Posts Tagged ‘The Third Republic’

In order to have an insight as to how thin a veneer the cultural capital wore and its splendid cosmopolitan joie de vivre with which it dazzled every visitor, one need understand its denizens itself. The intellectual ferment the city carried was no more a mask than the narrow provincialism it concealed: the masses were held in check by their fractured social affiliations. Of the many institutions there was nothing to cement these into one. The Right, Centrist, the Left, anti-clerical and anti-monarchial all these on the petri dish of national politics were manifestation of provincialism, each vying with one other. It would reveal itself periodically in startling fashion. L’affaire Dreyfus for example. The many newspapers each representing its narrow interests made them all the more fractious.

Despite the Great Revolution of 1789 and adopting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the nation was haunted by monarchial ambitions for which the Right and the Church had insidiously worked; the Army also had its secret clubs to promote their own narrow interests. Such divisiveness would lead ultimately to the collapse of the republic. Apart from these there was a shadow of the Man on the Horseback, some military adventurer literally emulating the Eagle. The glory days of Napoleon had given the Army a hapless duty to preserve the gloire at any cost. In the unjust framing of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, the role of the Army would prove to be a dubious one. France was a divided nation and its social structure carried over the thrusts and retreats of various institutions, like a body seeking its balance by a fever of sorts. For the bourgeoisie the intellectual life of Paris was distant and far removed from their own realities.

The French are noted for their Gallic spirit. They were volatile, energetic and ever unruly. There were lots of peasant and urban revolts under the ancien regime but these did not break into a sustained conflagration as it did in 1789. When their ire was up their cruelty would surpass anything, as in the case of the storming of Bastille. In this they would capture the hapless governor whose head they cut off with a pocket knife and would impale on a pike. The guillotine was touted as humane capital punishment (like ‘a cool breath on the back of the neck’ according to its inventor, Dr. Joseph I. Guillotine). Its claim however was lost in the many thousands of victims needlessly sent to death in a general atmosphere of savagery and blood lust.)

Being volatile their attention from pressing issues of the day wandered and did not mend matters.

The city was a hotchpotch of separate quartiers, each insulated from one other from which inhabitants seldom ventured forth. A cab ride cost about the equivalent of a workman’s daily wages, and the poorer you were, the more quartier bound you were likely to be; many a workman’s child grew to adolescence before World War I without getting out of Ménilmontant or Belleville. In the movie Les Enfants du Paradis there is a scene in which Garance relives to Baptiste (whom she had just met) her indigent youth in Ménilmontant. Along the way pointing to it she adds, ‘(At fifteen) anyone who has grown up too fast doesn’t stay alone very long.’ Only alternative for girls like her was to become a demimondaine in the city of Paris.

Prostitution was all pervasive for girls with no means of family, talent or support. Young men fared no better. Those who dared to break the restraints of the provincial life needed entirely an altogether temper to make it rich in the city of Paris. Most commodity a yokel could bring along was his stolidity of his forebears and those who jettisoned all those values and relied on wits made it to the top like Balzac’s character Eugene de Rastigniac. The other side of the coin bears the image of Lucien Rubempré.

As Balzac would say, ‘….The streets of Paris have human qualities… and some of them like the Rue Montmartre are like mermaids-lovely heads, but fishtails at the extremity.’ The fashion of the City of lights dazzled and at the other end dirt roosted permanently. Not only when servants throw peelings and offals out the windows to annoy the concierge but in the general lack of amenities. The sordid haunted all sides of life. At the time of the Revolution the Place de la Bastille,on the edge of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine was then a warren of tenements, craft shops all fetid with unwashed men and women while at the Palais Royale, its arcades and apartments filled with bistros, gambling and bawdy houses. Here the 30,000 prostitutes plied their trade among its 650,000 inhabitants. The model of the bourgeois apartment house of that is the centre of Zola’s Pot-Bouille, reveals no taps or sinks, let alone lavatories.

( Merle Severy-The Great Revolution/NG-July 1989)

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The Dreyfus Affair in its time shook the French nation: political parties, families alike were drawn into it either for or against. So much heat and passion that it caused was an indication of the clay feet of the Third Republic. The whole edifice would ultimately collapse in 1940 where the Republic would go down infamously. (It took only six weeks in the May-July for her to crumble before the invading German army.)
In order to understand L’affaire Dreyfus we need to look into the Panama scandal of 1888 where the issue was not about so much about the corrupt politicians or newspaper publishers but the Jews who were among the promoters. ( In the press the scheme was touted as some sort of Titanic that would not sink. Those who were in high positions and opinion makers drove gullible backers to invest in it. When the scandal finally burst into headlines it was found three of promoters were Jews.) Immediately a wave of anti-semitism broke out.
Well Capt.Alfred Dreyfus was a Jew. In 1894 this 35 year old probationary officer on the Genera Staff was found guilty by court martial of treason. The charge was that he had turned over military secrets to a foreign power. He was dishonorably discharged and was sent on life imprisonment in Devil’s island.
The sole piece of evidence produced by prosecution was so flimsy that the War minister had to use some illegal skullduggery to procure conviction of the Jewish captain. Before his trial by the military court he was convicted hundred times over by the Parisian press. In separate interviews to two of the leading newspapers in France, Le Figaro and Le Matin the War Minister categorically (without a shred of solid evidence) stated of Dreyfus’s guilt. French press in those days was as bad as the muckraking press of today. Think of the News of the World scandal that is going around these days. It was infested with venality and crass partisanship of publishers that gave the news a twist to suit their own self-intersts. (Any reader of Balzac would note the press was as black as they were depicted in his novels.) Commented the Catholic daily La Croix,’Dreyfus is an agent of international Jewry which has decided to ruin the French people’. Before the four day trial was completed General Mercier in the War Ministry cooked up a secret file and presented it to the Judges which was illegal since defence were not informed. The intention was clear: Dreyfus must be declared guilty by legal process!
Having succeeded the hapless officer was publicly humiliated and sent to Devil’s Island where the oppressive heat of the day and night was apt to wear out the health of any man. Dreyful at the start were confined for twenty-four hours in a small hut and ankle strapped in double chains to an iron bar across the foot of his cot. There was no way of escaping the remote island off the coast of South America but was a torture calculated to finish off the Jew!
Six months after the trial Major Georges Picquart took charge of the head of the counter-espionage of the Deuxieme Bureau. He was entrusted with the task of looking into the motives and the Major Picquart could not find any. Besides he found quiet a few evidences to attest to the miscarriage of justice. When the Rightist elements got wind of suspicion the question asked was,’ Of what significance was the life and honor of one individual compared to that of la patrie? There were many whose moral values were more universal and all embracing than what the Right faction had appropriated to themselves. (Somewhat like the Right wing in America who look down on the liberals.) Among the radical Republican politicians there was Georges Clemenceau, socialist (Jean Jaures) and writers such as Emil Zola, Anatole France and a poet Charles Peguy and intellectuals.
In the ensuing years of the trial of Dreyfus the identity of the real trial began circulating and the suspicion fell on Major Esterhazy. Col. Picquart found his handwriting identical to the single incriminating evidence of the bordereau (which carried itemized new weapons acquired by the army.)
Owing to clamor for justice and fair play the Dreyfus case was again heard at the court where Major Esterhazy wanted his name to be cleared. On January 11, 1898 the judges heard him and in a matter of three minutes was unanimously acquitted.
Colonel Picquart who stubbornly had unearthed whatever evidence he could to prove the miscarriage of justice was arrested the next day.
On the following day Emile Zola wrote a scathing letter addressed to the President and it was published in Clemenceau’s paper L’Aurore.
Just when the powers that be thought L’affaire Dreyfus was put to rest one of the leading novelists of the day had raked it up again.
Zola at this time was at the height of his fame and his penchant for causing controversy was no whit lessened. He was acclaimed in and abroad and he was not to be silenced. He was rich and famous and had no need for publicity. Yet he put his all on the line for an ideal. In J’ accuse! he accused the generals by name and for the despicable frame-up and for letting the real traitor go scot-free. His language was violent and frontal attack of the government, savage. In closing he dared the Army or the government to haul him before the courts for defamation.
The challenge was picked up and the government moved to prosecute Zola. Their line of attack was to avoid opening the Dreyfus case but only on the part where he had accused the Army had ordered acquittal of Esterhazy. The sensational case lasted two weeks and the jury took less than an hour to find the writer guilty. He was given a year in prison and fine of 3000 francs. Worse still the mob went on a rampage ‘Death to Zola, Death to the Jews! so went the cry. They wanted to lynch him.
Three days later Colonel Picquart was dismissed. Quietly the verdict against Zola was quashed on technical grounds. A new trial was ordered but Zola made good of his escape to London.
Note: on hindsight we can say that the whole wheels of the government had come unstuck and the Army, the Press, the Church were dancing around the crater of a volcano.
Jean Jaures a great human being and a socialist of brilliant mind was shot dead while he was sitting in his customary seat at at a cafe, Le Croissant. It was just as the first world war broke out. His assassin was a Right winger who suspected he may speak out against the general mobilization following the declaration of the war. The heat of the partisanship that so viciously polarised the Right and the left and manifested during the Dreyfus affair had claimed another victim. Clemenceau will go on to become a great arbiter and voice in the international politics for the French nation.

(ack: the Collapse of the Third Republic-William S. Shirer)

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France was a divided house where neither Labour nor the extreme Right felt at home with the Republic. Trade unionism was still bitterly resisted by the employers and the government trying to appease its radical or socialist wing failed to please any. No wonder six governments fell one after the other in two years!
In 1933 when Edouard Daladier rook reins the Third Republic there was some sigh of Relief. With a day after he assumed office across the border Hitler became the Chancellor. Thus in Europe still groggy from Post-Depression the Third Republic had to face another worry: rowdy and anti-parliamentary parties taking to streets imitating the Black Shirts in Fascist Italy and the Brown shirts in Germany. These loose cannons were to be used by the powerful business and financial groups for their own ends. There were those in the Army who were still Royalists at heart, General Weygand for example. He was the Commander -in-chief of the Army at odds with the constantly changing Republican governments. It took no stretch of imagination to find who were the backers for Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun. He had lost faith in the Republic. So did other surviving marshals, Lyautey and Franchet d’Esperey who were affected by the intellectual revolt of the Right against Parliament. On January10th 1934 the Rightist La Victoire asked in bold letters in the first page:”Who is the leader who will emerge in France, as he emerged in Italy and Germany?”
Events were marching inexorably towards recalling Philippe Petain to head the War Office under a Radical Gaston Doumergue. Pierre Laval incidentally became the Minister of Colonies in the new government. How this ageing Marshal (78 year old) and the extreme Left-Wing pacifist could make a common cause cannot be explained but by the Vichy government that epitomized all the inherent faults in the public life of France. Moral force of a nation changes shapes with such disparate figures making their exits and entries, and no one may remain impervious to it. He who took advantages of opportunities presented shall never know what dealt him the unkindest blow when disaster strikes.

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