Third French Republic Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the downfall of the Second Empire of Napoleon III, France again established a constitutional republican system of government. The creation of this Third French Republic was fraught with political confrontation and maneuverings between royalists and republicans that set the tone for the long period of political control that followed.

Summary of Event

While France continued to battle in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) after Napoleon III’s surrender on September 1, 1870, its chances for any military success became increasingly remote in the last months of that year. In the face of mounting despair and against the wishes of the fiery radical Léon Gambetta, the provisional government began negotiations with Prussia and arranged a truce on January 28, 1871. France was to hold national elections while the truce was in force in order to create a legal government that could negotiate a formal peace. The elections were held on February 13; those elected began to assemble in Bordeaux shortly thereafter. France;Third Republic Thiers, Adolphe MacMahon, Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de d’Artois, Henri Dieudonné Gambetta, Léon [kw]Third French Republic Is Established (Feb. 13, 1871-1875) [kw]French Republic Is Established, Third (Feb. 13, 1871-1875) [kw]Republic Is Established, Third French (Feb. 13, 1871-1875) [kw]Established, Third French Republic Is (Feb. 13, 1871-1875) France;Third Republic Thiers, Adolphe MacMahon, Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de d’Artois, Henri Dieudonné Gambetta, Léon [g]France;Feb. 13, 1871-1875: Third French Republic Is Established[4530] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 13, 1871-1875: Third French Republic Is Established[4530] Broglie, Jacques-Victor-Albert Orléans, Louis-Philippe-Albert d

Two factors combined to make this National Assembly predominantly royalist in tone. First, France was war-weary, and its citizens, remembering Gambetta’s stubborn refusal to surrender, associated republicanism with war. Second, the extreme shortness of the electoral campaign period encouraged the peasants to vote for those men who enjoyed the greatest prestige in the community, often members of the local aristocracy. Once convened, the National Assembly elected Adolphe Thiers, the old Orléanist minister, as its provisional executive, then moved from Bordeaux to Versailles Versailles and began work on a final peace treaty with Germany.

A well-known historian, Thiers had been in the assembly since 1863 as a deputy and had constantly sat with the liberal opposition to the empire. As a conservative republican, Thiers tried to strike a balance between the fiery republicans who were under the sway of Gambetta and the royalists. In August of 1871, with the grudging support of the royalists, Thiers became the president, but by 1873 he was alienated by the extreme positions of the royalists and ultraconservatives. It was in Thiers’s nature to try to moderate and reach political consensus, but this proved to be increasingly difficult.

After it had determined itself empowered to act as a constituent assembly, the National Assembly had to agree on what form the new government should take. The overwhelming royalist majority was hampered in its desire to create a monarchy by three factors. First, they were unable to agree whether the crown belonged to Louis-Philippe-Albert d’Orléans, Orléans, Louis-Philippe-Albert d’ comte de Paris and grandson of the former King Louis-Philippe, or to Henri Dieudonné d’Artois, the grandson of King Charles X. Second, Thiers, a political conservative, appeared to be agreeable to continuing a republic, especially if he himself were president of it. Third, the republicans seemed to convince the electorate that royalist support of the papal cause in Italy might lead to war. This last factor identified the royalists with war and the republicans with peace, so that in successive elections the republicans cut deeply into the royalist majority.

The royalists, worried by increasing republican strength, overthrew Thiers in 1873 and had him replaced with Marshal Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de MacMahon, an old imperial general. MacMahon then selected Jacques-Victor-Albert Broglie Broglie, Jacques-Victor-Albert as premier and minister of foreign affairs. Royalist hopes for establishing a monarchy were dashed when the obstinate Dieudonné d’Artois announced that he would accept the throne only on terms that everyone in France knew would be unacceptable. Marshal MacMahon was approached by Dieudonné d’Artois about a possible coup d’état, but MacMahon remained loyal to his oath as president. Dieudonné d’Artois left France in a state of irritation with MacMahon and other royalists who were not inclined to act illegally for him. The threat of a Bourbon restoration faded, mainly because of Dieudonné d’Artois’s rigidity and his own imperious personality.

Antimonarchist revolutionaries tearing down a statue of Napoleon III in Paris.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

When this attempt at establishing a monarchy failed, the moderates took over the leadership of the National Assembly, and in 1875 they established the Third French Republic on a permanent basis. The constitution of 1875 was designed to prevent the radical republicans from gaining power, but aided by certain precedent-establishing events of the next few years it prevented anyone from gaining personal power.


The precarious new republic was bolstered in the wake of the events of May 16, 1876, when President MacMahon forced Premier Jules Simon, a moderate, to surrender his office to a conservative who was acceptable to MacMahon and the right. Republicans of all persuasions resisted the royalists in the Chamber of Deputies, refusing to recognize the change. MacMahon responded by dissolving the chamber and calling for new elections. At this point, the royalists were confident of an electoral victory, as the republicans were able to unite.

In a surprise move, Adolphe Thiers and Léon Gambetta campaigned together vigorously, but during the campaign Thiers died. Thiers, who had never been liked by the staunch Gambettist republicans, became a martyr, a rallying point. Although the republicans never gained the overwhelming victory for which they had hoped, they at least stanched the royalist tide. MacMahon’s powers were reduced, and the high tide of royalist sentiment had been reached. The elections of October 14, 1877, were indeed conclusive for the republicans, who received more than 54 percent of the vote. This victory ended the confrontation that dominated the early days of the Third Republic and also settled the political confusion that had marked the establishment of the republic. France had finally achieved a reasonably stable government.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bury, J. P. T. Gambetta and the Making of the Third Republic. London: Longman, 1973. Bury’s work contains a great number of facts surrounding Léon Gambetta’s role in the creating of the republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elwitt, Sanford. The Making of the Third Republic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975. In this work, Elwitt focuses on the so-called bourgeois founders of the republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fortescue, William. The Third Republic in France, 1870-1940: Conflicts and Continuities. London: Routledge, 2000. Chapters 1 and 2 cover the emergence of the Third Republic and the political climate in the republic’s earliest years.
  • 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, including universal male suffrage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taithe, Bertrand. Citizenship and Wars: France in Turmoil, 1870-1871. London: Routledge, 2001. Examination of the concept of citizenship during the period of social and political upheaval surrounding the establishment of the French Third Republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, A. M. Democracy in France Since 1870. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. Thomson’s presentation of the foundation of the republic examines all factions and their positions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times: From the Englightenment to the Present. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. This classic work examines France of 1870 from every aspect of French culture, politics, and society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zeldin, Theodore. Ambition, Love and Politics. Vol. 1 in France, 1848-1945. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1973. Zeldin recounts the chaos and confusion of the 1870’s in France.

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Categories: History