How did the French take the Republican Calendar?

How did the French take the Republican Calendar?

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I've been wondering what the reactions were in France to the new Republican Calendar. When I learned about it in school, it seemed ridiculously overzealous to me, and this notion hasn't left me since. Has it been common among the French people of that era too?

I know that many French workers disliked the new calendar because it gave them a free day every ten days instead of every seven days. But did they use it in they everyday lives nevertheless? Who actually used it and for what purposes? I imagine most seven-day cycles in France's social life must have been too strongly ingrained in the people to be easily removed. Is that correct?

Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, a History, Chapter 3.4.IV:

… on the 5th of October 1793, after trouble enough, they bring forth this New Republican Calendar of theirs, in a complete state; and by Law, get it put in action…


For the Romme (Revolutionary) Calendar, in so many Newspapers,Memoirs, Public Acts,has stamped itself deep into that section of Time: a New Era that lasts some Twelve years and odd is not to be despised.


The New Calendar ceased on the 1st of January 1806. See Choix des Rapports, xiii. 83-99; xix. 199.


Thus with new Feast of Pikes, and New Era or New Calendar, did France accept her New Constitution: the most Democratic Constitution ever committed to paper.

As is evident from Carlyle, the calendar was in widespread use during the period of Jacobin (the far left political wing of the the revolutionary movement that became dominant in French politics in 1792-3) domination, for two reasons, in spite of the inertia factor that you mentioned: Patriotic zeal amongst those who were indeed patriotic, i.e. supported the Jacobins; fear of being deemed "Suspect", i.e. opposed to the Jacobins, amongst those who were not quite so 'patriotic': Moving to a new calendar was more palatable than moving the location of your head from your neck to the sack behind the Guillotine…

Carlyle asserts that the Romme Calendar remained in use for some 12 years, through the early Napoleonic era, although radical Jacobin rule effectively ended in the Summer/Fall of 1794, subsequent to Robespierre's execution, less than a year after the calendar was adopted. This was again due to the inertia factor (once the new calendar was implemented, it was difficult to roll back) and because although the radical Jacobins were out of power, the Thermidorians (a somewhat more moderate group who deposed and executed Robespierre in July of 1794, so named because July became the month of Thermidor [hot-sweltering] in the new calendar) also embraced the Revolutionary vision and believed in the "New Era" ushered in by the Revolution, but rejected the unbridled terror and rapidly developing despotism of radical Jacobinism, led by Robespierre.

In the same way, the French accepted other radical innovations of the Jacobins, as cited above from Carlyle.

French Revolution Timeline

The beginning of the modern history of Europe is marked by the French Revolution. It uprooted the feudal system as well as the rule of the monarch. This revolution started in the year 1789 when Louis XVI was the king of France and end with the levitation of Napoleon Bonaparte.

France was a prosperous country in the 18th century, but it had a problem collecting taxes because of the structure of society. The people with the money nobles and clergy never paid the taxes. By 1789, France was deeply in debt.

The nobles and clergy were enjoying all the special privileges of the country while the commoners were living in poverty and misery.

The end of the French Revolution abolished Monarchy From France and the country evolved to be more democratic.

All these events were of high significance in the history of not only France but also the entire world. Which event do you think was the most impactful?

How the French Revolution Worked

The National Assembly was born out of shared interest in liberty, equality and brotherhood, but as the French Revolution wore on, differences in political ideologies became more obvious. Essentially, the assembly -- known from Sept. 20, 1792, on as the National Convention -- split into two major factions: the moderate Girondins and the radical Jacobins (the most prominent of whom was Robespierre). On the city streets of Paris, another political faction was gaining steam. The sans-culottes, or "those without breeches," became the leaders of local government while the convention governed the entire nation of France. These localized rebels were typically artisans who identified themselves by wearing full-length pants rather than the knee-length breeches that the style of the Old Regime had dictated.

On Sept. 21, 1792, the Convention officially declared France a republic [source: Encarta].

To cut ties completely with the Old Regime, the Convention even created a new Republican calendar for France. All references to religion found in the old calendar's name were stricken, and the advent of a 10-day week was intended to make French citoyens (citizens) forget about Sunday, the proverbial day of worship and rest.

One of the first major issues to divide the Convention was the trial of Louis XVI, now known by the egalitarian surname Capet. Louis Capet had no allies in the Convention, but the Girondins at least wanted to spare his life. The Jacobins wouldn't hear of it Louis must die. Robespierre convinced the people that the monarch must die for the republic to live. Louis ominously prophesied, "I trust that my death will be for the happiness of my people, but I grieve for France…" On Jan. 20, 1793, he was guillotined.

Louis' death didn't put to rest any controversies within the Convention, though. The poorly waged French Revolutionary Wars against Austria and Prussia only divided the factions further. While the wars began in an effort to protect France's borders from other European monarchies who would seek to restore Louis to the throne, they'd become an ideological mission of spreading revolutionary fervor through Europe.

The Jacobins were split on the matter of war. Georges Danton and Robespierre, once political allies, refused to see eye to eye. Danton was a rotund, convivial man with jarring opinions and a loud voice. His priority was the battlefield while Robespierre concerned himself with more immediate threats in the city of Paris. The threat of foreign troops encroaching on French soil finally convinced the Convention to send revolutionary militia to the outskirts of France, and the city of Paris thereby became devoid of protection.

Marat stepped in again to rally the people to action. This time, the Jacobin journalist's directive was straightforward: Kill all the political prisoners. He feared that with the population of Paris outnumbered by the imprisoned counter-revolutionaries, the revolution would be squelched. The sans-culottes rose to the occasion and wiped out thousands of prisoners -- men and women, aristocrats and clergy -- in just a few days. The bloodbath became known as the September Massacre.

The massacre brought Europe's critical gaze zeroing in on France. Was this still a revolution for democracy, or was it just gratuitous bloodshed? The French reconsidered their stance, too. In the outlying provinces, the rural French people were outraged by urban violence. Robespierre decided that someone would have to govern the frenzied French. And for a time, Robespierre, known by his contemporaries as the "Incorruptible," was a steady and righteous leader. But even he lost his cool in the subsequent years.

Organic Articles

As part of the Concordat, Napoleon presented another set of laws called the Organic Articles. These consisted of 77 Articles relating to Catholicism and 44 Articles relating to Protestantism and were published as a unilateral addition to the Concordat in 1802. Napoleon presented the set of laws to the Tribunate and the legislative body at the same time that he had them vote on the Concordat itself. It met with opposition from the Catholic Church with Pope Pius VII claiming that the articles had been promulgated without his knowledge. Presenting the Organic Articles was Napoleon’s method of granting the Tribunate and the legislative body partial control of the Concordat to help the state monitor any politically harmful Catholic or Protestant movements or activities.

How Did the French Revolution Affect the United States?

The French Revolution had an impact on the politics and laws of the United States. It was also a primary motivator behind the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.

When the French Revolution began in 1789, Americans were largely supportive of it. The United States was allied with France at that time, and the hope was that democratic reforms would turn France into a more powerful ally against Britain. As the revolution became more radical and violent, however, opinion became more divided. This led to political division between the Democratic-Republican party who supported the revolution and the Federalist Party who wanted to maintain a good trade relationship with Britain.

When the other European powers went to war with France in 1793, however, both parties agreed that taking sides would lead to economic devastation and potential invasion for the country. The United States thus remained formally neutral despite heavy pressure from both sides.

The political activities of French citizens in the United States and the proliferation of spies led the Federalists, who controlled Congress, to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. These laws collectively raised the residency requirement for citizenship, gave the president the power to deport aliens considered dangerous and male citizens of hostile nations above the age of 14 during wartime and restricted speech that was critical of the government. Most of the provisions of the acts had expired by 1801.

When did they stop using the moon for months?

Romans separated their months from the lunar cycle in the fifth century B.C.E. Month lengths then became fixed. At that time, Ides was assigned as the 15th day in all months given 31 days in length – March, May, July and October. It was designated as the 13th day in all other months. As a result, from then on the Kalends section had from 16 to 19 days, the Nones section had either four or six days and the Ides section, as before, always had eight days.

Sometime after Kalends, Nones and Ides were fixed on predetermined days of the month rather than being defined by phases of the moon, Romans used letters A thru H on the left side of each month’s calendar column to indicate days of their eight-day marketing week. The first day of each new year was represented by the letter "A."

The Last Invasion of Britain

The annals of history record the name of Hastings as the site of the last invasion of mainland Britain by Norman forces in 1066. True, this was the last successful invasion. However, little is reported about the French invasion of Fishguard, which took place in southwest Wales in 1797, nor of the brave resistance offered by Jemima Nicholas, also known as “Jemima Fawr” (Jemima the Great), who single-handedly captured twelve of the invading soldiers.

In 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte was busy conquering in central Europe. In his absence the newly formed French revolutionary government, the Directory, appears to have devised a ‘cunning plan’ that involved the poor country folk of Britain rallying to the support of their French liberators. Obviously the Directory had recently taken delivery of some newly liberated Brandy!

The French invasion force comprising some 1400 troops set sail from Camaret on February 18th, 1797. The man entrusted by the Directory to implement their ‘cunning plan’ was an Irish-American septuagenarian, Colonel William Tate. As Napoleon had apparently reserved the cream of the Republican army for duties elsewhere in Europe, Colonel Tate’s force comprised a ragtag collection of soldiers including many newly released jailbirds. Tate’s orders were to land near Bristol, England’s second largest city and destroy it, then to cross over into Wales and march north onto Chester and Liverpool. From the outset however all did not proceed as detailed in the ‘cunning plan’. Wind conditions made it impossible for the four French warships to land anywhere near Bristol, so Tate moved to ‘cunning plan’ B, and set a course for Cardigan Bay in southwest Wales.

On Wednesday February 22nd, the French warships sailed into Fishguard Bay to be greeted by canon fire from the local fort. Unbeknown to the French, the cannon was being fired as an alarm to the local townsfolk. Nervously the ships withdrew and sailed on until they reached a small sandy beach near the village of Llanwnda. Men, arms and gunpowder were unloaded and by 2 am on the morning of Thursday February 23rd, the last invasion of Britain was completed. The ships returned to France with a special despatch being sent to the Directory in Paris informing them of the successful landing.

Upon landing, the French invasion force appear to have run out of enthusiasm for the ‘cunning plan’. Perhaps as a result of years of prison rations, they seem to have been more interested in the rich food and wine the locals had recently removed from a grounded Portuguese ship. After a looting spree, many of the invaders were too drunk to fight and within two days, the invasion had collapsed: Tate’s force surrendered to a local militia force led by Lord Cawdor on February 25th 1797.

Strange that the surrender agreement drawn up by Tate’s officers referred to the British coming at them “with troops of the line to the number of several thousand.” No such troops were anywhere near Fishguard, however hundreds, perhaps thousands of local Welsh women dressed in their traditional scarlet tunics and tall black felt hats had come to witness any fighting between the French and the local men of the militia. Is it possible that at a distance, and after a glass or two, those women could have been mistaken for British army Redcoats?

During their two days on British soil the French soldiers must have shaken in their boots at mention of name of “Jemima Fawr” (Jemima the Great). The 47-year-old Jemima Nicholas was the wife of a Fishguard cobbler. When she heard of the invasion, she marched out to Llanwnda, pitchfork in hand, and rounded up twelve Frenchmen. She ‘persuaded’ them to accompany her back into town, where she locked them inside St Mary’s Church and promptly left to look for some more! Men of Harlech meet your match!

Who ruined the French Revolution?

By the summer of 1794 — five years after the summer of unrest that saw the convening of the Estates-General, the formation of the National Assembly, and the storming of the Bastille — the revolution was fragmented and Robespierre was increasingly isolated, left to occupy a left flank of the revolutionary leadership that was largely devoid of allies or support.

Fearful of conspiracies against his life, Robespierre had argued for the execution of fellow revolutionary leaders like Hebert and Danton while presiding over the Committee for Public Safety. Perhaps predictably, Robespierre did fall victim to a conspiracy from his right, and the dearth of possible allies — the ranks of the moderates and of the left wing having been severely culled by Robespierre’s own expeditions to the guillotine — sealed his doom.

On 9 Thermidor (July 27) of 1794, the National Convention, following the lead of Jean-Lambert Tallien, sentenced Robespierre and three other radical Jacobins to death. After a short-lived insurrection against the National Assembly — led by the Paris Commune, the assembly formed by the sans-culottes and their bourgeois allies after the victory at Tuileries two years earlier — Robespierre and his allies were arrested. The next day, they were executed by guillotine.

A violent purge of the Commune followed. Of its ninety-five leaders present at the time of Robespierre’s capture, eighty-seven died on the guillotine. As Eric Hazan writes, “A new Terror had begun.”

Filippo Buonarroti, a contemporary commentator and friend of Robespierre’s, lamented the monumental defeat, interpreting it as the result of a vulgar alliance between the surviving elements of the old aristocracy and opportunistic revolutionaries on the right wing. To justify their actions, he claims, the leaders of the so-called “Thermidorian reaction” had to distort the legacies of those they opposed, cynically warping revolutionary principles in the service of privilege. He wrote:

The interested professors of democracy, and the ancient partisans of aristocracy, were found to accord once more. Certain rallying cries that recalled the doctrines and institutions of equality, were now regarded as the impure howls of anarchy, brigandism, and terrorism.

Eric Hazan, writing centuries later, is similarly pessimistic:

What was brutally concluded with Thermidor is the incandescent phase of the Revolution, in which men of government, sometimes followed and sometimes driven forward by the most conscious section of the people, sought to change material inequities, social relations and ways of life. They did not succeed, to be sure.

Left unprotected by the popular insurgency of the sans-culottes that, in a previous era, may have come to his aid, Robespierre died without seeing the completion of the revolutionary project he embodied, and the French Revolution died soon after.

The weakened French state, stripped of so much of its democratic potential, could not deliver on the promises of the revolution, and was left in the control of those who would see the revolution’s most radical advances overturned. From this political context soon emerged Napoleon Bonaparte, and the revolution soon mutated into the Bonapartist state, built through war and empire abroad and aristocratic tyranny at home. In perhaps the most perverse example of the inversion of revolutionary principles Buonarotti pointed out, the revolutionary agenda of liberty and equality became a doctrine of global domination through Napoleon’s imperial expeditions.

The revolution was in many respects defeated — though its memories still motivated democratic upsurges like the worker-led Paris Commune decades later.

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Main Topics

Republics in French History

  • First Republic (French Revolution) 1792-1804
  • Second Republic 1848-1852
  • Third Republic 1870-1940
  • Fourth Republic 1946-1958
  • Fifth Republic 1958-

France had a long history of political turmoil. Prior to 1870 there had been the French Revolution and the Terror. The rule of Napoleon Bonaparte (1799-1815) had brought great victories and eventual defeat for France. There had been revolutions in 1830 and 1848 that had removed Charles X and Louis Philippe respectively.

Key points:

France during the Third Republic was politically very unstable. This instability was caused by rivalry between monarchists and republicans.

There were a number of scandals that threatened the existence of the Republic but it survived longer than any other regime since 1789. It was also a period of imperial expansion and scientific and artistic achievement.

1. The Paris Commune

Commune = Town or local Council

In September 1870 the Third Republic was proclaimed after the defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan. The new government continued resistance to the Germans who then laid siege to Paris. To defend Paris, a National Guard was raised which soon numbered 360,000 men. The siege of Paris was harsh with food shortages and over 40,000 people died.

In February 1871, France surrendered and the Prussians paraded through Paris on March 1. The French government was established at Versailles not at Paris. Parisians were angered by this and they opposed the policies of the government, headed by Adolphe Thiers. They felt it was too conservative, too royalist, and too ready to accept a humiliating peace with Prussia.

The National Government at Versailles now attempted to restore order within Paris. In March regular troops were sent into Paris to seize the cannon of the National Guard. Many of the troops deserted and the officers were imprisoned. Paris was now in revolt

The Paris Commune was elected on 28 March, with its seat at the Hôtel de Ville. Its symbol was the red flag. The Communards' policies included economic reforms and reform of the church. It contained many shades of political opinion— Anarchists, Socialists, Jacobins and Communists.

A civil war was now fought between the Commune and the troops of the Versailles government. The Second Siege of Paris began. The Commune was suppressed by government troops led by Marshal McMahon during the last week of May 1871. This became known as the 'Semaine Sanglante' (the Bloody Week). Hostages were shot on both sides including the Archbishop of Paris.

Bismarck allowed French prisoners of war to pass through German lines and attack Paris About 25,000 Communards were killed, and after a further 35,000 arrests, many were deported to the penal colony New Caledonia in the Pacific. All remaining communard prisoners were finally released in 1880.

The Commune was seen by many including Karl Marx as the first example of a Communist revolution. It served as an inspiration to later revolutionaries such as Lenin. It also embittered relations between the classes in France. French politics were divided on what attitude people took to the Commune.

The Treaty of Frankfurt

The National Assembly approved the Treat of Frankfurt with Germany that ended the Franco-Prussian War. Under the Treaty

  • Alsace and Eastern Lorraine were lost to Germany with their mines and industries.
  • The French were to pay a war indemnity of 5 Billion Francs
  • German troops were to occupy Northern France until the indemnity was paid (which the French paid off by 1873).

The loss of Alsace-Lorraine was to poison relations between Germany and France. One of the most important issues in French politics was the desire for revanche or revenge against the Germans for this insult to French honour.

The Establishment of the Third Republic

At first the majority of Frenchmen favoured the return of the monarchy. Monarchists won the elections of 1871. However they were divided on the issue of who was to be the new king. As the Bonapartists were discredited by the recent war, there were two main claimants to the throne of France:

  1. The Comte de Chambord who was the grandson of Charles X (King:1824-1830) and a member of the Bourbon family
  2. The Comte de Paris from the Orlean family was the grandson of Louis Philippe (King 1840-1848)

The Comte de Chambord was old and childless and very conservative. He wanted to replace the tricolour with the pre-Revolutionary flag. This was very unpopular. It was hoped that he would stand aside for the Comte de Paris. However he refused to surrender his title to the Orleanist claimant.

The first president, Adolphe Thiers, was a moderate republican. He commented that “there is only one throne of France and two men can not sit on it”. Thiers made many political enemies and was replaced by the monarchist, Marshal McMahon.

The failure of the monarchists to agree on a suitable candidate played into the hands of the republicans. Briefly discredited by the Commune, the Republicans won a number of by-election victories as popular opinion moved in their favour.

In 1875 a new constitution was approved that made France a republic. It was passed by one vote. In 1876 this new arrangement was strengthened when the Republicans gained an overall majority in the Chamber of Deputies (parliament). The monarchists still controlled the senate.

The elections of 1877 were won by the republicans and McMahon resigned as president in 1879. The government returned to Paris from Versailles.

Thereafter all Presidents and Prime Ministers were republicans. A series of political measures reflected the victory of Republicans. They were designed to increase patriotic identity to the republic in France and they included:

  • The Marseillaise became the National Anthem.
  • July 14 (Bastille Day) became a national holiday.

The Constitution:

The President was the head of state and had little political power:

  • He had the right to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies with the support of the Senate.
  • He had the right to nominate the new head of government
  • He played an important role in foreign affairs.

The Senate was elected by mayors and councillors in departments (counties) throughout France. It was nicknamed the “Chamber of Agriculture” because the countryside was over represented. Senators were elected every nine years. Conservative, rural interests dominated in the senate and were thereby able to block progressive legislation in the areas of women’s rights and worker’s rights.

The Chamber of Deputies was chosen every four years. It contained 600 members elected by universal male suffrage. It chose the government or ministry. There was no organised party system although there were four main political groupings in the Chamber:

Socialists Moderate Republicans (Opportunists) Radicals Monarchists

Political force after 1890. Many were revolutionaries who followed the theories of Karl Marx.
Formed most of the governments during this period. Middle class and social conservatives. It was said that their hearts were on the left but their wallets were on the right. Very anti-clerical. Powerful influence after Dreyfus Affair. Very Catholic. Saw the Republic as weak and corrupt. Divided between Bonapartists and more traditional monarchists

Because there were so many different factions, all governments were coalitions. On average a ministry lasted eight months. Most governments contained six or seven ministers. Often the new government contained nearly all of the same men as the previous one!

Ministries gave a lot of local favours to MPs (who were relatively poorly paid) in exchange for his support. This led to a lot of corruption.

Some of the most important political figures during the Third Republic were Leon Gambetta, Jules Ferry (Opportunists). Emil Combes, George Clemenceau (Radical) and Aristide Briand (Socialist)

The Third Republic faced four major crises between the years 1879 and 1914. They exposed the fundamental political difference between Frenchmen, Monarchists versus Republicans. However the Republic survived.

The Boulanger Affair 1886-9

The split in French society was shown clearly by the support for General Boulanger. The army was traditionally dominated by monarchists. General Georges Boulanger was one of the few republican generals in the army. In 1886 he was appointed Minister of War, largely by the influence of Georges Clemenceau.

He brought in measures that improved the welfare of his troops and this earned him great popularity. He also attacked German policy and was nicknamed “General Revanche”. His popularity and his speeches attacking Germany worried the government and he was removed as Minister of War in 1887.

He was now a national figure around whom opposition to the government especially from the right began to rally. His support increased when it was revealed that the President’s son in law, Daniel Wilson, was selling favours from the Elysee Palace. As a result the President, Jules Grevy, was forced out of office.

Monarchists hoped that his popularity might be used to overthrow the republic. Economic conditions were poor and he received support from socialists and the unemployed as well.

In 1888 he was removed from the army and this allowed him to stand for election. He won a number of spectacular by-election victories culminating in an overwhelming success in Paris. His supporters urged him to stage a revolution. But Boulanger hesitated and the moment was lost.

The government then began legal proceeding against him and he fled the country. A few years later he committed suicide on his lover’s grave. With his flight the movement collapsed. The elections of 1889 resulted in a clear majority for the Republicans.

The Panama Scandal

The next crisis to hit the Republic was the Panama Scandal. Because of his success with the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps was chosen president of the French company that worked on the construction of a canal across Panama from 1881 to 1888. French investors eagerly invested in the project. Engineering difficulties and a high death rate among the workers plagued the project.

The crisis broke when members of the government were charged with having taken bribes from the Panama Canal Company to withhold from the public the news that the Company was in serious debt. This meant people in Paris continued to invest, and lost more money as a result. Overall one billion francs were lost affecting 800,000 investors.

All but one of the accused went unpunished due to lack of evidence (he foolishly confessed!). The heat was taken away from the government somewhat by the fact that two German Jews (Baron Reinach and Cornelius Herz) were also involved in the scandal and they received most of the coverage from the press and public. Georges Clemenceau was defeated in the 1893 election because of his association with Cornelius Herz.

Although three governments collapsed, This crisis differed from the Boulanger affair in that the Republic was never really in threat of being overthrown. However, it did raise doubts in the public eye and meant that politicians were no longer trusted. To monarchists it proved that the republic was corrupt. It also created a climate of anti-Semitism that was to come to the fore during the Dreyfus affair.

The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire)

In 1894 a list of French military documents (called a bordereau) was found in the waste paper bin of the German embassy in Paris. French counter-intelligence suspected Captain Alfred Dreyfus, from a wealthy Alsatian Jewish family. He was one of the few Jews on the General Staff (the Holy of Holies).

After an irregular court martial where documents were withheld from the defence, Dreyfus was found guilty and sentenced to Devil’s Island off French Guiana.

Very few people believed his protestations of innocence even though hand writing experts had disagreed at his trial. Documents were forged by an intelligence officer Major Henry to prove Dreyfus’s guilt.

There the matter might have rested but for Colonel Picquart. In 1896 Picquart, the new head of French counter-intelligence, realized that documents were still being passed to the Germans. He found the real culprit a Major Esterhazy whose handwriting was the same as that on the bordereau.

The War office became alarmed. They wanted to hush the affair up and Picquart was transferred to Tunisia (to a dangerous area!). But events were beginning to move in Dreyfus’s favour. Picquart confided his views while on leave to a lawyer who persuaded the leading politician Scheurer-Kestner to call for a retrial.

When Matthieu Dreyfus accused Esterhazy of being the original spy the government ordered a trial of Esterhazy. In January 1898 he was acquitted after a trial that lasted only two days.

Events took a dramatic turn when the famous author, Emile Zola published an open letter called “J’Accuse” in Clemenceau’s newspaper, L’Aurore. He accused the army of a mistrial and a cover up. The government reacted by prosecuting Zola for libel. He was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison.

Public opinion in France was now bitterly divided. The affair reflected the divisions in French society.

For supporters of Dreyfus or Dreyfusards the fate of an innocent man was at stake, some also saw it as an ideal opportunity for a campaign against the enemies of the republic. They were mainly anti-clericals, freemasons and intellectuals (writers, artists). The socialist leader Jean Juares was a supporter of Dreyfus.

For anti-dreyfusards, the honour of France and the army was more important than the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus. They saw Dreyfusards as unpatriotic and opposed to everything they held dear. Many were anti-Semitic and felt that Jews were not loyal to France. Anti-Jewish riots broke out in many towns including Algiers.

Anti-Dreyfusards consisted of the Army, monarchists and Catholics. The Assumptionist Order and its newspaper, La Croix, played a prominent role in the campaign against Dreyfus.

In the summer of 1898, the new war minister hoped to prove once and for all the guilt of Dreyfus. He put Piquart on trial and made a speech to parliament outlining the case against Dreyfus. However it was discovered that some of the written evidence against Dreyfus was forged. Major Henry, under questioning, confessed and committed suicide.

The case was referred to the appeal court. In June 1899 after a number of delays a new trial was decided. Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island “white-haired and broken.” (Cobban) He was again found guilty but with extenuating circumstances and he was given a presidential pardon. In 1906 he was exonerated completely. He served honourably in World War One and died in 1935.

The affair had bitterly divided France and it seemed that the system was on the verge of collapse. In 1899 a government of Republican Defence was formed led by Waldeck-Rousseau. The major result of the affair was a renewed outbreak of anti-clericalism.

The Struggle between Church and State

These notes may also be used to prepare questions on Church-State relations in Germany and France.

Relations between Church and State in France had been regulated by the Concordat of 1801. By this agreement the state paid the salaries of priests and nominated bishops.

Reasons for the dispute:

Historically the Catholic Church was identified with the Monarchy and conservative forces in France. This was especially true during the French revolution when hundreds of priests were guillotined for their opposition to the First Republic. Because of this most Catholics were monarchists and opposed the Third Republic. Liberals, especially the Radical party, as throughout the rest of Europe, saw the Church as the main threat to individual liberty and an enemy of progress. The main area of struggle between Church and State was education where the Church exercised a large measure of control. It was felt that Church control of education had prevented the development of a modern system of education that existed in France’s great rival, Germany. As the clergy were in the main monarchist, the government ferared their influence on the educational system.

Although born Catholic most Frenchmen were non-practising whereas Church attendance was much higher among women. In some areas of France the Catholic Church was very popular and these included:

  • Savoy
  • Franche-Comte
  • Lorraine
  • Flanders
  • Normandy
  • Brittany
  • Vendee
  • the Basque country.

The main Catholic groups in French society were:

  1. The Aristocracy
  2. The wealthier Middle-classes
  3. Higher government officials in the Army and the Civil Service
  4. Peasants in the regions listed above.

The dispute between Church and State grew increasingly bitter. It reflected the very deep divisions present in French society during the Third Republic, especially during the Dreyfus affair (l’Affaire) of the 1890s.

Between 1879 (when the Anti-Clericals took power) and 1914 there was not a single Catholic minister or head of state.

Quotes on reasons for the Anti-clerical policy

As the clergy were in the main monarchist in their political sympathies this was a reason for fearing their influence on the educational system.” Cobban

French education, it was alleged, was still following the methods and aims of the seventeenth century.” Cobban

The anti-clerical, republican left took power in the National Assembly in 1879. Their anti-Catholicism was a vestige of the Revolution, and they stayed in power until 1914.” Sevillia

Between 1879 and 1885 the “Ferry Laws” were passed. They were named after Jules Ferry. He was one of the ablest politicians of the Third Republic. These laws were the first major attempt at reform of the Education system. The main aspects of these laws were:

  1. The granting of degrees was confined to the State.
  2. Free education in public primary schools introduced and religious instruction was excluded from State schools (“ecole sans Dieu.”)
  3. Unauthorised congregations under the Concordat of 1801 were forbidden to teach (among these were the Marists, Jesuits [later expelled from France] and Dominicans).
  4. Authorised Catholic orders were denied the right to teach in State run schools.
  5. Increased provision was given to the training of teachers by the State.

These laws were not strictly enforced especially the ban on Catholic orders teaching in state schools. However the laws created a deep division between the Church and the Republican government.

The goal was not to outlaw Catholic schools but to rather to expand the rival public-school system.” Wright

It was the beginning of a conflict which was to embitter the politics of the Third Republic almost to the end.” Cobban

In the 1890’s the “Railliement” was a movement inspired by the moderate Pope Leo XIII. He advised Catholics to rally to the republic and defend the interests of the church by taking a greater role in the political life of France. There was no great support for it among Catholics and it was destroyed by the divisions and bitterness that gripped France during the Dreyfus affair.

The Dreyfus affair persuaded Republican politicians that a new set of anti-clerical laws was needed. They pointed to the strongly anti-Dreyfus attitude of Catholics in France and the actions of the right wing, anti-Semitic, Assumptionist Fathers. This convinced them of the unacceptable nature of Clerical influence in France.

The persecution of the Catholic Church

In 1901 each religious order had to apply for legal authorisation and no member of an unauthorised order was allowed teach (Waldeck-Rousseau government). The Assumptionist Order was dissolved. The elections of 1902 saw a victory for the anti-clerical coalition.

The new administration of Emil Combes applied the 1901 law ruthlessly and religious orders found it very difficult to gain legal authorisation. 81 congregations of women and 54 of men were dissolved. By 1903 over 14,000 schools run by unauthorised orders were closed.

In 1904 members of religious orders were forbidden to teach. Almost all religious orders were banned. Their property was sold often at well below its real value.

Between 30,000 and 60,000 priests and nuns were exiled. Some went to Ireland, Britain, Italy, Spain and Canada. Catholics regarded this period as one of intense persecution. The rest of Europe was appalled at what it saw as French extremism. The same year France withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican after a papal protest against the visit of the president of France to his Italian counterpart.

No one has a good word to say for this product of a seminary education . for Combes was originally intended for the priesthood.” Cobban

Combes shared none of Waldeck-Rousseau’s spirit of moderation but was a dedicated fanatic who saw clerical plots and intrigues everywhere.” Wright

The Separation of Church and State

In 1905 the Law of separation of Church and State was passed which ended the Concordat of 1801. All ties between Church and State were cut. State salaries for priests and Bishops were ended and in theory all Church property was now controlled by the State. Two people were killed and many injured when Catholics staged sit-ins to prevent the state from assessing Church property. In some remote regions bears were chained to church doors.

The more moderate government of Briand allowed the Church to use its own property.

The divisions of this period died, along with so many Frenchmen, in the trenches. When the war ended most of the measures against the Church were reversed and priests and nuns returned from exile. The church emerged from the period smaller in numbers but with more committed members and an independence that it had not had in previous French history.

“On the whole separation. tended to reduce the tension between Church and State . with the decline of clerical interference in politics the violence of anti-clerical sentiment inevitably declined.” Cobban

The clerical threat gradually lost most of its potency after 1905.” Wright

Catholics experienced this period as one of intense persecution” Sevillia


The empire built up under the Third Republic was the greatest France had ever possessed. This was ironic as most political groups in France had at first opposed colonialism. The left were against it because it strengthened the army and the right because it distracted from the struggle with Germany. The man most associated with this period of empire building was Jules Ferry.

The primary motivations for this empire building were economic, religious and prestige. For example in 1870 two-thirds of the missionary priests outside Europe were French.

France’s first step on the path to imperial expansion was the occupation of Tunis in 1881. This was followed by Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), Madagascar and much of West and North Africa (e.g. Morocco). By 1914 she was the second largest colonial power in the World and the largest in Africa.

La Belle Epoque (The Beautiful Period)

While France may have been unstable politically the era of the Third Republic saw a flowering of the arts that was unparalleled in any other period of French or for that matter any other country’s history. This period of artistic achievement became known as the Belle époque.

Paris was the centre of fashion and culture in Europe. It became the pleasure ground of the world, a Mecca for artists and writers.

In painting, the period was most associated with the impressionist school of painting. Famous artists such as Manet, Monet, Degas, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso all worked in France during these years.

In the area of music composers such as Bizet, Saint Saens, Debussy, Ravel and Faure rivalled the traditional dominance of Germany.

Writing flourished including the Naturalist school led by Emile Zola, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, the short stories of Guy de Maupassant, the novels of Anatole France and the work of the philosopher, Henri-Louis Bergson.

The period saw scientific and technological achievements. Among these was the work of Louis Pasteur and Marie and Pierre Curie, the building of the Eiffel Tower and the opening of the Paris metro. The Lumiere brothers made the first short films and the first film studio was opened in 1896.

Authors Quoted

Alfred Cobban: A History of Modern France, vol. 3: 1871 - 1962
Gordon Wright: France in Modern Times
Sevillia Jean: When Catholics Were Outlawed

French Foreign Policy 1871-1914

The major aims of French foreign policy in this period were:

  • To regain the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine (Revanche) lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian war. This idea was never very far from the minds of French policy makers during this period.
  • To end her isolation in international affairs after the Franco-Prussian war.
  • To expand her colonial empire and regain some of her prestige lost after the Franco-Prussian War.

Relations with each of the major powers

At first both distrusted each other because of their respective political systems. One a republic, the other was an autocracy.
Two factors led to an alliance in 1894:

This alliance put an end to twenty years of isolation for France. It formed the core of the Triple Entente and left Germany facing the prospect of a two front war.

Initially relations were poor. Both countries had been traditional enemies stretching back to the Middle Ages. There was intense colonial rivalry between the pair in Africa. The "Fashoda Incident" of 1898 nearly led to war.

However as Britain became more alarmed at her international isolation and at the rising power of Germany, relations improved. An "Entente" or understanding was agreed in 1904. Colonial differences between both powers were resolved especially over Egypt and Morocco.

Relations between both powers were good as they had no serious conflict of interest.

Relations between both hampered by Germany's possession of Alsace and Lorraine. This prevented any genuine reconciliation between both countries. France was afraid of Germany's military power and sought allies to counter this.

Germany was wary of a re-emergent France. Initial German policy was to isolate France under Bismarck. There was a brief “entente” during the 1880’s.

After 1905 German policy changed to one of trying to undermine France's relationships with her new found ally, Britain e.g. the First and Second Moroccan crisis (1905, 1911).

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