A brief outline of the French political situation shortly before World War I

o In 1871, the Third French Republic was born out of the French defeat at the hands of Prussia. There was no specific constitution by which the Republic was governed and so it was difficult to pin down when something was against the ‘Spirit of the Republic’.o The President had considerable powers in theory. He could dissolve the ‘Lower House/Chamber’ but in reality, he needed approval of the ‘Upper House/Senate’ to do this. He was generally seen as a figurehead to represent the country rather than a complete ruler. For example, he also could not veto legislation.

o January 13th 1875: The presidency came under fire and the post of ‘President’ was only kept by a majority of one vote from the Upper House/Senate. Popular opinion (outside of Parliament) wanted the old Monarchy back by a slim margin. This showed that the French themselves thought that the President was almost superfluous.

This weakened the President’s position in foreign policy and negotiations.o The Boulanger Crisis:1. 1886: General George Boulanger was ‘a reforming Minister of War’2. 1887: Boulanger was elected a Deputy of Parliament in a by-election and so displays that he has grown in popularity.3. Boulanger wins support for his right-wing ideals and aggressive stance towards Germany and Bismarck in particular.4. December 1887: President Grevy and Prime Minister Rovier made to resign after Wilson, son in law of Grevey, was found to be selling military honours.

This is Boulanger’s chance to seize power.5. In March 1888, he stood for election in several Constituencies6. In 1889, he was elected to the Department of the Seine and many people thought that Boulanger would attempt a coup at this stage.

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For unknown reasons, he decided not to and the Republicans rallied against him to close of any chance of such an occurrence.7. After the Republicans regained confidence, he was charged with ‘Endangering National Security’ and fled to Brussels, where he committed suicide in 1891.o The Boulanger Crisis illustrated some of the weakness of the Republic because it showed that any mistake made by the Republicans would stir up Monarchist feeling in the people.

On the back of the Panama and Dreyfus scandals, much of the confidence in the integrity of the Republic had disappeared into thin air.o The French political system itself seemed extremely chaotic from the outside, too. This did not aid matters of appearance in the least.

o France went through 68 Presidents in 70 years. On the surface this is a terrible statistic considering that terms are supposed to last seven years. Looking a bit deeper, it was not so bad. It only reflected the turmoil in the parties themselves. As mentioned above, the President was not seen as a ‘ruler’ as such anyway, so he acted more as a sort of political ‘weathervane’ than anything else.o Superficially, another big problem was that hardly anyone knew what party most of the politicians were in anyway.

Many of the politicians were, in fact, members of more than one party and it was only possible to tell who was with whom at what time by the way in which they voted and even THEN, it was mostly guesswork.o This is not as bad as it seems. There was, in fact, a solid core of able politicians who had had years of experience in French Politics, much of the time even more than the President. This lent French Politics and underlying stability that is not immediately apparent.

The disadvantage to this is that – from the outside – this was not immediately obvious, making France seem weaker than it really was.o Armed Socialist riots were also relatively commonplace and President Carnot was even assassinated by a student activist in 1894, showing that many Frenchmen wanted a different way of government. To a greater or lesser extent, the same was true in most countries of Europe, though.o Flaws Within French Society: The Dreyfus Affair1. 1894: The Ministry of War discovered that military secrets were being sold to the Germans. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew in the Ministry and unpopular with his colleagues, was found guilty of this crime and deported to Devil’s Island for life.

Everyone was relieved that the pride of the army had been preserved and that justice had been done so swiftly.2. 1897: Major Georges Picquart, the new Chief of Intelligence in the Army, was sent some new documents that convinced him that the real perpetrator was Major Count Walsin-Esterhazy, a former Austrian Army officer. He was told to keep this information to himself.

3. 1898: Picuart was posted abroad and left the documents with a journalist. Shortly before, Dreyfus’ brother had told the Vice-President of the Senate that the handwriting on the offending documents matched Esterhazy. Esterhazy himself decided he should be put on trial but was acquitted by a military Tribunal in January of that year. Picquart was dismissed from the Army.

4. An article was printed in ‘L’aurore’ (edited by Georges Clemenceau), which was an open letter to the President accusing five generals and two other officers of having known of Dreyfus’ innocence. The country split into Dreyfusards, who believed in his innocence and anti-Dreyfusards who believed that even if he was innocent, a retrial would go against the Country’s honour.5.

Several documents were shown by the Minister of War (many initialled ‘D’ and some signed ‘Dreyfus’) to prove his guilt. The Minister’s own handwriting expert admitted that he thought they were false. Dreyfus was thought to be as good as proven innocent by the public.6. Eventually, he was proven innocent in 19067.

The Dreyfus Affair was not just about the innocence or guilt of one man, it was about the whole system of the Third Republic itself. The Anti-Dreyfusards thought that the greatness of France was more important than the rights of a single man while the Dreyfusards thought that the Republic should stand for equality of man and the end to descrimination based on class or race. Since Dreyfus was a Jew, this became of particular importance.o The Results of the Dreyfus Affair: The Dreyfus affair showed that much of France was of different opinion and very right wing while much of the rest of French population was far more left-wing in its outlook. This highlighted a great flaw in the French civilisation but was also a good thing in the long run.

It forced many Frenchmen to think about these issues in ways they never had done before and actually discuss this with people. In the end, a compromise between the two apparently opposing sides and France was all the stronger for it.o In the short term, however, it was a major destabilising factor and rocked confidence in the Third Republic, which was already badly shaken by the Panama Scandal and the ‘weak’ way in which they acted against Boulanger. These issues were eventually mostly resolved, however, but it did offer another insight into the weaknesses of France for France’s opponents.