The First Republic was ushered in by the French Revolution in 1789 and officially proclaimed in September 1792 when the monarchy was abolished. Louis XVI was beheaded four months later, followed by internal rebellions, war abroad, an economic crisis and, of course, the ruthless suppression of all counter-revolutionary forces during the bloody Reign of Terror that made the guillotine perhaps the only thing in France not starving. The army gained more and more control, thus preparing its most successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte, to stage a coup and eventually declare himself Emperor in 1804.
During the First Empire the royal dogs were kept at bay and the Napoleonic Wars insured that foreign countries would not meddle in domestic affairs, but while preserving some social gains and instituting civil reforms, Napoleon was not a republican nor a democrat and became increasingly autocratic until the European nations finally allied against him. After his disastrous campaign in Russia he was forced to abdicate on April 11 1814. A yearlong exile on the island of Elba, then he returned to revive the Empire for the famous Hundred Days before his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18 1815. While he wallowed in exile—on Saint Helena this time, ultimately dying there in 1821—the monarchy was restored in France under Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI.
Unlike the previous “absolute” monarchy, the Bourbon Restoration under Louis XVIII was a “constitutional” monarchy following the Charter of 1814, the constitution he had allowed before Napoleon rushed back on stage, but it, too, was far from democratic. He died on the throne in 1824 and was succeeded by another younger brother, Charles X, who ended up becoming more and more authoritarian, suspended the constitution and finally dismissed the government, which led to the July Revolution of 1830 and brought to power Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, the “bourgeois monarch”. As might be expected, this government, as well, declined into oppression and exploitation that enriched the wealthy until the economic crisis of 1847 exploded in the 1848 Revolution, which sent this last French king into exile in England.
After sixty years of various changes under different forms of government, the condition of the people had not changed. To solve the problem in this Second Republic, rival schools of thought inevitably came into conflict. Between capitalism and socialism, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, between the rich and the poor were irreconcilable differences out of which imperialist sympathies resurfaced. The conservatives came out on top but on December 10 1848 it was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of Napoleon I, who won the presidential election. Over the next three years he consolidated his power and influence by suppressing the opposition, playing the monarchists against the republicans, all the while fostering his own personal ambitions that culminated in a coup d’état, an illegal maneuver that dissolved the National Assembly in December 1851 and paved the way, a year later, for the Second French Empire, which lasted eighteen years.
Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, ruled until 1870, developing from an “authoritarian” empire into a “parliamentary” empire during those volatile times on the international scene: wars in Europe along with an economic crisis brought on by the American Civil War that resulted in free trade agreements with Britain, for example. As he continued to estrange his former supporters and fuel his enemies what other result was to be expected but his downfall? And Prussia was the instrument. France declared war on Prussia in 1870, but after a series of defeats culminating in the disastrous Battle of Sedan on September 1, Napoleon III surrendered. It was the loss of more than just his war. On September 4 the National Assembly was mobbed, a new government formed and the Third Republic officially declared, dominated by the “three Jules”, Jules Ferry, Jules Simon and Jules Favre.
The Third Republic ended in 1940 when the Nazis defeated France and the Vichy government was installed. As it ended in war, so it had begun. After Sedan the Prussians continued their march and laid siege to Paris for more than five months. Bombarded, starved, and finally vanquished and sold, the French surrendered to the Prussians in 1871 and set up a provisional, conservative government in Versailles with Adolphe Thiers at its head. The resulting treaty and financial laws, especially for those eternal reparations, were so untenable that the workers, socialists of all stripes and the National Guard rebelled and established the Paris Commune of 1871. This radical left-wing government lasted over two months before it was repressed during the “Semaine Sanglante”, the Bloody Week, between May 21 and 28 1871.
The times were uncertain. Still feeling the wounds from the defeat of Sedan and traumatized by the Commune, France hesitated between a conservative monarchy and a moderate republic. After almost a century of passion and fury, from revolution to restoration, from fleeting republics to authoritarian empires, from coup d’états to unstable monarchies, the country was hoping for a rest, but it did not know which way to turn. Nevertheless, after a failed attempt to reestablish the monarchy, the republicans took control of France, wrote its new constitution in 1875 (voted through with only one vote of majority) and ruled for the next sixty years.
During the 1850s and 1860s the French had lived under an authoritarian government, but they were relatively prosperous times. Unfortunately, the failed war of 1870 plunged it into an economic depression that it would not really crawl out of until World War I. In many people’s eyes those responsible for this deplorable situation were the members of parliament whose self-interest took precedence over any concern for their electors. The growing poverty through this era was phenomenal and the struggle against it monumental. At the start it fell to the Paris Commune of 1871. Even if it is hard to imagine today, it was a time when people of different political ideologies fought together—socialists, communists and anarchists alike—to establish a revolutionary government, flying the socialist red flag instead of the republican tricolor (blue, white and red), and eventually become a model for future generations throughout the world. The Communards, however, paid dearly for their experiment. During the Bloody Week in May 1871 the number of casualties (more Parisians than Communards, of course) in the slaughter was anywhere from 17,000 to 40,000. Officially there were 43,522 arrests that took six years to try in court and resulted in a couple of dozen executions and thousands sent to the penal colony in New Caledonia. Many Communards managed to flee to Belgium or Britain or elsewhere; many others escaped from the colonies to live in exile. When the general amnesty was declared in 1880, they returned to face the Third Republic. By then, Séverine had a role to play.