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The French RepublicHistory, Values, Debates$

Edward Ducler Berenson, Vincent Duclert, and Christophe Prochasson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801449017

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449017.001.0001

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War and the Republic

War and the Republic

(p.56) 6 War and the Republic
The French Republic

Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau

, Arthur Goldhammer
Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the influences of war on the French Republic. It argues that the Republic originated in war, which then shaped the representations and practices of the res publica. In particular, World War I had revived the century-old tradition of the embattled Republic, while casting an immense shadow on the nascent century. The chapter argues that the pacifism of the 1920s and 1930s and the Resistance of the 1940s were thus consequences of World War I and its memory, which was as much republican as it was national. The “Great War” is therefore particularly deserving of a place in a critical history of the Republic and of France.

Keywords:   World War I, war, French Republic, critical history, republicanism

The French Republic was born in war. The abolition of the monarchy, unanimously approved by the deputies of the National Convention on September 21, 1792, and the next day’s decision to date all public documents from Year I of the Republic, were preceded, on September 20, by the victory at Valmy of the revolutionary armies over the forces of Prussia and Austria. Another war was launched inside France against Vendeans and Bretons who remained loyal to the Catholic monarchy.

The wartime birth of the Republic shaped the representations and practices of the res publica. Although the Second Republic initially thrived on the fraternity of peoples and the romantic spirit of the Revolution of February 1848, it, too, experienced an episode of internal warfare with the pitiless repression of the uprisings of June 1848. The Third Republic, like the First, was born in wartime, on September 4, 1870, but this time the occasion was marked by a French defeat at Sedan, where the Prussian army had crushed the imperial army. The new regime’s first test was the “defense of the nation,” followed by yet another episode of internal warfare: the crushing of the Paris Commune in the “Bloody Week” of May 1871.

The defeat at the hands of the enemy and the occupation of French soil solidified the republican dogma of resistance inherited from the French Revolution, a dogma that would be a decisive factor in the French victory in World War I. The great world conflict revived the century-old tradition of the embattled Republic, while casting an immense shadow on the nascent century. The pacifism of the 1920s and 1930s and the Resistance of the 1940s were thus consequences of World War I and its memory, which was as much republican as it was national. The “Great War” is therefore particularly deserving of a place in a critical history of the Republic and of France.

“The Republic cannot lose!” Although this comment comes from a film (Claude Chabrol’s Le Cheval d’Orgueil, 1980), the character who uttered it, a (p.57) Breton deputy dispatched to the front during the Great War, nevertheless sums up quite well what was at stake in that war for the regime born in 1870. The Third Republic was the product of an unprecedented defeat, but given the magnitude of the military disaster bequeathed to it by the Second Empire (1852–70), the national catastrophe could not be blamed on the Republic. When war erupted in 1914, the situation was quite different: this time, how could the Republic not be held solely accountable for any military defeat? Had not the regime’s detractors long cast doubt on its ability to avoid defeat in case of conflict with Germany? On the eve of the battle of the Marne, the historian Jacques Bainville voiced the deep suspicion of right-wing nationalists toward the Republic: “The French will not fail to comprehend this dreadful lesson. Those who have already understood it, those who knew that Democracy and the principles of the Revolution were bound to lead us into defeat, were the first to march. Our armies are full of men who saw this war coming, who were absolutely certain that the Republic would lead France to ruin” (Journal inédit, 1914). To be sure, the “feeling of fragility” (that is, the sense that the Republic would crumble in war) also existed on the left (e.g., Marcel Sembat), although the conclusions the Left drew from this were diametrically opposed to those of the nationalist Right. In any case, no particular steps were taken to ensure that the regime would function in wartime.

Four and a half years later, however, no one could deny that French territory had been staunchly defended, though at the terrible cost of nearly nine hundred dead per day: in this sense, the Great War proved to be a decisive moment of truth for the Republic. As Fabienne Bock wrote, this was “the first—and only—major crisis in France that did not lead to an abrupt change of regime.”

Thanks to a deep and lasting consensus regarding the duty to defend the nation, both at the front and in the rear, the parliamentary Republic ultimately carried the day. In the immediate postwar years, liberal democracy, in the words of Jean-Marie Mayeur, “was seen as the great winner in the war.” This regime spread over a vastly wider area than ever before, and as a result, the consequences of the military victory for the Republic’s underlying legitimacy were considerable: “As a victory for the Republic, the war strengthened the regime,” notes Mayeur, who also rightly remarks that republican institutions survived intact and the government did not invoke dictatorial powers. Yet things may have been more complicated than they appear. Can we really be certain that the outcome of the Great War was as favorable to the republican regime as this simple logic might suggest? Did the armistice of November 11, 1918, mark a Pyrrhic victory for the French Republic? These questions must be raised.

Let us begin by recalling the price paid in terms of civil liberties lost and basic republican principles compromised. War suspended all political activity, (p.58) including local and national elections. France’s political parties more or less went dormant. Add to these developments the state of siege (which gave substantial police powers to the military authorities), courts-martial, the influence of the general staff (at least until 1916), and finally what Olivier Forcade has called the wartime “information system,” which featured censorship of the press, authorized by the law of August 5, 1914. As Jean-Jacques Becker rightly observes, “Democracy [was] in question.”

And yet the “first surprise” was that democracy “succeeded in reestablishing itself.” Thus in 1925, Pierre Renouvin was able to write in Les formes du gouvernement de guerre: “Among the major belligerent states, France was the one that remained most faithful to its traditions and constitutional principles throughout the crisis.” Indeed, civilian government fairly quickly regained control: as early as September 1915, civilian leaders stripped military authorities of their police powers outside the military zone; these leaders also ended courts-martial in April 1916 and revised the military justice system to afford greater rights to the defense. To be sure, the state of siege was not lifted in the military and coastal zones until October 1919, at which time censorship was also ended. Well before that date, however, civilian power had regained the upper hand over the military in a series of stages marked by the battle of Verdun, the failed offensive of April 16, 1917, and the crisis following from the mutiny of frontline troops.

The Republic also did not renounce its principles with respect to parliamentary control. Certainly, Parliament abandoned its pre-1914 politicking: wartime governments enjoyed very substantial votes of confidence, and the fall of Paul Painlevé in November 1917 marked the first time that a government had been toppled since the summer of 1914. Despite this, Parliament, as the center of gravity of the republican regime, continued to play a major role and to influence the conduct of the war. Parliamentary oversight, which had disappeared until an extraordinary session was convened on December 22, 1914, thereafter remained in place without interruption (it remained in permanent session until the end of the war). What is more, this oversight proved extremely meticulous, because the work of the legislature was turned over to grandes commissions, key elements of the Third Republic’s political system that gave some members access to technical information.

Legislators proved capable of decisive action to adapt their methods to the new situation created by the war. In addition to the traditional public sessions, they established “secret committees” (eight in the Chamber and four in the Senate between June 1916 and October 1917). Oversight of the military was established by reverting to old ways: the Third Republic in this respect followed (symbolically, at any rate) the lead of the Convention, which had sent “representatives on mission” to the troops during the French Revolution. Some deputies were (p.59) mobilized as soldiers, and while their political role should not be overestimated, they did create a minimal link between the representatives of the nation and the troops in combat. In short, a veritable “wartime parliament” was created.

Although the balance of power among the various branches of government was not fundamentally altered, a certain strengthening of the executive did run counter to republican parliamentary tradition. This was particularly noticeable under Clemenceau, who became prime minister in the final year of the war. The “Tiger” assumed the position of minister of war as well and surrounded himself with a military as well as a civilian cabinet. An undersecretary of state attached to the prime minister’s office coordinated the action of all ministries. Other changes that altered the traditional equilibriums of the republican regime include the development of an advisory cabinet around Clemenceau; the institution of undersecretaries of state and general commissioners attached to the prime minister’s office; the elimination of secret committees; and the regulation of commerce in food and other commodities after February 1918. Of course, the “dictatorship of Clemenceau” is a myth. As prime minister, he “governed in full legality, with complete respect for the constitution,” in the words of Fabienne Bock. It is true, however, that the Tiger’s personal influence and efforts to win the public’s (including soldiers’) support over the heads of the legislature did mark a departure from republican tradition as it stood at the turn of the century. After the war, adversaries of the victorious Republic had no difficulty arguing that even though it had won the war, it did so ultimately by sacrificing certain of its fundamental principles.

Yet it was probably the Union Sacrée that introduced the most pernicious seeds of instability into the overall economy of the republican regime. Thanks to the work of Jean-Jacques Becker, we now know exactly what the Union Sacrée of 1914–18 entailed. It did not put an end to all opposition, much less reconcile old adversaries, but it did suspend political, social, and religious confrontation in the name of national survival. At the governmental level, the “truce among the parties” was given concrete form on August 26, 1914, when the center-left Viviani Ministry was expanded to include the socialist Left (Guesde and Sembat) as well as centrist republicans who had been defeated in May 1914 (Ribot, Delcassé, Millerand, and Briand). The whole republican family was thus united and, after rallying in support of the war, agreed to take charge of running it. But only the republican family was included: the antirepublican, monarchist, clerical, nationalist Right remained outside. At almost the same moment, on August 20, 1914, Maurice Barrès published his famous article in the Écho de Paris, in which he recalled “the abject times” of the Dreyfusard Republic and asked “how a France so pure” had been able to emerge “from that sewer”—a reminder that (p.60) fundamental cleavages remained intact. All sides believed that they were laying the groundwork for postwar victory.

But the Union Sacrée evolved according to a dynamic of its own. When Denys Cochin entered the Briand government in November 1915, the Catholic and monarchist Right joined in managing the defense of the nation, at least until August 1917. The presence of a member of the Catholic Right, which did not support the Republic, alongside Émile Combes, the anti-Catholic architect of the separation of church and state, raises a crucial question: To what extent did the Union Sacrée disturb the fundamental forces of French politics, potentially destabilizing if not the republican regime then at least the image of the Republic and the mobilizing energies behind it? This is a question about political culture, or, more precisely, about republican political culture.

As Jean-Jacques Becker has shown, the Union Sacrée yielded huge benefits for the Right, for cultural reasons. In fact, the Right succeeded in “capturing the consensus”—so much so that it sought to turn the wartime consensus into a permanent ideology and a social ideal. When the Radical Party allied itself with the parties of the Right in 1915 and then broke with the Socialists in September 1917, center-left radicalism was the big loser in the “rightward drift” of the Union Sacrée. In fact, the war deprived the Radicals of their identity. Thus the central pillar of the Republic—and of republican culture in France—was permanently weakened. The Right’s victory in the November 1919 elections—the Radicals lost both votes and seats, while the Socialists lost only seats—was particularly symptomatic in this regard: the pendulum swung back to the Right for the first time since 1876, and it moved quite a spectacular distance. The first postwar elections therefore did not strengthen the hand of the Republic’s staunchest champions. On the contrary, the greatest electoral benefits went to its most lukewarm partisans. More troubling still was that the extreme Right did not participate, while some Radicals and even a few independent Socialists loyal to the Union Sacrée did. The victorious National Bloc was not simply a coalition of right-wing parties. The traditional left/right cleavage was thus blurred by the formation of a coalition—the National Bloc—which laid down an implicit dividing line between parties that were “in” the nation and parties that excluded themselves from it.

The electoral dimension of this shift no doubt pointed to a deeper change, and one that was more worrisome for the Republic. The “wartime culture” that shaped the system of representations in France during the war promoted right-wing values for the four and a half years of the conflict and indeed beyond—or, if not right-wing values, then at least values alien to the heritage of the Left, as that heritage was understood by the end of the nineteenth century. The cult of military heroism, the focus on the army, the flag, and the nation at war, to say nothing of the revival of religion—all of these things were a windfall for the (p.61) parties of the Right, and especially the nationalist Right, whose ideas and values dovetailed with those dominant during the war. This was the Right’s revenge. Even the “gender barrier,” itself exacerbated by the separation of front and rear and the guilt that people in the rear felt with respect to those at the front, “functioned” on behalf of the most traditional values of virility: the war’s apparent “emancipation” of women was illusory, and more so in France than elsewhere.

Similarly, the war muted the clash over religion, and this, too, seems to have worked against republicanism. The church saw the Union Sacrée as a way of rejoining the national community, indeed of reconciling France with the church. Catholics, fortified by their belief that France was “the eldest daughter of the church” and that God favored “the Franks,” found it easy to support the defense of the fatherland. The path was smoothed, of course, by the decision to suspend the battle against the teaching congregations at the beginning of the war as well as by the great wave of religious fervor that swept over the country as a result of the conflict. The Catholic decision to link the emblem of the Sacred Heart to the flag of the Republic attests to the depths of the desire to rejoin and reconquer the nation after being excluded during the first decade of the twentieth century. This reconquest should be seen, however, in light of what happened in the trenches, where soldiers of Catholic and anticlerical background discovered one another and found that they had much in common: the religious issue, which had loomed so large in French politics before the war, was permanently drained of much of its virulence. The Cartel des Gauches, a center-left alliance, would pay the price for this change in French political culture when it attempted to revive anticlerical sentiment in 1924.

Further evidence of this change can be seen in the new syncretism of the monuments to the dead, most of which were erected in the period 1919–23. Many feature images of Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, holding a fallen soldier in her arms. Frequently, however, the fallen are stripped of their uniforms, and the woman holding them is as much the Virgin as she is the Republic. As Annette Becker has shrewdly remarked, Marianne became the Pietà—a Pietà wearing a Phrygian cap. Since Christian and Republican iconography had previously seemed quite incompatible, such syncretism is surprising; what made it possible was the joining of religious and republican fervor during the war. The two were combined in a “cult of the nation” unlike anything that had gone before, a cult that allied two traditions, both of them patriotic to be sure, but based on largely opposing premises.

Once the civic spirit of republicanism was combined with traditional Catholic themes, however, a fundamental political cleavage was permanently narrowed. The “religious issue” did not disappear, but a political dividing line that had long been decisive in French politics lost much of its pertinence. This development in turn weakened the traditional cleavage between left and right. To some extent, (p.62) the Republic lost its bearings. We see this too in the desire to transcend political differences after the war—an ambition particularly apparent in the veterans’ movement: the men who had been in the trenches, who formed the heart of the electorate in the interwar years, were among those who felt most strongly that the old issues had become obsolete. Nostalgia for the Union Sacrée played a role in Raymond Poincaré’s formation of a cabinet of national union in 1926. All of these signs suggest that the old political debate had been exhausted, but instead of leading to a new consensus, this exhaustion merely diminished the Republic’s ability to mobilize support. Was it still something that people were willing to fight for?

Indeed, the Republic could only suffer from the dashing of the great hopes that the culture of wartime had fostered. Those hopes were deeply imbued with a secular form of millenarianism, a lay eschatology built around the desire to rid mankind forever of the scourge of war. France had fought the war to end all wars, and this goal became an article of faith, with strong support on the left—the perfect continuation of republican pacifism, a movement that had been temporarily diverted by the outbreak of war. Witness the eschatological language in which a Radical newspaper, Le Progrès of Lyon, described the secularized coming of the Messiah on November 12, 1918: “This war has killed war. … War is dead, and we are the ones who killed it. Let us sing La Marseillaise with new fervor in tribute to this incalculable victory. … Let us celebrate the finest of festivals of humanity. … Let nothing be done that is not noble, magical, and divine!” On October 5, 1919, in Clermont-Ferrand, the Socialist Alexandre Varenne shared the same hope: “A new world will emerge from the war, which in my opinion marks a date as important as the birth of Jesus Christ.” Yet it was already clear in 1919, and it would become even clearer in the 1920s, that the better world envisioned by the wartime culture would not be achieved anytime soon: the mass mourning of the postwar years was accompanied by the dashing of eschatological hopes after four and a half years of belief that a better world was on the way. The ensuing disappointment inevitably reinforced the feeling that the Republic was in the process of losing the peace.

Should we be surprised, then, that the victorious Republic lost at least some of its powers of attraction? As evidence of this loss, Maurice Agulhon noted the waning appeal of images of Marianne after 1918. Studies of local commemorations should shed much light on the question of who exactly was credited with victory. Was it the Republic? Or the nation, which was not exactly the same thing, especially after the nonrepublican parties of the Right joined the defensive effort? Thesis research currently underway on the celebration of victory in the département of Puy-de-Dôme shows the astonishing degree to which the Republic was forgotten in speeches, political debates, and commemorations in the immediate aftermath of the war: victory was attributed to the nation and its soldiers, not to the Republic, not to the regime itself. Even in this département, (p.63) whose emotional investment in the Republic prior to 1914 had been unusually strong, the republican idea had lost some of its luster in the four and a half years of war. To be sure, local socialists were quick to point out what victory owed to Marianne, but they were virtually alone: in commemorative speeches given shortly after the war, Radicals surprisingly attributed success to the nation and its soldiers, not to the republican regime, of which they had been, and remained, the major pillar. Evidence from other départements, such as the Somme, through which the front passed and which emerged from the war ravaged by the fighting, corroborates these findings: Radical Party candidates in November 1919 chose to celebrate the victory of “eternal France” rather than of the Republic.

Of course it is possible to give quite contrasting assessments of the postwar image of the parliamentary Republic. The regime could take pride in having organized, as Clemenceau put it in his speech of November 20, 1918, “the finest day our race has ever known,” a day on which France welcomed its “triumphant banners, drenched in blood and tears and torn by shrapnel, the glorious apparition of our illustrious dead.” Indeed, it was the dead who marched down the Champs-Élysées on Bastille Day 1919. The following year, in November 1920, the Republic celebrated itself with considerable pomp as it laid the heart of one of its founding fathers, Léon Gambetta, before the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe: 1871 was avenged. But behind the facade of ideal victory, the Republic had permanently lost part of its original spirit, though the loss was still not apparent. At the very least, republican values had been diluted, and it was against this background that criticism of the parliamentary system mounted in the 1920s. Should we not therefore look for some of the deeper causes of the political crisis of the next decade in this hidden loss? Furthermore, even if the entire responsibility for the war and its disasters was laid at the door of authoritarian regimes, the fact that democracies had resorted to such violent means for such an extended period of time and used all the resources of science to compound the destruction had inevitably undermined the republican belief in man’s continual progress. After 1918, the deepest roots of republican ideals remained blighted by the brutality of war. Did the trauma of the Great War cause the French to lose faith in the Republic? Marianne had indeed emerged victorious from the conflict, but it was as if the war, or a certain idea of the war, had sounded her death knell.

Paradoxically, however, the Republic succeeded in establishing Armistice Day, November 11, as the only national holiday other than Bastille Day to achieve lasting “success.” Indeed, it was on November 11, 1940, that the first large demonstration of collective refusal to accept defeat in World War II took place on the Champs-Élysées, as the French for the first time demonstrated resistance to the German occupier and protested the assassination of the Republic by Vichy. The marchers were Parisian university and high-school students, that (p.64) is, children of survivors of the Great War. This was a sign that the “second generation” had indeed appropriated the symbolism of November 11.

Has that appropriation diminished since that time? Probably less than one might think. Although in the 1970s President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing proposed eliminating May 8 (the holiday marking the victory over the Nazis in World War II) to dramatize France’s reconciliation with Germany, there was never any question of tampering with November 11. More recent experience appears to confirm that the date of the 1918 armistice is still the most meaningful in France’s calendar of commemorations, which is no doubt why the President of the Republic decided in 2007 to place greater emphasis on the ceremonies of November 11. In March 2008, ninety years after the armistice, France buried the “last poilu [World War I soldier],” Lazare Ponticelli, in a unanimous outpouring of emotion that was reminiscent in some ways of the Union Sacrée of the war years. Can this have been anything other than a sign that in the French Republic the immense massacre of 1914–18 retains a particularly sacred character?


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