French Right Wing Revives During Boulanger Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Boulanger, the French minister of war, became the focus of an antirepublican nationalist movement. The Boulanger crisis represented the resurgence of the right wing as a potent political force in late nineteenth century France.

Summary of Event

The great depression of the 1870’s and 1880’s increased social and political divisions within France and led to the deterioration of the moderate center that had controlled the French Chamber of Deputies since the inception of the Third Republic in 1875. Following a serious setback in the elections of 1885, moderate republicans had to win support from the radical republicans to form a stable cabinet. Accordingly, Charles-Louis de Saulces de Freycinet, the new premier, agreed to accept General Georges Boulanger, a protégé of the radical republican leader Georges Clemenceau, as minister of war. Boulanger assumed his new post in January of 1886. Boulanger crisis Paris;Boulanger crisis France;Boulanger crisis Boulanger, Georges France;Third Republic [kw]French Right Wing Revives During Boulanger Crisis (Jan., 1886-1889) [kw]Right Wing Revives During Boulanger Crisis, French (Jan., 1886-1889) [kw]Revives During Boulanger Crisis, French Right Wing (Jan., 1886-1889) [kw]Boulanger Crisis, French Right Wing Revives During (Jan., 1886-1889) [kw]Crisis, French Right Wing Revives During Boulanger (Jan., 1886-1889) Boulanger crisis Paris;Boulanger crisis France;Boulanger crisis Boulanger, Georges France;Third Republic [g]France;Jan., 1886-1889: French Right Wing Revives During Boulanger Crisis[5460] [c]Government and politics;Jan., 1886-1889: French Right Wing Revives During Boulanger Crisis[5460] Freycinet, Charles-Louis de Saulces de Clemenceau, Georges Déroulède, Paul Rochefort, Victor-Henri

Boulanger’s military promotions had until then been more the result of luck and courage than of any intellectual or organizational ability. After he was installed as minister of war, however, he began to attract attention. Boulanger cultivated support from the Left by expressing sympathy with striking coal miners Coal mining;in France[France] in Decazeville and pressing for reforms designed to reduce the harsh discipline that prevailed within the army, while simultaneously pleasing militant nationalists by publicly stating his intention to recapture Alsace-Lorraine Lorraine Alsace (lost in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871). The fact that Boulanger seemed willing to plunge France into a war with Germany for which it was unprepared was unimportant. Many nationalists believed that France at last had a champion who had the courage to confront Otto von Bismarck and avenge the humiliating defeat of 1870-1871.

Boulanger’s bellicose and irresponsible attitude combined with his growing popularity to encourage various right-wing leaders, such as the journalist Victor-Henri Rochefort Rochefort, Victor-Henri and Paul Déroulède Déroulède, Paul (a founder of the militantly nationalist League of Patriots organization), to think that they had found a man who could overthrow the republic and restore the monarchy in France. For his part, Boulanger became seduced by the flattery and machinations of these antirepublicans and decided to make a play for political power. Financed by a wealthy royalist widow, he ran as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies from several districts in France. (At the time, French electoral law allowed a candidate to run simultaneously from as many districts as he wished.) His campaign was accompanied by some violence, as his supporters fought their political enemies in the streets. They also engaged in Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];in France[France] anti-Semitic France;anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] and nationalistic rhetoric.

As ominous as it was, Boulanger’s campaign was a success: He was elected in several departments. His political base proved to be surprisingly wide, including not only wealthy royalists of various types but also a large number of ordinary voters who normally voted for leftist candidates. Because he was still in the army, Boulanger was ineligible to serve in the Chamber of Deputies. Nevertheless, his success frightened many republican leaders, including Freycinet Freycinet, Charles-Louis de Saulces de , and he was given command of the Thirteenth Army Corps in Clermont-Ferrand as a ruse to remove him from the political limelight of Paris. Shortly thereafter, he was officially removed from his position in the government.

Boulanger returned to Paris three times in the next year, against orders and in disguise. As a result, he was expelled from the army. Boulanger was now free to run for, and serve in, the Chamber of Deputies. He put himself up as a candidate from Paris in an 1889 by-election and won a resounding victory. His right-wing supporters believed that this victory represented a virtual plebiscite and that the time was right for Boulanger to make his move and seize power. In January of 1889, thousands of his supporters marched through the streets of the French capital shouting Boulanger’s name and demanding that he launch a coup d’état. However, the general refused to act, afraid that the army would not support such an unprecedented move. Boulanger’s failure of nerve at this critical moment lost him support, and his movement, known as Boulangism, rapidly lost its momentum. Republican moderates, with the support of the radical republicans, launched a counterattack, prosecuting him for treason, and Boulanger was ultimately forced to flee the country. He committed suicide on the grave of his mistress in England in 1891.


The Boulanger crisis represented a severe test of the young Third Republic of France. It demonstrated that royalists and authoritarians were still a potentially significant force in French politics. The republic survived the test, but it was not the stronger for it, since many perceived that it had survived through no fault of its own. Republican politicians thus became aware of the precarious hold that democracy had on the nation. Nevertheless, the Third French Republic would strenghten and would survive all internal pressures in the coming decades, until the invasion of the country by the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf finally brought the republic to an end.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burns, Michael. Rural Society and French Politics: Boulangism and the Dreyfus Affair. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. An excellent case study of the reasons why French rural dwellers were attracted to right-wing movements such as Boulangism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fortescue, William. The Third Republic in France, 1870-1940: Conflicts and Continuities. London: Routledge, 2000. Detailed history of the Third Republic, including such crises as the Boulanger crisis and the Dreyfus affair.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irvine, William. The Boulanger Affair Reconsidered: Royalism, Boulangism, and the Origins of the Radical Right in France. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. This noted authority on conservative political movements in late nineteenth century France argues that the Boulanger crisis marked the beginning of the resurgence of the right wing in French politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lehning, James R. To Be a Citizen: The Political Culture of the Early French Third Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. A history of the early years of the republic, in which the French government worked to implement political reforms and to resist a return to authoritarianism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magraw, Roger. France, 1815-1914: The Bourgeois Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Presents an excellent overview of the Boulanger crisis without, however, providing much analysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayeur, Jean-Marie, and Madeleine Rebérioux. The Third Republic from Its Origins to the Great War, 1871-1914. Translated by J. R. Foster. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An English translation of a classic French text, this work draws heavily on the work of Jacques Julliard, the foremost French historian of the Boulanger crisis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nord, Philip G. Paris Shopkeepers and the Politics of Resentment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Although concerned with a number of other important issues, the author provides a very subtle and perceptive analysis of why so many members of the French lower middle class were attracted to Boulanger.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seager, Frederick. The Boulanger Affair: Political Crossroads of France, 1886-1889. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969. This book now appears a bit dated in comparison to the works by Burns and Irvine, but it nevertheless provides a very thorough account of the Boulanger crisis and its long-range impact on French politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. The author emphasizes the ideological overtones of Boulangism but unfortunately downplays its social aspects.

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