Week 24

1871-1875 The National Assembly

The National Assembly which was elected in the beginning of 1871 to ratify the treaty of Germany continued to sit up to 31 December 1875. It not only ratified the Treaty of Frankfurt but also crushed the revolt of the Paris Commune. Having accomplished that, the National Assembly addressed itself to the work of national reconstruction.

The problem of paying the war-indemnity was a very urgent one and consequently Thiers raised a large loan and thereby paid off the whole of war-indemnity in two years. The result was that the German troops were withdrawn from the French soil and Thiers came to be called “the Liberator of the Territory.” The French army was reorganised on the model of the Prussian army. A law of 1872 provided for compulsory military service throughout the length and breadth of the country.

The National Assembly had to address itself to the task of framing a constitution for the country. Thiers was originally a believer in constitutional monarchy but he was not afraid of a republican government as well. With the passage of time, he came to believe that a Republic was the only possible form of government for his country. To quote him, “There is only one throne and there are the claimants for seat on it.” “Those parties who want a monarchy do not want the same monarchy.” As regards the republican form of government, “it is the form of government which divides us least!”

This fact is made clear if we refer to the various sections which advocated the cause of monarchy in France. Those sections were the Legitimists, the Orleanists and the Bonapartists. The Legitimists supported the cause of the Count of Chambord, the grandson of Charles X. The Orleanists supported the cause of the Count of Paris. The Bonapartists advocated the cause of Napoleon III or his son. Although the Monarchists had a majority in the National Assembly, they were not able to have their own way to set up a monarchy in the country on account of the differences among them. In 1873, Thiers was made to resign as he was showing a tendency towards republicanism.

Many efforts were made to write a monarchical constitution for France. The Count of Chambord had no children and it was decided that the Count of Paris should give up his claims in favour of the Count of Chambord who should succeed as Henry V of France. As the Count of Chambord had no children, Count of Paris was to succeed him. The compromise having been secured it seemed certain that monarchy would be restored in France and negotiations started for that purpose. Negotiations were successful on all points except on the question of the flag.

The Count of Chambord openly declared that he was not prepared to accept the Tri-colour flag of the revolution. To quote him, “Henry V could never abandon the white flag of Henry IV.” His contention was that if he was to be the king of France, he must not sacrifice his principles and the flag. He was not prepared to be the king of the revolution. The negotiations failed on account of the stubbornness of the Count of Chambord.

In spite of this defeat, the Monarchists did not lose heart. Their view was that either the Count of Chambord would change his mind or he would die and be succeeded by the Count of Paris who was willing to accept the Tri-colour flag of the revolution. Under the circumstances, the Monarchists started playing delaying tactics. Their object was to gain time so that they may be able to attack when the iron was hot. After the resignation of Thiers, Macmahon was made the President. The term of his office had not been fixed so far and the same was fixed for 7 years in 1873. The Monarchists hoped that within the next 7 years they would be able to carry their point.

As the National Assembly was following a policy of delay, it did not seriously address itself to the task of framing the constitution. In this way, months and years passed. However, during this period, Gambetta was carrying on a vigorous campaign in favour of republicanism in every nook and comer of the country. To meet the danger of republicanism, the National Assembly passed a law in 1875 by which the mayors of all the Communes in France were to be appointed directly or indirectly by the ministry and not by the local Council as before.

This was intended to give the ministry control over the local affairs. Busts representing the Republic were removed from all public buildings. The name of Republic was omitted from all public documents. Republican newspapers were prosecuted and harassed. It is estimated that in one year, more than 200 Republican newspapers were suppressed. Instead of being disheartened, the Republicans continued their propaganda with more and more vigour.

At that stage, the Bonapartists became aggressive in the country and won a number of elections. The danger of a Bonapartist restoration changed completely the political situation in the country. A number of Orleanist members of the National Assembly were prepared to prefer Republicanism to Bonapartism. As their own chances were slender, they joined hands with the Republicans in the National Assembly. It was the combination of the Republicans and the Orleanists that enabled the National Assembly to frame a Republican constitution in France and the same was done in 1875. The Republican constitution was adopted by a majority of only one vote (353 to 352).