity than to a desire to show respect for the army and navy.”

This same military parade is seen at the senate and chamber. During a sitting of either of these bodies a company of infantry is kept under arms in a room adjoining the legislative hall, and when the president of either house enters the building, he advances between two files of soldiers presenting arms, and is escorted to his chair by the commanding officer.

This military element in the present government is as unnecessary as it is dangerous and pernicious. It is dangerous because it might be turned by an ambitious president against the very constitution he has taken an oath to defend. Two instances of this danger are afforded by the action of Napoleon I. on the 18th Soumaire and by that of Napoleon III. on the 2d of December, 1852. It is pernicious because it keeps alive in France that love for military display, and that thirst for conquest, which have been the curse of the country since the days of Louis XIV.

Another one of these monarchical growths which still flourishes under the republic is the excessive reverence and even awe which the public shows to its high officials. When President Carnot appears anywhere, his reception scarcely differs from that shown to Emperor William in the course of his numerous journeys. The president is allowed six hundred thousand francs for “entertaining and travelling,” and his balls and dinners at the Elysée, and especially his official tours through the country smack of royalty to an extraordinary degree. A year ago I had an opportunity at Montpelier to study one of these official visits in all its details, and I was astonished at the royal aspect of the whole affair. The conferring of decorations, the dispensing of money to deserving charities, the cut and dried speeches of the president and the mayors, the military honors,—all this is far removed from that “Jeffersonian simplicity” which Americans at least associate with a republic.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of these tours is the excessive manner in which “the republic” is kept to the fore. In his speeches while “swinging around the circle” President Carnot is continually informing expectant mayors and delighted citizens that “the government of the republic” is watching over their every interest, and he then hastens to thank them for the enthusiastic welcome which they have given to “the republic” in his humble person. The phylloxera has destroyed the vineyards of this or that region, but “the republican minister of agriculture” is successfully extirpating the injurious insect. The new schoolhouses of another city owe their magnificence “to the deep solicitude of the republic for the education of the masses,” while the recently constructed bridge over the river is the work of “the engineers of the republic.” In a word, the farmer and his crops, the mechanic and his house-rent, the schoolmaster and his salary, the wine growers and their plaster, the day laborers and their hours of work, and of course the politicians and their constituents, if the former be republicans, are, according to presidential oratory, the special care of the republic.

Nor is it President Carnot alone who thus proclaims the extraordinary virtues of the ever watchful republic. The ministers, who are continually indulging in brief tours into the provinces, doing en petit what M. Carnot does en grand, are even more assiduous than the president (because their political position is less secure,) in sounding on all occasions the praises of the republic.

Nor is this ringing of the changes on the word republic confined to the oratory of presidential and ministerial junketings. The obtrusion is brought about in many other ways. Thus M. Carnot is always spoken of in the newspapers and elsewhere as “the president of the republic.” M. Waddington at London is “the ambassador of the republic.” The district attorney is “the attorney of the republic.” An official bust of the republic is given the place of honor on the walls of the town council chamber, the public schoolroom, and the courtroom. A new bridge will have carved on its arches the monogram R. F. (République Française) while the same familiar letters stare at you from the fronts of all the public buildings erected since 1870.

The practice is impolitic, to say the least. We have already seen how large and powerful is the body of enemies of the present institutions. It is a mistake thus to force them to admit, at every turn, that they are being governed by a regime which they detest. At a sitting of the Chamber of Deputies, the Minister of Foreign Affairs declares that “the government of the republic,” not France, is negotiating this or that matter. The Minister of the Interior is called upon to explain some rather high-handed measure against obstreperous agitators, and he informs the deputies that “the republic” will not permit laws to be broken with impunity. The Minister of Public Instruction presents a bill for the reorganization of the university system, and in his speech in its support dwells on “the solicitude of the republic for the education of the masses,” thus exciting the opposition of a third of the members of the Chamber. Some of the stormiest and most disgraceful scenes that have occurred in the Chamber of Deputies during the past twenty years are traceable to this foolish parading of the word republic. The republican party could cut the ground from under the feet of their opponents, and bring over thousands of fresh recruits to the new institutions if they would only speak less of the republic and more of France.

Another grave error of the republic is its break with the Catholic Church. I have no space here to place the blame where it belongs. I wish simply to point out the lamentable fact that the whole powerful organization of Rome is arrayed against the present government of France. The danger from this source cannot be exaggerated. It has made the whole body of women enemies of the republic, and “a government which has the women against it is lost,” says Laboulaye. And if Cardinal Lavigerie and the Pope are, at the eleventh hour, coming around to the republic, is it to be wondered at that the Radicals declare that the Church is changing front for the purpose of capturing rather than supporting the republic?

Attacking the purse is quite as grave a mistake as attacking the religion of the thrifty, economical, and provident Frenchman. The financial policy of the republic is unpopular. The annual deficit and the increasing taxation are crying evils even more difficult to handle than are religious troubles, while conservative republican statesmen, like Senator Barthélémy Saint Hilaire, tell me that the national debt keeps on increasing at such a rate that the bankruptcy of France seems sure in the more or less distant future. The present tendency towards a high protective tariff is an attempt to bring money into the national treasury, and thus relieve the peasant and manufacturer not only from foreign competition, but from the disagreeable claims of the tax-gatherer.

The Alsace Lorraine imbroglio must, of course, be mentioned in any list of the dangers threatening the French republic. But it is not so dangerous as might appear at first blush, for, although it is quite true that a war with Germany, especially if it should terminate disastrously, would shake the republic to its foundations, and perhaps topple it to the ground, this same Alsace-Lorraine difficulty is, in home affairs, almost the only question in whose consideration all parties unite on the common ground of patriotism. A republican orator is sure to win the applause of the Right when he refers in eloquent terms to the “Lost Provinces,” “about which,” as Gambetta said, “a Frenchman should always think but say nothing.”

My picture is full of dark colors. But I do not think that I have exaggerated the faults and weaknesses of the third republic. But it should be borne in mind that in this brief paper I have dealt alone on the faults and weaknesses. If I were to go farther and examine the merits and strong points of the present government of France, I could easily prove that notwithstanding these faults and weaknesses, it is highly probable that the various royal and imperial pretenders, their children and their children’s children, will, live and die without ever being able to set up again in France the throne of the Capets or that of the Bonapartes.