At first sight our title might seem a misnomer, rather like ‘Benevolent Dictator’ or ‘Historical Novel’. But one was set up and lasted for eight years in France (1871 – 9). Following the capture of Napoleon III at Sedan, a republican government of National Defence was organised, one assumes to carry on with the not yet decisive Franco-Prussian War.
They held an election in Paris during Prussian bombardment in February 1871, and it produced a monarchist majority in the National Assembly. Still. the republicans wanted to continue the war.
A supporter of the royal House of Orléans called Thiers was made head of the Executive and caused peace with Prussia by ceding Alsace and parts of Lorraine to Germany. Bismarck had never made any secret of his intention to make Alsace-Lorraine – with their very Teutonic-sounding names – German, or rather Prussian. But among the republicans there was a separatist movement which formed a Paris Commune, dedicated to rejecting the authority of the government. This had to be crushed by Marshal Macmahon. Many died and the Marshal got an important street named after him.
The republicans then won ninety-nine of the one hundred and fourteen seats in a by-election. Thiers thought about this and was convinced that a republic divided the French rather less than any other system so he decided to pay off the indemnity imposed after the Franco-Prussian War. The Prussian Army then obligingly withdrew its occupying troops and materiel.
Monarchists in France were not convinced by the St. Paul-type conversion of M. Thiers, and they still dominated parliament, so they replaced him in 1873 with Macmahon as President and the Duc de Broglie (Orleanist) as Prime Minister. It seemed that a royalist restoration was now on the cards, but the problem was that the monarchists could not agree among themselves! The ‘Legitimists’ backed the Comte de Chambord, a grandson of Charles X, while the Orleanists supported the Comte de Paris, grandson of Louis Philippe. When asked, the Comte said he would accept Chambord (who had no children) if he could succeed him. Chambord would not agree, and went on to lose much support by insisting that the Bourbon white standard must replace the traditional tricolore as the National Flag.
Thus any hope of a royalist reformation was denied, and M. Thiers said that the good Duc de Chambord would go down in history as the French George Washington – the real founder of the Republic. However, the powerful monarchists tried to hold hard on to power by arranging, in the constitutional settlement of 1875 for a strong President (to be appointed by the Prime Minister). Almost the same situation has been occurring recently in democratic Russia, where Putin and Medvedev play musical chairs with each other in the same roles.
The monarchists also wanted a bicameral legislature but when the Chamber of Deputies was elected in 1876 (by males only, women did not have the vote) it was seen that the republicans had won 340 seats as against 153 monarchists, of whom incidentally 75 were Bonapartists to make things even more murky.
Macmahon now refused to appoint M. Gambetta (who was the obvious choice) as Prime Minister, and in 1877 appointed the Duc de Broglie again. This was the ‘Crisis of Seize Mai’ and it caused a new election in which the republicans kept their majority; while only two years later the monarchists lost their majority in the Senate too. Macmahon now resigned and was replaced by the moderate republican Grévy. It was thus seen that power in the Republic lay firmly in the hands of the republicans, who celebrated by moving the seat of government from Versailles to Paris, adopting the Marseillaise as the official national anthem, and, for good measure, making the 4th of July (the fall of the Bastille in 1789) a national holiday.