Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Four Presidents

The new government having shown ability to cope with the situation by putting down the lawless Commune,—although at a fearful cost of life and property,—confidence was soon restored at home and abroad. Indeed, the story of the invasion of France, of the siege of Paris, and of the horrors of the Commune, had touched so many hearts, that contributions now came pouring in from all sides, thus helping the poorer Parisians to live, and the peasants to rebuild their ruined huts, restock their deserted farms, and purchase seed and tools to enable them to earn their living once more in their old homes. Meantime, the government in general, and Thiers in particular, were straining every nerve, not only to restore security and thereby prosperity to France, but also to collect and pay, the enormous war indemnity, without which the Germans refused to evacuate certain parts of the country.

Such was the patriotism of the people, however, that whenever a loan was called for, much more than the sum desired was immediately subscribed, and whereas Thiers had imagined that it would be impossible to comply with Germany's demands on time, and some people fancied it could never be done, the thousand million dollars were paid to the last penny on the 5th of September, 1873, and the last German soldier was seen to cross the French frontier a few days later! Most of the German soldiers had, of course, returned to their homes immediately after the war, and it is reported that Emperor William I., on his return, paid a visit to his mother's tomb, bending over to kiss her beautiful marble effigy and murmuring brokenly, "Mother, thou art avenged!"

When the arrangements for the last payment had been duly made, early in the spring of 1873, Thiers received an official vote of thanks from the Assembly, which enthusiastically declared that he "deserved well of the country," while the French everywhere hailed him rapturously as "Liberator of the Territory!"

Meantime, it was not only money that France had lost; the Germans had taken possession of Alsace and Lorraine, where German rule and the German language officially replaced the French, and was exclusively used in the schools.1 The inhabitants, however, were free to choose whether they would remain French citizens and leave their homes, or, renouncing France, remain where they were and become German citizens. This choice was, as you can imagine, a very cruel one, but many patriots lost everything rather than give up the right to call themselves Frenchmen, and the whole nation still mourns the loss of these two provinces, which have often been compared to two innocent little maidens borne off into captivity by a cruel foe! The statues of Alsace and Lorraine, or of their chief cities, are still veiled in crape on all festive occasions, thus showing that the wound bleeds on in spite of the years which have elapsed since the disastrous Franco-Prussian War.

The declaration of Thiers at Bordeaux, that when order was once restored the people would be at liberty to choose the government they preferred, had encouraged all political parties to help him, while biding their time, each faction of course deeming that it would be the one to reap the benefit of such forbearance. Very soon after the Commune, therefore, there was much agitation by the Legitimists, who wanted a monarchy with the Count of Chambord as king; by the Orleanists, who wanted the Count of Paris to head a constitutional monarchy; and by the Bonapartists, who wanted to restore the Empire. Each party tried to induce Thiers to favor its views, rather than uphold the Third French Republic, in which they knew he was, originally, no ardent believer, although he was now elected president.

Thiers, however, was shrewd enough to point out that while there might be one throne in France, he could see three claimants for it, of whom no two would ever be willing to allow the third to occupy it in peace! At first this argument seemed unanswerable, but the Legitimists, knowing that the Count of Chambord was already past middle age and childless, and that the Count of Paris was his heir and next of kin, hoped to induce the latter to forego all claim to the throne until the former's death. Then, after a vain attempt to effect a reconciliation between parties which had been estranged since 1830, some of the monarchists, fancying Thiers was the main obstacle to their success, succeeded in forcing him to hand in his resignation (1873).

On the following day, France unexpectedly found herself with a new executive, for, Thiers having resigned, Marshal MacMahon was immediately elected by the Assembly to be president in his stead.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


MacMahon went to reside in the Elysee Palace, in Paris, thus transferring the government to the capital once more. A year later he formally opened the Grand Opera House, the largest and most beautiful theater in the world. To grace this occasion, the Lord Mayor of London and many other noted persons appeared officially, and were ushered up the grand staircase between lines of glittering cuirassiers.

The monarchists, knowing that MacMahon belonged by birth to their party, and the Bonapartists, knowing that he had earned his title (Duke of Magenta) while in the service of the Empire, both hoped for his support. A new attempt was therefore made—this time successfully—to end the feud between the Legitimists and Orleanists, so it looked for a while as if monarchy might after all be restored. In fact, the Count of Chambord graciously made many concessions; but when asked to allow France to retain the tricolor, to which the people were so attached, he firmly declared that he would never give up "the flag of Henry IV. and of Joan of Arc" for the "flag that France had chosen for herself." This obstinacy about "a napkin," as the royal banner was contemptuously styled by one great authority, proved to his long-suffering party that there would be no chance to restore royalty in France as long as he lived. As from their point of view a Republic was preferable to the Empire, the Royalists now loyally supported the government of MacMahon, even helping to pass the law (septennate) providing that the term of office of the French president should be seven years.

By a series of laws passed in 1875, during the administration of MacMahon,—second president of the Third French Republic,—the Assembly framed a new constitution which, with slight change, is still in force in France. The lawmaking power was given to a National Assembly consisting of two houses—a Senate elected mostly by the eighty-six departments, and a Chamber of Deputies elected by all the people. The National Assembly elects the president of the Republic (at Versailles), who appoints the ministers. The first elections gave a Republican majority in both Senate and Chamber; The fact that France had recovered with marvelous speed from the disastrous effects of the Franco-Prussian War, and that notwithstanding it had cost her some $3,000,000,000 she was not ruined, was demonstrated by a beautiful World's Fair, held in Paris in 1878, of which there still remains the magnificent building of the Trocadero.

The next year, although his term of office was not ended, MacMahon resigned (1879), whereupon the Senate and Chamber of Deputies elected Grevy, a Republican, third president of the Third Republic. It was in the beginning of Grevy's presidency that the Prince Imperial died in Zululand, to the lasting grief of the Bonapartists, whose hopes now had to be transferred to Prince Napoleon, son of Jerome, who was not at all popular, and who was best known by the derisive nickname Plon-Plon.

Taking advantage of some trouble with Tunis, France proceeded to invade that province (1881), over which she still holds a protectorate. From time to time, also, she gradually extended her authority in Madagascar, Tonkin, and Anam, although the wars in those regions, carried on in trying climates, cost innumerable lives and large sums of money.

Grevy, whose most noted saying is the oft-quoted, "I am here, I stay here!" (J'y suis, j'y reste!), not only served out the full seven years of his first term, but was elected to serve a second term, just at a time when monarchists were holding up their heads with more pride because a daughter of the Count of Paris had married the heir of Portugal. Foreseeing trouble from their exalted state of mind, the minister of war (General Boulanger) secured a decree exiling all pretenders to the crown from France. But soon after, having become very popular, thanks to sundry army reforms, he was accused of aiming at military dictatorship, and for that reason was deprived of his command and placed on the retired list. This unwise measure only made a martyr and idol of this popular hero, whose praises were loudly sung everywhere. For no sufficient reason, many people expected great things of him, and at one time seemed ready to follow wherever he led; but, prosecuted by the government, he was soon obliged to flee from the country, and he ended his adventures by committing suicide.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


Grevy, whose career had been most praiseworthy, was forced to resign (1887) because he rashly tried to shield his son-in-law who had been trafficking in decorations. The Senate and Chamber of Deputies thereupon elected in his stead Sadi Carnot, a grandson of the Carnot of Revolutionary fame. During his presidency, the one hundredth anniversary of the last meeting of the States-General was celebrated at Versailles (1889), and he opened an exposition (1889) which surpassed all its predecessors in beauty and extent, thus revealing to the world at large how fast France was progressing in every line. The Eiffel Tower is all that now remains of the glories of this World's Fair, in the course of which the one hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille was celebrated with great popular rejoicings.